LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The century-old Colorado River Compact — also known as the “Law of the River” — was crafted long before the “megadrought” hit the desert Southwest.

And as the Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA) gathers for its Dec. 14-16 conference at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, the river’s future is at a critical point. Populations up and down the river have grown and the drought has put pressure on the river that provides drinking water for nearly 40 million people. Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two largest reservoirs in the nation — have shrunk to 25% of capacity.

The compact’s guarantees of water rights continue to drive justifications for using the water like there’s no tomorrow. Conservationists warn that the effects of climate change aren’t going away — if anything, it will get hotter and drier for the seven states that depend on the river.

CRWUA’s annual report details progress toward conserving water, with each state ticking off its programs and accomplishments. But will these efforts go far enough?

John Entsminger of the Southern Nevada Water Authority led CRWUA in 2021, when the federal government formally declared a water shortage in August. More than a year has passed and the predictions now look worse. He spoke about the importance of collaboration and said CRWUA’s work was “integral to both ensuring the sustainability of the river and the livelihood of the communities that rely upon it. As the saying goes, much has been done, yet there is much to do.”

As Entsminger’s successor in 2022, CRWUA President Aaron Chavez of the Ten Tribes Partnership wraps up the year saying, “Our common goal as stewards of the Colorado River is to protect and preserve what we are given.”

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared in August that states fell far short of the agency’s call for plans that would save 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of river water, or 15% to 30% of current water usage.

In a statement delivered on Aug. 16, Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in part:

“There are a lot of conversations about how we collectively mitigate the impacts of drought and climate change on the Colorado River and our shared goal of forming durable and equitable solutions. But to date, the states collectively have not identified and adopted specific actions of sufficient magnitude that would stabilize the system.
Today, Reclamation is initiating multiple processes to pursue actions as authorized to examine among other tools, the ability to further manage elevations in the basin’s reservoirs, maximize efficient and beneficial uses, and assess evaporation, seepage and other system losses in the lower basin.
More information will be forthcoming regarding the next steps in the process that we will follow.”

Camille Calimlim Touton, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner
Camille Calimlim Touton, Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Touton is a UNLV graduate who became Bureau of Reclamation commissioner a year ago.

The bureau has taken steps to retain water in Lake Powell to ensure power production continues at Glen Canyon Dam, but other specifics have not been announced. The bureau continues to talk about collaboration and inclusion, even when it seems like hard decisions about conservation are no nearer.

To date, the bureau has done nothing that would be outside the “Law of the River.”

But as representatives from Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming gather this week in Las Vegas, the compact is showing its age.