The big deal on the Colorado River with reporter Luke Runyon

This week on the On Land Podcast I welcome veteran water reporter Luke Runyon. Luke covers the Colorado River Basin for public radio station KUNC. His podcast, Thirst Gap, digs into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. Before covering water at KUNC, Luke covered the agriculture and food beat for five years as KUNC’s Harvest Public Media reporter. 

I spoke with Luke about the big news in Colorado River politics: the announcement of a grand water savings bargain between California, Arizona and Nevada that now waits for Bureau of Reclamation review: what does the deal mean for landowners, what are the implications for the Upper Basin water savings programs now that the lower basin has made a deal, and what does all this really mean in terms of who is saving water and how? Enjoy the show!


Links and references from The big deal on the Colorado River with reporter Luke Runyon

Thirst Gap, Luke’s Colorado River water podcast

Luke’s reporting on the deal in the Lower Basin

Wade Crowfoot episode

Topics discussed

[00:02:05] Why is the deal for less than what BoR called for?

[00:03:27] Is it enough?

[00:05:58] How does this affect water savings proposals or programs in the Upper Basin?

[00:08:40] Who’s saving water under this deal, and how?

[00:13:19] Accounting for the savings or conservation

[00:14:38] Why would a lawsuit, instead of a deal, be so bad?

[00:16:36] 2026 negotiations: What are those about? What’s possible?

[00:20:26] Thirst Gap, and the real people that have something at stake in this debate.

Episode transcript

[00:00:00] Louis Wertz: Hi, Louis Wertz here. This week on the on land podcast I welcome veteran water reporter, Luke Runyon. Luke covers the Colorado river basin for public radio station K UNC. His podcast, Thirst Gap, digs into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western US.

Before covering water at K UNC, Luke covered the agriculture and food beat for five years as K UNCs harvest public media reporter. I’m excited to talk with Luke about the big news in Colorado river politics: the announcement of a grand water savings bargain between California, Arizona, and Nevada that now waits for Bureau of Reclamation review.

We’ll be right back with my conversation with Luke Runyon after this short break.

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[00:01:23] Louis Wertz: Hi. Happy to be joined by Luke Runyon of K U N C. Intrepid, Colorado River Water Reporter. To talk to us about what he understands is going on with this new deal. That’s news broke on Monday that the Bureau of Reclamation and California, Arizona, Nevada had reached a deal. To conserve, I think 3 million acre feet of water over the next three and a half years in response to the bureau’s demand that the states come up with a plan to save water in the Colorado River. But initially that demand was for two to 4 million acre feet a year, Luke. And I understand, you know, just from the basic math that 3 million acre feet over three and a half years is considerably less than that.

[00:02:05] Why is the deal for less than what BoR called for?

[00:02:05] Louis Wertz: Why the difference in the deal that BoR was willing to say, “okay, sounds good. Let’s announce.”

[00:02:13] Luke Runyon: I think a lot of it has to do with the wet winter that we just experienced in the Rocky Mountains. You know, last summer when the Bureau of Reclamation put that charge to the states of, you know, our models are saying that we need two to 4 million acre feet of conservation per year over the next few years.

A lot of that got wiped away when one wet winter came along. And I think that that decreased a lot of the sense of urgency among the people who are negotiating the river, the policy makers both at the state and federal level. And it opened the door for this more short-term solution that the states have put together right now.

And that’s that 3 million acre feet over three years. And you know, it’s still just a proposal, so it still has to go through a federal review. And the details on how the states actually plan on meeting this goal of 3 million acre feet is there’s not a lot of detail of how they actually plan to go about doing that, which is Kind of standard for a lot of how, how these agreements come together, you know, it’s this big goal.

And then, you know, how you get down into the details of how the states actually plan to do this. We don’t have a ton of detail on, on how they actually plan to do it yet.

[00:03:27] Is it enough?

[00:03:27] Louis Wertz: Okay. Well, Yeah, that does lead into a couple of other questions that I had for you. Which one is that? You know, I, I know that. And in talking with other officials ourselves over the last three months, four months, , during the winter, just you could feel the tension sort of easing off of their shoulders about the, the pressure that they were feeling like they were gonna be, they were under and, and um, so the wet winter definitely helped there.

But in talking to scientists and hydrologists about what the future of the Colorado River looks like, is that, Are we in trouble? Because people are taking it easy right now when like really the sense of urgency is just, this is very short term relief.

[00:04:08] Luke Runyon: The way that the kind of the state negotiators have been framing this is. We for the past. Several years have been in a full on emergency crisis mode when it comes to the Colorado River’s management. No one was able to think long term about anything because each year was bringing its own dumpster fire of a crisis that had to be managed immediately.

And that was sucking up all the oxygen in the room. And what this deal does, it’s not the, it’s not the ender to all of these negotiations. It doesn’t permanently reduce anyone’s demand for Colorado River Water. What it does is it provides a little bit of stability. It provides some certainty to these large states that use the river, California, Arizona, and Nevada, and hopefully it’s what actually gets them to 2026, which is when these current managing guidelines for the river expire.

But we’ve heard this talking point before. For past agreements you know, there was the drought contingency plans, which were passed in 2019. There was the 500 plus plan that was passed a couple years after that, and these plans were all billed as, this is the thing that’s actually going to get us to 2026.

We’re hearing the same talking point now. We’re closer to 2026, so the likelihood is higher that, you know, we will actually make it there. But it remains to be seen if this is actually the thing that is gonna get the, the river to that point, because we’ve heard it before. The models say that this is, this is the amount of conservation that it’ll actually take.

But if we get a string of dry years again, I mean, we could be back in, in the same situation very quickly.

[00:05:58] How does this affect water savings proposals or programs in the Upper Basin?

[00:05:58] Louis Wertz: Thanks. Yeah, I, also wonder, I mean, you’re in Colorado and this deal is between Arizona, California, and Nevada. And there are four other states that share the Colorado River with those, and they’re, they’re called the upper basin states. Colorado is the largest in terms of contributing and taking from the river, but Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico as well.

And I’m wondering , what, if anything, you’ve heard from representatives, negotiators in those states about what this deal means for their own challenges around water savings or their own ambitions .

[00:06:33] Luke Runyon: Yeah, leading into these negotiations, when the federal government put forward this charge of the two to 4 million acre-feet last summer the upper basin pretty much immediately said, we’re not gonna be the ones who are solving this particular issue. They were saying, you know, this is a lower basin problem.

That’s where the, the most significant volume of water from the Colorado River is used for a long time. The lower basin was using above and beyond its allocation from the Colorado River. And so the, the kind of upper basin negotiating tactic from the very beginning was saying, don’t look at us to solve this problem.

This is really gonna be something that’s solved at the lower end of the river. And now that this deal has come together, I think that. That tactic is gonna be harder to maintain. I think the, there’s gonna be a lot more pressure on upper basin states, upper basin leaders to come up with some sort of hard conservation commitment along the river.

It’s not gonna be good enough to say, you know, oh, this is just a lower basin problem. The lower basin is committing to conservation. So what are we gonna get from the upper basin states are, are they gonna say the same thing or are they gonna actually be able to step up and. And and commit to reducing their, their take of the river.

What you do hear from upper Basin leaders is that they already feel the impact of climate change that just based on the way that the the River’s Watershed works. You know, they’re forced to take cutbacks because there’s just not enough water in stream sometimes in order to meet everyone’s needs.

And to some extent that’s true, but I do think like the, the upper basin could commit to a certain amount of conservation. You know, not every use of water in the upper basin is on, you know, a ditch that dries up. There’s lots of other. Uses in, in the state of Colorado and in throughout the rest of the upper basin that could be curbed.

It’s just that the upper basin leaders haven’t felt like that’s necessary yet.

[00:08:40] Who’s saving water under this deal, and how?

[00:08:40] Louis Wertz: This is another question that you hinted at earlier in, in that there just may not be the detail in the deal, but maybe you could. Predict or share what some other people have, are predicting about what does do these commitments to cuts over the next to 3 million acre feet of water over the next year mean practically.

Like who, who’s saving that water? How are they gonna do it? And then you know, what are the implications sort of to use a water pun that gets overused downstream of that. Like, you know, what, where are we gonna, what does that mean for the rest of us?

[00:09:10] Luke Runyon: So the way that this conservation actually looks is gonna vary among those three states. So maybe we should start with Nevada. Ne most of the water use in Nevada is the Las Vegas metro area. Las Vegas has already been a leader when it comes to water conservation, really shrinking the water footprint for the city and the greater metro area.

And so when I talked with the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority this week, after the news dropped, he said, you know, we’re pretty well positioned to take this cut to leave this water in Lake Mead and not draw on it. Yeah, we might have to double down on, you know, removing more grass, doing some more, you know, large scale conservation programs within the city limits.

But he, he seemed pretty confident that life itself was not gonna change a whole lot for the residents of Las Vegas and, and that they’re gonna be able to absorb this cut. California has much more varied use of Colorado River water, agriculture, municipalities, industries. And there it’s gonna kind of vary between all of those different users, how they go about making this conservation.

So one of the big uses is the Los Los Angeles Metro the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. They’re looking at. Switching their supply and drawing more on the state water project, which originates in the Sierra Nevada and foregoing some of the water from the Colorado River. They kind of have a mix of, of the two sources, and that counts as conservation because they’re not take, they’re not taking water from the Colorado River.

[00:10:51] Louis Wertz: And they’ve had a really heavy winter in the Sierra Nevada this year also, so they’re pretty confident that they’re gonna be okay there.

[00:10:57] Luke Runyon: And so that, that counts as conservation as well. Just not taking the water off the Colorado River, switching to a different supply. They’re not gonna be compensated for that conservation. Whereas some of these. Other uses are and then, you know, some of the, the conservation is gonna be direct payments to irrigation districts, to potentially individual farmers to just not take water.

And so that’s some of the conservation that’s being talked about. You know, like in the Imperial Irrigation District in the Coachella Valley and. That’s pretty straightforward of like he farmer, here’s a check. Don’t, , divert water from the Colorado River. And, that’s it. You know, it stays in Lake Mead, and that’s really where all of the focus is, is on helping Lake Mead.

In Arizona a lot of the conservation is gonna be coming from the Central Arizona project. This is a, a large canal system that delivers water to the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas to agriculture, to tribes. And they’ve already been hit with cutbacks from some of these previous agreements. And you know, but.

Some of the, the money, this 1.2 billion from the Inflation reduction Act is gonna be going to cities in the Phoenix Metro area you know, to help them use less water. And we’re already starting to see some of those commitments come out from some of those individual municipalities of, okay, we’re gonna leave X amount of water in Lake Mead, not take it in exchange for payments from the federal government.

[00:12:27] Louis Wertz: It sounds like each state sort of makes a commitment and then they actually don’t know yet a lot of , where the water’s coming from.

But in Arizona starting to be some, some news of , okay, so the, if we add up these city’s commitments and. This irrigation district’s commitments, we’re getting closer…

[00:12:44] Luke Runyon: That’s right. Cal California still has quite a bit of contracting to do. This is like, gets way down into the weeds of how all of this works. But like, you know, the state of California has made this commitment and now has to contract with individual irrigation districts, municipal providers in order to actually make up this conservation and, and reach that goal.

[00:13:06] Louis Wertz: So that gets a another question that I have always when these big numbers come out, which is like, how does the accountability happen? The lower basin, it’s obviously, it’s pretty simple because the water has to be let out of Lake Mead for people.

[00:13:19] Accounting for the savings or conservation

[00:13:19] Luke Runyon: Yeah, you can, you can measure pretty much where every drop of the Colorado River ends up in the lower basin, because it’s all coming out of the spigot of Hoover Dam. And the way that the lower basin kind of functions is on these contracts. Sometimes people just refer to all of the users in the lower basin as.

Contractors, because that’s really how it works. You know, the, all of these uses have a contract with the Bureau of Reclamation in order to receive the water that they’re, you know, that they have the right to. And that’s where a lot of the tension between the federal government and the states were coming in, in the lead up to these negotiations because the federal government was basically explicitly saying we have the ability to turn you guys off because we have this giant bucket of water that everyone is so reliant on. We’re gonna start putting our hand slightly closer to the spigot and threaten to turn it. It off, or at least turn it down. And that was raising a lot of hackles in the lower basin of, you know, does, does the federal government actually have the authority to do this?

But you know, that’s, that’s the big infrastructure project. And they were, they were thinking of of limiting the amount of water that the lower basin contractors were getting because things were getting so bad on the river.

[00:14:38] Why would a lawsuit, instead of a deal, be so bad?

[00:14:38] Louis Wertz: Mm. We were hearing throughout, through the negotiations over the last few months that there was a little bit of kind of negotiating brinksmanship a around like, all right, we’ll just, we’ll just force their hand and then go sort it out in court. And then the go sorted out in court thing we heard would just be a disaster. Sort of like a, the end time scenario would be that like we were having the, we were having to sort out the Colorado River Compact in court again.

[00:15:07] Luke Runyon: This is always the, the tension between the, you know, the states and the, particularly within the states, you kind of have this push and pull between like, are we a collaborative basin who, like, we all understand each other’s needs and you know, yes, we have our interests and we bring them to the table, or are we a litigious basin that, you know, if someone crosses me, do I take them to court?

And, and, and so that, Tension kind of plays out in a lot of these negotiations. And e even in these talks, you know, people were throwing out the possibility of litigation. that’s a negotiating tactic too. It’s like, give me what I want or I’ll sue you. And you know that that’s a, it’s a strong argument to make because nobody wants to end up in, in court.

And I think it’s. It would be bad for everyone to end up in a, in litigation because you’re throwing your fate to judges. To people who might not know a whole lot about water or how the Colorado River functions. And there’s been plenty of Supreme Court decisions about the Colorado River in the past that some people love and some people hate.

You know, it’s. I, I think the, the way that you hear it from most of the negotiators is they want to be able to kind of be controlling their own future. And if you start suing each other, you’re really taking that option away from yourself and giving it to someone else.

[00:16:36] 2026 negotiations: What are those about? What’s possible?

[00:16:36] Louis Wertz: Got it. Back to this 2026. Piece. You know, you said , for many years now, we’ve had, oh, this will get us 2026. The stories also from Monday concluded, all of them concluded with and negotiations for this 2026 deal start next month. And it’s like, okay, but what, what’s that deal gonna do?

How is that gonna change things or how could it change things if it, if it. Went well, and I don’t even know what well is.

[00:17:04] Luke Runyon: Yeah, so the, the 2026. Is because in 2007 the states got together, so this would’ve been seven years into our current 23 year mega drought. They basically came together and said, oh man, we really need to have. A set of rules to manage this river in a way that we’ve never had to manage it before because we’re like approaching a crisis, like our water supplies are taking a hit.

So they signed that agreement in 2007 and it expires in 2026. And so that’s where some of these agreements along the line have come in. Saying like, all right, we need to get to 2026, because that’s when the, the thing that we have right now expires and we gotta have new rules. And, you know, really the, the rules that we have right now don’t really take climate change into consideration.

They were created without any sort of tribal inclusion in. In the process, there were a lot of issues with the two, 2007 managing guidelines, both the process and how they came together and how they work in, in reality. And so I know that there are different parties in the watershed who want to make some pretty fundamental changes in how the river is managed.

With the Bureau of Reclamation and among all of the states. And you know, I think people are feeling a sense of relief and that they can actually have some of these hard conversations without the crisis management playing out in the background. That, you know, this 3 million acre-feet should be the thing that gets them to the point where they can have that long-term discussion and, and start to answer some of these really hard, thorny questions that have been unanswered until this point.

[00:18:47] Louis Wertz: Yeah, we talked with Wade Crowfoot, the California Secretary of Natural Resources a little bit more than a month ago, and, and he was pointing to 2026,. Is there a way that they can go to say like, okay, there’s only 11 and a half million or 12 million acre feet in this river actually now look, looking forward.

So we’re gonna divide that up instead of the app, the allocations. And then what does that opening that can of Worms do to the whole system?

[00:19:12] Luke Runyon: I, I think, you know, there are people who feel like the compact. Has has some usefulness still in that it created a basis for agreement and you know, it, it is an attempt to divide up the waters of the Colorado River and people seem more willing these days to toss aside. Some of the fixed numbers within the, the Colorado River Compact.

You’re seeing that with these agreements that we’re talking about, you know, limiting use even though you’re legally entitled to it. And you know, I think that’ll probably be a. Focus of the conversation. I, I don’t really know what’s gonna be in, in these post 2026 guidelines. I know that some of the states and the, and the two basins are, I’m sure coming up with their wishlists or their deal breakers right now in terms of what goes into those rules.

But you know that that conversation is just beginning because. Like I said, everyone has been putting out fires all over the basin and not really able to come up with those wishlists of what is, what is it that we actually want this river management to look like?

[00:20:26] Thirst Gap, and the real people that have something at stake in this debate.

[00:20:26] Louis Wertz: Okay. So we know where you’ll be spending your next three years, and hopefully it’ll be slightly less of a reporting on crises and more digging into what what’s possible.

[00:20:36] Luke Runyon: yes. Hopefully.

[00:20:38] Louis Wertz: Okay. Good. All right. Thanks Luke. Is there anything that you wished I’d asked you that you were hoping to explain that you haven’t had chance to on the three and a half minutes that you get on National Public Radio?

[00:20:48] Luke Runyon: You know, we’ve spent a lot of the conversation talking about this. Like kind of states craft between all of the, the varying state interests. But, you know, one thing that gets lost in this conversation is like people are, people in the Southwest are feeling water scarcity in real time, like, and are having to adapt to it in real time.

And that’s one thing that I really tried to get across in this podcast is, You know, yes. It’s great that we focus on all of the like politicking that goes on along the watershed. That’s important, and I’m glad that that conversation exists and the reporting on it happens. But what I wanted to do is really zoom in on people and places that are feeling this pressure right now.

Whether that’s farmers or tribes or city leaders or just residents of the west. And and so I hope that comes across as people are listening to, listening to the podcast that like, There, there’s more to this story than just the state’s craft. There’s also real people who get caught up in these discussions as well.

[00:21:45] Louis Wertz: Yeah, that’s an important reminder and I, I think it’s great to point people to Thirst Gap as a, as a place to hear those stories and and also want to invite People who in our, me, within our membership landowners in, in the Basin to reach out to us with your stories because because like Luke says, this is a conversation that happens in these in these ways with the politicking, but has real impacts on people.

And so we’d love to hear from you. Yeah, thanks so much again, Luke for joining us and for all your work covering this critical issue in the West. And well hopefully we’ll get to talk again about, about this as it progresses.

[00:22:23] Luke Runyon: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

[00:22:25] Louis Wertz: Thanks again to Luke Runyon for joining me on this podcast today. I really do encourage you to listen to Luke’s podcast, thirst gap from K UNC. New episodes are coming out right now. And you can find a link to that show on our show slash podcast. Thanks to Zach Altman for editing help and for reading the ads.

And thank you to everyone on the growing team here at Western landowners Alliance for inspiring my curiosity about important and under-appreciated issues across the west. See you next time.

Louis Wertz is editor-in-chief of On Land and communications director at the Western Landowners Alliance. He lives in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, with his wife and two young children.