The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
You probably don’t think much about where your water is coming from when you top off your glass or step into a warm shower after a long day. But for much of Rebecca Mitchell’s career, her days have been consumed by Colorado’s water crisis—making sure that there won’t come a day when you turn on the faucet and nothing comes out.
Mitchell spent the past six years as the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the past four years in a dual role as a governor-appointed Colorado River commissioner. On June 22, the Colorado Department of Resources appointed her as the state’s first full-time commissioner to the Upper Colorado River, thanks to funding from the 2023–’24 budget. The main goal of the new role? To represent Colorado’s best interests in the interstate negotiations about the future of Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
“We know we have to do things differently,” Mitchell says. “It’s going to require difficult decisions. And this expanded role allows me to fully focus on Colorado’s needs at such a critical time and actually work toward long-term sustainable solutions to managing the Colorado River.”
The next few years will certainly bring change as the existing river management guidelines are set to expire in 2026. The timing is tough, as both Mead and Powell saw water levels drop to record lows this year. In short, 40 million people are reliant upon a water supply that is dramatically dwindling due to a climate change-induced megadrought. However, it’s not just a Colorado decision; there are seven states in the 1922 Colorado River Compact, an agreed-upon framework for future management of the Colorado River, including New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming (the Upper Basin states) and California, Arizona, and Nevada (the Lower Basin states). And they’re all coming to the table to fight for their unique needs.
Just a few weeks into her new role, we spoke with Mitchell about how she plans to approach the state’s most pressing water woes.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: Can you explain what your responsibilities are in the role of commissioner to the Upper Colorado?
Rebecca Mitchell: The Colorado River commissioner represents the state in interstate matters and works closely with counterparts from the other Upper Basin states through the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC). By moving the commissioner role to a full-time position, the Colorado General Assembly and governor have allowed me to focus fully on protecting our significant interests in the Colorado River.
I speak for the entire state in this role—the Colorado River is important to and impacts every corner of the state. As commissioner, I am Colorado’s representative to the UCRC. The UCRC is unique in that it provides a clear mechanism for coordination and decision-making among the Upper Basin states. Each state’s commissioner brings their state’s unique priorities and concerns with them to this table.
Why is it significant that your role recently became a full-time responsibility? Does that say anything about the current state of Colorado’s water crisis?
I think this role shifted to a full-time position because the stakes are high. The legislature and governor recognize the importance of the Colorado River in our state. First, the Colorado River is critical to the entire state of Colorado. It provides for municipalities, industry, the agricultural sector, and two tribes within Colorado. The river unites the state and helps us thrive. It provides for agricultural and municipal use both on the Front Range and the Western Slope.
And second, we’re entering the post-2026 negotiations: The current operations have enabled overuse in the Lower Basin, which drained both reservoirs [Powell and Mead]. But those guidelines expire in 2026. It is critically important that we shift our focus to developing more sustainable reservoir operations [going forward]. We must acknowledge that the reason we have found ourselves in this constant crisis is that the current guidelines are ineffective to protect the system in light of ongoing Lower Basin overuse.
Climate change coupled with Lower Basin overuse have changed the dynamic on the Colorado River, and we have no choice but to do things differently than we have before.
Back in May, the Lower Basin states proposed a deal to significantly decrease their water consumption to prevent the river from falling so low that it cut off water to major cities like Los Angeles. However, the deal expires in 2026, so the next three years are critical as we negotiate how we’ll all operate after that. What type of difficult decisions will need to be made to create sustainable change while still advocating for Colorado’s needs?
First, I’ll just note that the seven Basin states agreed to better analyze the Lower Basin proposal; the Upper Basin states have not, and cannot, agree to the proposal before understanding the implications for the Colorado River system. As we wait for additional information and for an analysis of that by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Basin states requested that the federal government start the process for post-2026 operations [including an Environmental Impact Statement and a notice to solicit comments on the post-’26 development and operational guidelines].
I collaborated with leaders across the state, including the Tribal Nations, to set principles that support a vision for a sustainable Colorado River. These principles can be supported by anyone with an interest in finding effective solutions.
Editors’ note: The following list of the principles was described in an email to 5280 and is paraphrased below.
- Acknowledging that climate change is real. We must anticipate a drier, but also a more variable, hydrologic future. Upper Basin water users live on the front lines of climate change and for the last 20-plus years regularly have experienced significant cuts to their water supplies.
- Recognizing that water users in the Lower Basin are not more important than water users in the Upper Basin. The Upper and Lower Basins have equal apportionments to the river in perpetuity, established by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The 1922 Compact promises certainty and security of water supplies for both the Upper and Lower Basins.
- Preventing overuse in the Lower Basin. Water use in the Lower Basin cannot continue to exceed available supplies, and operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead must better respond to actual hydrology. The Lower Basin must account for all depletions, including evaporation and transit losses [water lost when it flows from one point to another in the river system]. The Lower Basin’s overuse poses risks to the entire Basin.
- Defending against attempts at compact curtailment in the Upper Basin states. The Upper states are in full compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact, so Upper Basin water use must not be curtailed.
- Operating Lake Powell and Lake Mead to respond to actual hydrology and to protect storage. Balancing releases from Lake Powell and the tier structure in the 2007 Guidelines [interim guidelines developed for Lower Basin shortages]
depend on conditions at Lake Mead. This has led to depleted storage and has driven both reservoirs and systems into crisis. Lake Powell releases must be determined by actual hydrology and protecting storage rather than by Lake Mead conditions.
- Preserving federal reserved water rights for Tribal Nations. The Tribal Nations have water rights that they are entitled to use. Solutions for overuse in the Lower Basin cannot continue to depend on Tribes’ undeveloped federal reserved water rights.
- Complying with federal environmental law.
- Advancing coordination between the United States and Mexico.
You mentioned that managing the Colorado River, specifically with Lakes Powell and Mead, is essential for future change. Can you explain why they are so critical?
The crises at Lake Mead and Lake Powell have been caused by ongoing overuse in Lower Basin states, which use almost 10 MAF [million acre-feet; a unit of measurement for large-scale water resources] each year and who have been shielded from drought and climate change by mining water from these large reservoirs.
[According to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, both the Upper and Lower River Basins were allocated 7.5 MAF per year.]
Colorado did not cause the problem. For the last 20 years, the Upper Basin has been using significantly less [averaging 4.6 MAF annually from 2016–2020] than what we are apportioned under the 1922 Compact. Between 2020 and 2021, we used less than half of what we are apportioned. No Upper Basin state, including Colorado, has enough water available to bail out the Lower Basin’s years of overuse and depleted reservoirs. The Upper Basin will support the Lower Basin states in adjusting, adapting, and permanently reducing their Colorado River water use—all while continuing to do our part, live within the means of the river, and steward the West’s most important resource.
Through your work on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, you’ve been applauded for your ability to change culture regarding statewide water issues. How do you envision fostering that same level of collaboration with some of the other states (like the Lower Basin) who are advocating for their own rights?
There’s always two sides to the coin: creating change and then implementing that change. I hope to use my new role to encourage people to make hard decisions. We have the tools to solve the Colorado River crisis, we just need the courage and determination to use them.
Whenever we have great snow years and good ski seasons, there is inevitable discussion about the legitimacy of climate change and whether the snowpack levels are increasing our water supply. What are your thoughts on that?
We know that our future is going to be defined by variability; the last 20 to 30 years speak to that change. And the evidence suggests that we are also going to have a drier, hotter future. The last 20 years also speak to that.
When we have a good snow year, like we did this past winter, it’s easy to dismiss trends. This winter was a much-needed reprieve, which, of course, we are all grateful for. But we can’t let this one good year take our focus away from the big picture because we are still facing drought in our state and across the West. Until the science and data presents something different, we must plan for a drier, hotter, and more variable future.
How do you plan on collaborating and including Indigenous communities in future decisions over water?
The 1922 Compact negotiators did not include, involve, or consult the Tribal Nations, who have historic and cultural ties to the Colorado River. [The Tribal Nations] also have very senior water rights on the river. Since being appointed commissioner, I have prioritized increasing engagement with the tribes within Colorado. I regularly consult the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute Indian Tribes on Colorado River issues. Colorado has water rights settlements with both, which is legal language for saying that there is certainty and finality about the tribes’ water rights. The tribes also have decreed water rights in Colorado.
But our work is not done. It is one of my priorities to assist the tribes to access their water rights, and also do our part to help ensure access to clean drinking water. This includes seeing that the federal government fulfills its trust responsibilities to support tribal self-government and economic prosperity and to advance the tribes’ beneficial use of their water rights under the settlement and the decrees.
With water levels dropping in the reservoirs and every year getting drier, it’s tough to be optimistic. In your opinion, is it possible to unring the bell?
I think everything is possible. We also have no choice but to change. There’s no deadline that matters more than what Mother Nature is telling us. I am far more afraid of her than any federal action.