Bob Leal

(CN) — The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation laid down the planning process on the development of post-2026 operational guidelines and strategies for Lake Powell and Lake Mead during a podcast Tuesday.

Some of the reservoir and water management documents and agreements that govern the operation of the Colorado River basin will expire in 2026, so the planning process has begun to guide the way for a resource that 40 million people in the U.S — and more in northern Mexico — depend on.

The 2007 Interim Guidelines, the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans and international agreements with Mexico all expire. The agreements with Mexico also include the Tijuana River and the Rio Grande.

The National Environmental Policy Act will steer the process of identifying a range of alternatives for Powell and Mead as well as other water decisions for potentially decades. The bureau says starting the process now gives ample time for a “thorough, inclusive and science-based decision-making process.”

Camille Calimlim Touton, the commissioner for the bureau, welcomed those following the podcast and stressed that the agency would be transparent in such a crucial issue.

“This is a vital conversation in determining alternatives to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River. It is important that we hear your views on a way forward, for all stakeholders, to achieve our shared goals of long-term sustainability in the basin,” said Touton.

“Reclamation, the Department of the Interior and the Biden-Harris administration are committed to an inclusive and transparent stakeholder process that encourages meaningful engagement. This is a monumentally important task that must be undertaken in a cooperative, collaborative spirit,” Touton said.

The Colorado River basin includes seven U.S. states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California. The two main reservoirs, Lake Mead in Nevada and Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona, are the two largest reservoirs in the nation.

The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water for municipal use and is used to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of land and ecological habitat. The basin is home to seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas and 11 national parks.

“In the basin, 30 tribes consider the river and its tributaries an essential physical, economic and cultural resource. And many of those tribes have substantial senior reserve water rights,” said Carly Jerla, who leads efforts as a senior water resources program manager for the bureau to develop the updated operating rules.

“The operation of the system is governed by a complex body of legal agreements that include federal legislation, contracts, court decisions and an international treaty with Mexico,” said Jerla.

“Dams at the major reservoirs can store four years of the basin’s long-term average inflow and provide essential storage for  municipal and agricultural needs, provide a multitude of recreational activities and generate 4,200 megawatts of hydropower that feed the western power grid,” Jerla said.

More than 90% of the system’s storage capacity resides in Lake Powell, formed by Glen Canyon Dam, and Lake Mead, formed by Hoover Dam, according to Jerla. Both lakes are currently sitting at about 35% of capacity.

“While it’s impossible to predict the future, or know what exactly to plan for in post-2026, climate science tells us that the future temperatures of the basin will continue to warm, and that we can expect an increased likelihood of experiencing prolonged droughts,” said Jerla.

This wary outlook on a water shortage didn’t happen overnight. The five years between 2000 to 2004 led to a “precipitous drop” in water levels and was a motivation for the agency to come up with the 2007 Interim Guidelines.

“That period was the driest five-year period on record,” said Jerla. The average inflow dropped to 25 to 60% of the yearly average. And both reservoirs went from near full to half capacity.

There is one more “public scoping” podcast for those who want to participate on July 24. The bureau encourages those interested to join in and to give their two cents. The 60-day public comment period ends Aug. 15.

Of the four people who took advantage of the opportunity to be heard as part of the podcast Tuesday, three mentioned they would like to see the tribes get their fair share of water while one caller had a plan for the Salton Sea.