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As rule overhaul begins, conservationists want drastic changes for the Colorado River

Colorado River, Glen Canyon, and Lake Powell as seen in the air.
Marjo van Diem
Colorado River, Glen Canyon, and Lake Powell as seen in the air.

This week, the federal government officially started a process tooverhaul the rules governing a crucial river in the Southwest that provides 40 million people with drinking water.

The Colorado River’s current rules are set to expire in 2026 and conservationists want a drastic change.

Seen by many as an ace in the hole to tackle the West’s increasing water woes, the Colorado River’s headwaters begin at Poudre Pass in Rocky Mountain National Park and run to the Gulf of California in northwestern Mexico.

The river provides essential drinking water to seven states, 30 Native American tribes, and even Mexico. But the rules governing it are becoming more complex as a warming climate makes it increasingly difficult to manage water at its several reservoirs downstream –– namely, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

That’s why some conservation groups are stepping in to take advantage of, what they call, a “historic” opportunity to spark drastic change for the next 20 years.

“We've treated this river system for many decades as kind of a simple plumbing system, but it's really a dynamic, natural system, where we need to have flexible tools that will help us deal with this.”

Bart Miller is the healthy rivers director at Western Resource Advocates. They want the agency responsible for Western water management, the Bureau of Reclamation, to look at water trends in reservoirs, not the levels themselves.

“Is this a series of wet years or dry years? That will help get out ahead of some of those shortages that are coming by not just looking at a static, like, what's the reservoir level today?”

While water levels at Lakes Powell and Mead have been declining for the last 20 years, a robust and wet winter has left managers easing cutbacks, which would roll back 2023’s water restrictions.

Every year, New Mexico is allotted 11.25% of the Colorado River Basin’s water. Though, historically, the state usually uses half of that on average.

The period for public comment ended on Wednesday, but decision making forums will take place in the future between stakeholders and Reclamation to hash out the rules.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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