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County water official optimistic Colorado River water users will strike deal soon

Aaron Chavez delivered pointed message to conference audience in Las Veegas

FARMINGTON — A San Juan County water official who also leads an organization that represents Colorado River water users is hopeful that the seven states that make up the river basin soon will strike an agreement designed to better manage use of river water.

Aaron Chavez, the executive director of the San Juan Water Commission, recently began a two-year term as president of the Colorado River Water Users Association, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Las Vegas, Nevada. During the group’s annual conference in December in Las Vegas, Chavez delivered a pointed message to his audience in his introductory remarks, warning association member that they could no longer afford to put off making hard decisions about how — and how much — they use the basin’s dwindling supply of water.

“… We need to look to ourselves — and stop saying the (Colorado River Compact) is the cause of our current problems,” he said.

That compact, signed Nov. 24, 1922, in Santa Fe by representatives of the seven states (New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and California) that are part of the basin that drains into the Colorado River, has served as the framework by which the waterway has been managed for more than 100 years.

In his address at the conference, Chavez referred to the compact as “the cornerstone of the law of the river. In essence, it rules the amount of water the seven states are authorized to use.”

But a drought in the southwestern U.S. that has extended more than two decades has resulted in much less runoff from snowpack into the river each year, making for decreased inflow at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are located on the Colorado River and serve as the two largest reservoirs in the country.

Even in the face of that drought, some river water users have failed to curb their use accordingly, and that has contributed greatly to the draining of both reservoirs. According to the Lower Colorado Water Supply Report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Lake Powell was just 24% full on Jan. 17, while Lake Mead was only 28% full. A series of winter storms in the Southwest has left the snowpack in good shape this year, but Chavez said one year of abundant winter moisture isn't enough to replace what Lake Powell and Lake Mead have lost.

“Essentially, we have used most of the storage supplies in the two largest reservoirs in the U.S. to mask the megadrought,” Chavez said at the conference.

The situation has led federal officials to warn the seven states that belong to the compact to voluntarily come up with an agreement to reduce their use of Colorado River water or the government will do it for them.

Chavez said he came away from the two-day Las Vegas conference believing that association members had taken his message to heart and that they finally were prepared to take significant action on the issue. He was encouraged by the fact that the conference sold out for the first time in its history and that attendance set a record.

The three-day conference did not offer enough time or the proper format for such a resolution to occur, Chavez acknowledged, but his goal was to get people talking frankly about the subject and — perhaps more important — start listening to each other. He said the event did promote an atmosphere under which the smallest agency or even a single individual could talk face to face with representatives of much larger entities about how the issue could be resolved.

“I say we have a gold opportunity … to stop beating around the bush and really start talking,” he told association members.

Now, more than a month after the conference ended, Chavez is optimistic that the talks that have occurred among compact members since the event are poised to bear fruit in the form of voluntary reductions in the use of river water — a step that would be designed to head off federal intervention.

“We’re hoping to have an agreement by the end of the month,” he said.

If such an agreement is reached, it would be historic. In the past, there has been a fair amount of squabbling between the so-called upper-basin users in the compact (New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah) and the lower-basin states (Arizona, Nevada and California) about who bears the brunt of responsibility for reducing usage, and that rivalry has hampered progress.

Chavez said he believes the weight of finding an answer to the problem falls equally on the shoulders of all those states.

“Every state in the upper and lower basins have a role in this and have to come up with solutions,” he said.

Chavez is not part of those discussions among compact members, but he is monitoring the situation closely and said he believes the Las Vegas conference helped set the stage for a resolution to be reached.

“I was satisfied with the conference, which was only a three-day conference,” he said. “Within those three days, there was a lot of movement in the right direction. But you can only do so much.”

Despite his optimism, Chavez urged those in attendance at the conference to find a real solution to the issue and not opt for a temporary fix that simply delays the inevitable.

“We don’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul, and we won’t, right? Or will we?” he asked rhetorically.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription: