Colorado River

New Mexico, along with three other Upper Basin states, has exceeded its allotted water limit for the Colorado River. In the wake of a chronic drought that has reduced snowpack and river flow for the last 20 years, New Mexico may be forced to curtail the amount of water that it receives from the Colorado River.

A report by the Utah Rivers Council, a 501c3 grassroots nonprofit organization, found that Wyoming is the only Upper Basin state not exceeding its water allotment. Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico have all continually surpassed their water allotments. Under a 1922 Colorado River Compact, Upper Basin States, including Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, are required to provide enough water for lower basin states, including Arizona, California, and Nevada. As it stands, New Mexico is entitled to 11.25 percent of the annual water allocation from the Colorado River or 7.5 million acre-feet through the San Juan-Chama project. Due to three of the four Upper Basin states over-allocating, they may have to compensate further down the line by making drastic cutbacks to water consumption for farmers and smaller municipalities in New Mexico. But, a lingering drought that has reduced snowpack in the last few years has left many states without an answer.

This last summer saw Lake Mead and Lake Powell reach record lows, which forced Arizona, Utah, and parts of New Mexico to cut their water consumption for cities and farmers in what is known as Tier 1 cuts. “Altogether, the Upper Colorado River Basin will have to collectively reduce its water use between 2 – 4 million acre-feet to avoid using more water than it is entitled to. Without such action, serious economic impacts may befall Upper Basin water users including cities, farms and tribes,” the report by Utah River Council stated.

The report also found that “average flows in the Colorado River have already declined about 19 percent from 2000 to 2018 as a result of climate change, and future projections show these declines could reach as high as 40 percent or more in the future.” With the drought expected to increase in severity, community and state leaders from the Upper Basin states will be forced to either cut back on water consumption or face economic consequences.

Under the 1922 agreement, Lower Basin states are allocated a set amount of water from the Colorado River. Upper Basin states have a right to whatever is leftover after the quota is met. According to the report, New Mexico ran a water deficit of 41,000-acre-foot between 2016 and 2018. Despite the increasing pressure that the Colorado River is under, many states are still trying to increase their share of the river before drastic changes are made for the river’s survival.