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7 states on the Colorado River have to collectively agree on water cutbacks

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Tomorrow is another deadline for the states that share the Colorado River. They all agree they have to collectively cut how much water they draw. But months of negotiations have not produced a plan to share the pain. So now it is up to the Biden administration to find a fix. KUNC's Alex Hager has more.

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: The Colorado feeds America's two biggest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Both are now lower than they've ever been due to climate change. For years now, the 40 million people who rely on the river have been drawing more water out of the reservoirs than has been coming back in by a lot. So something needs to be done.

SARAH PORTER: We've never been here before on the Colorado River, so we don't really know.

HAGER: Sarah Porter directs a water policy research center at Arizona State University. She says that if the seven states that share the river can't figure out how to use less, Lake Powell and Lake Mead will soon be too empty to run their massive hydroelectric turbines.

PORTER: It is possible that the states will not be able to come up with an agreement because what they have to agree to do is so very hard - getting water users within the state to agree to use less water.

HAGER: The Colorado River supplies big cities like Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles, but it also flows to the Southwest's multi-billion-dollar agricultural sector. John Berggren studies water policy with the conservation group Western Resource Advocates. He says that has led to big tensions about who gets to use it.

JOHN BERGGREN: What you're talking about are people's livelihoods. If you're an irrigator or a rancher or a farmer, your water is your most important asset.

HAGER: Water managers say protecting the interests of everyone, cities and farmers from Wyoming to Mexico, is nearly impossible. Just ask Becky Mitchell, the top water negotiator from Colorado.

BECKY MITCHELL: We all have to be able to sell this, and it is really hard to sell something when there are winners and losers.

HAGER: Mitchell was speaking at a Colorado River conference in Las Vegas last month. Their states talked a big talk about needing a collective solution to this collective problem. But so far, they haven't come up with a plan. And if they don't produce an agreement by tomorrow, the federal government could impose its own cutbacks.

MITCHELL: I think there is some heavy optimism that hopefully everyone will come to something that we can all agree on. But it is going to take - mean real cuts to everyone.

HAGER: Felicia Marcus, a fellow at Stanford University's Water in the West Center, says it's no surprise that the seven states that share the Colorado haven't reached a solution on their own.

FELICIA MARCUS: You can't just put the parties in the room and think they're going to give their water away and figure it out. Somebody has got to come and say, how about this way?

HAGER: Marcus has worked with state and city water agencies in California and was in the EPA during the Clinton administration. She says it's a bad look to come back to your constituents saying, you volunteered to give up water. But if the feds are the ones who asked for the cutbacks, states can blame a higher power.

MARCUS: The beauty or the value of that 800-pound gorilla stepping in is that it gives people either the motivation or the cover to make the decisions that the gorilla probably wishes those people could make on their own. But you really can't expect them to be able to.

HAGER: The federal government hasn't been in a hurry to be the gorilla. It's mostly stayed out of Colorado River management, instead offering carrots and sticks for the states to figure out how to pull less water from the reservoirs.

MARCUS: In the case of the Colorado, this is definitely a case of everybody hanging together or all hanging separately.

HAGER: Whether the states come up with a solution or one is imposed by the Biden administration, it will likely end up in court. Meanwhile, despite some heavy rain and snow this winter, the Colorado's supply is still far less than the demand for water. For NPR News, I'm Alex Hager in Fort Collins, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Hager