40 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming depend upon the Colorado river for their water. This is in addition to a water-hungry $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry. There is a 2007 agreement – that includes Mexico – governing water usage; this agreement expires in 2026.

The Colorado river feeds two major reservoirs: Lake Mead and Lake Powell, both of which are at historically low levels. Currently, the reservoirs are about half full.

A 19-year drought coupled with a pattern of hotter and drier temperatures have forced all parties back to the negotiating table to agree upon a “drought contingency plan.” This is a voluntary agreement to use less water than allowed under the original 2007 agreement. Quality of life issues along with environmental justice have moved front and center in these discussions.

Although California and Arizona failed to meet an earlier deadline to wrap up negotiations, they did finally come to agreement in May of 2019; all parties are now signed onto the revised usage plan with all agreeing to use less water.

Signatories also include Native Indian tribes. There are 29 tribes in the Colorado River Basin; they have annual rights to 2.8 million-acre-feet of river water – approximately the amount allotted to the entire state of Arizona.

California’s Imperial Valley is the largest single user of Colorado River’ water – 20% of the total water allotment. Farmers there use that water to grow about 80 percent of the nation’s winter crops, including lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, sweet corn, watermelons, cantaloupe, and onions. Farmers also produce alfalfa and Bermuda grass hay, which is used as dairy feed in the U.S. and abroad.

The United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) is the federal agency which oversees nationwide water resource management, and its current Commissioner, Brenda Burman, has been actively facilitating negotiations. The USBR falls under the U.S Department of the Interior.


Some climate models show the Colorado River flows dropping as much as 30 percent by the middle of the century. Water managers will have to face the fact that there is less water in the system. As a whole though, the Trump administration and its Department of Interior, which oversees the Colorado River and its management, have not been willing to acknowledge climate change.

Are the Arizona’s golf courses and the fountains of Las Vegas more important than irrigating farms for food? There are complicated tradeoffs between sustainable management of water supplies, conservation, affordability, infrastructure investment and equity. And while Phoenix citizens  get only 7.5 inches of rain a year, they are not solely reliant upon the Colorado; they draw from two other rivers: Salt and Verde and have over a trillion gallons of native groundwater, which they fastidiously protect as a savings account for future generations. And demand has been reduced. In Phoenix, usage has fallen 30 percent in the last 20 years – while serving nearly 400,000 more people, the result of a long-term culture change regarding the way residents view water.

Another significant consideration is the hydro-electricity supplied by the Colorado River.The Hoover Dam on Lake Mead generates, on average, about 4 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power each year for use in Nevada, Arizona, and California – enough to serve 1.3 million people. A large drop – below 950 feet – would be enough to shut-off the turbines.

President Trump did finally sign a bill in April of 2019 authorizing the drought contingency plan (DCP), following the bill’s passage through Congress with bipartisan support. Trump’s Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, has indicated that he wants the USBR to be more inclusive of tribal leaders, environmental groups, non-governmental organizations and others interested in the management of the river.

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Photo by Ramin Khatibi

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