Published: Dec. 22, 2023 By

The Getches-Wilkinson Center, led by director, Chris Winter, took the entire staff to CRWUA this year to participate in hard hitting conversations about the future management of the Colorado River. As we get closer to 2026, negotiations and compromise will become the focus of creating sustainable water management in the Western United States.  Take a look at our summary of the conference, which was put together by our Water Law Fellow, Andrew Teegarden.

For the first time, every member of the Getches-Wilkinson Center staff traveled to Las Vegas for the annual Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA) conference. This conference brought over 1700 water professionals together to discuss the issues and future management of the Colorado River. Many industries, Tribal nations, non-governmental organizations, local, state, and federal governments were all represented. The major theme of the conference was “We must live within the means of the river” as Becky Mitchell stated during the seven basin states panel. 

Our first day of the conference started with the Tribal Luncheon hosted by the Water and Tribes Initiative (WTI). We would like to express our gratitude to Daryl Vigil, the Co-Director of WTI, for inviting our staff to attend. The luncheon welcomed over 200 attendees and included a panel of speakers from the Indigenous Women’s Leadership Network (IWLN) who spoke about the role women play in advancing equity within the water community. Lorelei Cloud, one of the panelists, remarked that women are strong, dedicated leaders in the water community and that their presence is growing within the space as evidenced by their involvement in 2023 World Water Week. Panelists also discussed IWLN’s important and growing body of work in bringing Indigenous women into the world of water regulation and developing them into the next generation of water leaders.

The remainder of the day was filled a plethora of presentations that examined the history of the Colorado River from the water user’s perspective, the effectiveness of current and past programs, future policies and management programs, and a photo-story documenting the people, places, and things connecting all of us to the river. 

The main event of CRWUA was the Seven States’ Perspectives panel which included the main representatives from each of the Colorado River Basin States who are involved in negotiating a new set of operating guidelines. Becky Mitchell, Colorado River Commissioner for the State of Colorado, pressed hard on the need to address the structural deficits in management of water resources in the basin with a particular focus on overuse in the lower basin. However, other panelists were focused on the need for collective action to reduce overall consumption on the river and highlighted recent conservation efforts. California, for example, signed historic conservation agreements during the conference to conserve nearly 348,680 acre feet of water in Lake Mead for 2023 alone. These agreements are part of the system conservation commitments made by the lower basin which promises to reduce water use by nearly 3 million acre-feet and will be compensated through the Inflation Reduction Act. The solutions to effectively managing the future of the Colorado River will clearly involve compromise and collective action among all the basin states. 

The next panel presented the varying types of water usage throughout the basin. One highlight was Jennifer Pitt’s presentation on the Colorado River Environmental Programs which include the Endangered Species Act, Upper Basin Recovery Implementation Program, San Juan Recovery Implementation Program, Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program, Grand Canyon Protection Act, the Commitments in Minutes 319 and 323, as well as various other state, federal and private programs. 

Some other notable panels included a presentation on various ways municipalities and water users can deal with the impacts of climate change. Liz Crosson, the Chief Sustainability, Resilience, and Innovation Office for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California focused on climate adaptation strategies for metropolitan water users. The primary vehicle for achieving climate adaptation is to integrate water resource planning, infrastructure development, and financial planning. Karletta Chief, the director of the University of Arizona’s Indigenous Resilience Center discussed the importance of access to clean water on the Navajo Nation during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Navajo Nation Water Access Coordination Group helped address the need for innovative off-grid user friendly water solutions to help address real-time water insecurity for tribal communities. Pilar Harris, a Corporate Social Responsibility representative from Formula 1 talked about how the driving event which took place in Las Vegas in early November was committed to reducing their water consumption for the race and that they were able to utilize atmospheric water generators (AWG) to create a net-negative use of water for the race. Over the course of a year, the AWG is capable of producing over 500,000 gallons of water by converting ambient humidity into water. 

One of our own Senior Fellows, Anne Castle, was the moderator for the Sovereign-to-Sovereign Dialogue panel. During the conversation, The Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, Camille Calimlim Touton, discussed the various programs and initiatives being implemented by the Bureau to foster opportunities for Tribal involvement in development of the post-2026 operating guidelines for the Colorado River. The other panelists were representatives from the Colorado River Indian Tribes, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Navajo Nation which showed their gratitude for the opportunities being provided by the Biden Administration. However, the Tribal representatives also emphasized the need for greater inclusion and funding for water development projects. Our Water Law Fellow, Frannie Monasterio, is currently working on a comprehensive resource outlining EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) water funding opportunities for Tribal communities to help address some of these gaps. This resource should be available shortly after the first of the year and focuses on Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act funding. Anyone interested in this resource is encouraged to contact Frannie and provide feedback on how it may be improved for end users. 

Overall, CRWUA was an exciting opportunity for the Getches-Wilkinson Center to talk with other water users about the most prescient issues. Unlike previous years, the conference was not full of signing ceremonies, or major groundbreaking revelations. Although, it did provide a space for water users to discuss what compromise might look like as we inch closer to 2026. Compromise comes in many different forms, and we are hopeful that we can all come together and provide long-lasting sustainable water management solutions for the Colorado River. Given that nearly 40 million people depend on the river in one form or another and climate change impacts are constantly moving the goal posts, we do not have the luxury of time on our side.