House panel takes deep dive on Colorado River drought

October 17, 2021

A House panel is exploring the problems facing the drought-strangled Colorado River, an effort that started last week and will continue Wednesday.

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Ocean and Wildlife gathered stakeholders — including representatives of all of the Colorado River's seven basin states — on Friday.

Forty million Americans, 6 million acres of cropland and many ecosystems rely on the Colorado River, which is currently in the midst of a 20-year megadrought.

"It does so much for so many," subcommittee Chair Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said last week.

The hearings are aimed at beginning the process of figuring out how states will need to make do with less water. The river's two main reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are at the lowest levels since they were initially filled a half century ago, and many climate scientists have suggested what is happening in the basin is no longer a drought, but climate change-fueled "aridification" of the region (Greenwire, Aug. 16).

Negotiations are just beginning to develop new operations guidelines for the river, which must be completed by 2026.

John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, pointed out the basic math problem on the river.

Under agreements developed in the 1920s and '40s, there are more than 17 million acre-feet of appropriated water from the Colorado River system. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or roughly what an average Los Angeles family uses in a year.

Currently, about 14 million acre-feet are used in the basin, but in the last 20 years, the river has only delivered 12.3 million acre-feet on average.

But Entsminger said there is no widespread agreement among the river's stakeholders about how to meet a drier future.

"We must confront the magnitude of the challenge in front of us," he said, adding that the river is at a "crossroads."

States and other interests can either "fight about water that simply isn't there" or "roll up our sleeves and deal with the climate realities" the river faces.

There was little consensus at the hearing about how, exactly, to do that. But there was agreement that the basin's 30 Native American tribes should have a larger role in those negotiations.

Daryl Vigil, Jicarilla Apache water administrator and a leader of the Water & Tribes Initiative, noted that those tribes currently have senior water rights to at least 25 percent of the current flow of the Colorado River.

There must be a "new chapter," he said, in which "tribes are treated with the same dignity and respect as other sovereigns in the region."

The Biden administration also emphasized collaboration with tribes.

"We at Interior recognize the importance of involvement of our tribes," said Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for water and science. "Going forward we are going to have to be as inclusive as possible."

Schedule: The hearing is Wednesday, Oct. 20, at 11 a.m. via webcast.


  • Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
  • Enrique Martinez, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District.
  • Taylor Hawes, Nature Conservancy Colorado River program director.
  • Anne Castle, senior fellow, Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado.
  • Pat O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance.

By:  Jeremy Jacobs
Source: E&E Daily