The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Navajo Nation in a Colorado River water dispute on Thursday. The case centered around the 1868 treaty that established the Navajo reservation. The Nation argued that the federal government breached its contract and failed to ensure there was adequate water for the Navajo people. The case particularly centered around Colorado River rights in Arizona. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against the Tribe with Justice Brett Kavanaugh writing the majority opinion and Justice Neil Gorsuch filing the dissenting opinion.
Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren said in a statement that, while the ruling is disappointing, it is encouraging that the ruling was 5-4.
The seven Colorado River Basin states have come to a consensus on a plan to address dwindling water supplies. On Monday, the states submitted a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announcing this consensus. In a press release, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said 40 million people, seven states and 30 Tribal nations rely on the Colorado River to provide drinking water and electricity.
The letter comes after the Lower Basin states—California, Arizona and Nevada—reached an agreement to conserve an additional three million acre feet of water by the end of 2026 and at least half of that will be conserved by the end of 2024. The Bureau of Reclamation has been pushing the states to reach a consensus for nearly a year and has threatened to take unilateral action should the states fail.
While the Upper Basin states—Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico—have not had time to fully evaluate the Lower Basin’s plans, the letter represents an endorsement of the Lower Basin agreement. This is because the Bureau of Reclamation is wrapping up public comments on their proposal for the Colorado River.
With major western reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead declining to historic low levels, water officials in New Mexico presented on the dire Upper Colorado River Basin conditions to the Senate Conservation Committee on Thursday. Estevan Lopez, the state’s Upper Colorado River Compact Commissioner and the governor’s representative on Colorado River matters, spoke about how climate change is impacting the hydrology in the basin. “Even if we don’t know what’s going to happen to precipitation, we know that temperatures are going up and as a result of that, the precipitation that we do get in the basin…much more of that is precipitation in the form of rain as opposed to snow…When we do get snow, that provides a natural reservoir high up in the mountains where the water is released slowly over time and it spreads the water around for the whole year,” he said. He said in addition to reducing the amount of snow in favor of rain,hotter temperatures induced by climate change also mean more evaporation of snowpack and surface waters, leading to less runoff into the water system. Lopez said last year there was a good snowpack, but the higher temperatures led to less runoff than anticipated.
New Mexico will not face mandatory cuts in Colorado River water usage at this time as the U.S. Department of the Interior implements actions to address falling levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Actions the department announced on Tuesday include mandatory cuts in water use in the Lower Basin and reductions in the amount of water released from Lake Powell in the Upper Basin. The cuts will impact Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. “The prolonged drought afflicting the West is one of the most significant challenges facing the communities in our country,” Deputy Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau said during a press conference. The actions are not as drastic as some had feared. While U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton had given the Colorado River Basin states until this week to submit plans to cut two to four million acre feet of water usage or else the federal government would get involved, the plans announced on Tuesday do not add up to the two to four million acre feet.
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory modeled future drought indicators to gauge how climate change could impact the Colorado River Basin. “We really think that drought is one of the greatest risks in terms of climate change to the stability of the Colorado River Basin,” said Katrina Bennett, a member of the Los Alamos team that published the results of that modeling in the journal Earth and Space Science.
Bennett said that drought is complex, but using a simplified machine learning, or artificial intelligence, process, allowed the team to assess the changing drought indicators. The team modeled indicators like soil moisture, runoff, evaporative demand, changes in temperature and precipitation.
Bennett said her team saw a large change in soil moisture as well as runoff and streamflow. She said changes in snowpack in the Upper Colorado River basin will mean that runoff from the snowmelt occurs earlier in the year. She said that is already well documented, but the modeling her team did found that even in scenarios where precipitation increases, the higher temperatures will lead to more of it evaporating rather than flowing downstream.
Climate change threatens the availability of water in the Colorado River basin and water managers need to take steps now to prepare, the director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico John Fleck and Brad Udall, the senior water and climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, argue in a recent editorial. The two scientists published the editorial in last Friday’s edition of the research journal Science. “We share the concern that the decision makers are not doing what we think needs to be done to fully incorporate the risks of climate change in the decisions that have to be made over the next few years on the Colorado River,” Fleck said in an interview with NM Political Report. The editorial starts by highlighting a hydrologist’s analysis in 1920 that found the Colorado River could not support future water demands. “No one heeded his warning,” Fleck and Udall wrote.
This week, Congress passed a bill directing the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior to implement an agreement worked out by states that rely on water from the Colorado River. The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act easily passed both chambers and now awaits a signature from the president. The plan acknowledges that flows of the Colorado River—which supplies drinking water to 40 million people and irrigates 5.5 million acres—are declining. And it represents efforts by the states, cities, water districts, tribes and farmers to make changes that will keep two important reservoirs from dropping too low. Had they not come to an agreement, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would have imposed restrictions on water use.
All week, we look for stories that help New Mexicans better understand what’s happening with water, climate, energy, landscapes and communities around the region. Thursday morning, that news goes out via email. To subscribe to that weekly email, click here. Here’s some of what subscribers read this week:
Like many news outlets, we wrote last week about some of the impacts of the federal shutdown on New Mexico. And, as it turns out, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has indeed been processing Applications for Permits to Drill (APDs) in New Mexico.
The next governor of New Mexico needs to understand climate change—its cause, the immediate and far-reaching impacts to our state and the need for substantive action. We’re far past a time when denial or doubt can be indulged. Today, there’s not even time for rhetoric or vague promises. In early October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that humans must drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade. Failing to do so means failing to hold warming below levels that will have catastrophic and irreversible impacts upon the Earth’s ecosystems.
Globally, the temperature—averaged between land and sea temperatures—has already risen 1° Celsius, or 1.8° Fahrenheit, since 1880.
The Colorado River supplies water for more than 36 million people in two countries and seven states, including New Mexico. As river flows and reservoir levels decline due to drought, warming and over-demand, states are wrangling over how to voluntarily conserve water use—before reservoir levels reach critically low levels and trigger mandatory cutbacks. New Mexico is one of the states most vulnerable to the impacts climate change is wreaking on the river. Yet, it’s unclear what the state is doing when it comes to drought management in the state and basin-wide negotiations on the Colorado. The seven states subject to the Colorado River Compact are divided into Upper Basin states—Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah—and Lower Basin states—Arizona, Nevada and California.