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Wyoming’s new Colorado River advisory committee is looking for long term solutions

A scenic photo of Flaming Gorge
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
A stretch of the Flaming Gorge, which is a major water reservoir on the Wyoming and Utah border, is a part of the Colorado River system. Emergency releases from the reservoir were halted earlier this year due to a snowy winter and wet spring that helped keep the Colorado River system flowing.

A few dozen people are bunched into a conference room in Rock Springs – a city that’s near the Green River, which is a headwater for the 40 million water users spread across six states south of Wyoming and in Mexico. Parts of the system reached historic low water levels last year, causing states to consider drastic measures to save water. The consensus is that everyone is going to have to learn to live with less.

People at the meeting are wearing ties, suits, but also, cowboy hats, hiking boots and even a few handlebar mustaches, in a nod to the different stakeholders of Wyoming’s water. They’re part of a committee that’ll try to protect some of that water for its users.

People sit in folding chairs in a U shape, watching as someone presents a slideshow at the front.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Radio
The Wyoming Colorado River Advisory Committee met for the first time this past week.

One of the key members attended via Zoom - Speaker of the House Albert Sommers (Pinedale-R). It’s actually his legislation that formed Wyoming’s first Colorado River Advisory Committee. And this is that committee’s first meeting.

It’s an extension of a previous working group, but it’s now legally required to advise Wyoming’s Governor Mark Gordon about water.

“We've been really faced with unprecedented challenges on water scarcity,” said Gordon, who also joined the group via Zoom.

Just last year, parts of the Colorado River system reached historic lows.

“But nobody's really had to deal with the consequences of the dire circumstances that we saw last year,” Gordon added.

Because the region saw an incredibly snowy winter and a wet spring and summer that kind of saved the system, for now. Had that not happened, Wyoming might have had to give up more water to send it downstream to states like Arizona and California.

A slideshow slide showing a graph of the water levels in different reservoirs.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
One of the slides in the presentation that shows improvements in water basin storage from 2022 to 2023. This is largely because of the snowy winter and wet spring and summer.

“A good water year did buy us a little time,” observed Chris Brown, the senior assistant attorney general for Wyoming.

Brown is one of the main attorneys working on water issues for the state.

“We need to move to the long term solutions,” he said. “We’ve got this little breathing room and we need to stop reacting to the crisis that takes our eye off the ball and really focus on these longer term type solutions.”

Right now there’s just a temporary solution and it expires in 2026. Basically, Nevada, Arizona and California agreed to leave a lot of water in the river, taking a little pressure off for more water releases from states like Wyoming for the next three years.

But, according to Brown, a more permanent plan will need to be put in place. And part of this group’s job is to figure out what would be best for Wyoming.

“So we’re looking for something that’s more responsive to actual hydrology,” Brown said.

Wyoming wants a plan for water releases that’s adaptable based on actual snow and rain throughout the year, not based on predictions. But some of the states below us…“they’re going to be pushing back for something that they have more certainty for the year to come,” said Brown.

Brown added that it’s creating tension. If all seven states don’t figure it out, the feds will likely step in and make a plan, and it might not be favorable to Wyoming.

But, even for a group that’s spent a lot of time studying water or dealing with water personally, it’s complicated.

“We have alphabet soup to the nth degree,” said Jeff Cowley, who is with the state engineer’s office and facilitated the meeting. “If there is an initial or an acronym for something that doesn't make sense, please raise your hand and we'll go through this.”

There’s SCPP, UCRC, DCP, and DROA, just to name a few. They all have to do with the Colorado River and plans to try to keep more water in the system.

Cowley said one strategy is the federal government paying ranchers in the upper states, like Wyoming, to use less water.

“[We’re] trying to be innovative and try different things, instead of doing it the same way we’ve done it for 100 years,” he said.

Or, creating a program where water users can lease their water rights to another user downstream of them.

The commission has their work cut out for them -- no one knows what these next few winters will bring. But if they’re pretty dry, Wyoming will have to make decisions fast. The commission will meet at least once more this year.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.