It would be a first in U.S. history if it happens, and if it happens, it would upend a 100-year-old water sharing agreement among seven states and Mexico that depend on water from the drought-challenged, over-diverted Colorado River.

The Biden administration, through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, released a draft environmental impact statement Tuesday that proposes to shave water deliveries to California, Nevada and Arizona by as much as one-fourth of what they receive now.

Utah and other Upper Basin states — Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico — don’t face any cuts under the draft.

It is unprecedented, but an acknowledgement of the seven states being unable to come to an agreement on what water reductions need to be made to save the ailing Colorado River, on which 40 million people depend and which irrigates more than 5 million acres of farmland.

“Drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have been two decades in the making. To meet this moment, we must continue to work together, through a commitment to protecting the river, leading with science and a shared understanding that unprecedented conditions require new solutions,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “The draft released today is the product of ongoing engagement with the basin states and water commissioners, the 30 basin tribes, water managers, farmers and irrigators, municipalities and other stakeholders. We look forward to continued work with our partners in this critical moment.”

Lake Powell’s “bathtub ring,” a light-colored coating of mineral deposits, is seen on canyon walls on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022.
Lake Powell’s “bathtub ring,” a light-colored coating of mineral deposits left during periods of higher water on the reservoir, is seen on canyon walls on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, near Bullfrog. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The potential cuts comes as both Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, have reached crippling low water levels amid a 23-year-long drought that threatens power generation, livelihoods and drinking water supplies for millions in the arid Southwest.

The bureau earlier issued an edict to the seven basin states to reach an agreement on water conservation and reductions on their own — or else it would act to achieve curtailments.

The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the West. How much longer will it last?
Dam trouble looms for Glen Canyon as the Colorado River shrinks

“The Colorado River Basin provides water for more than 40 million Americans. It fuels hydropower resources in eight states, supports agriculture and agricultural communities across the West, and is a crucial resource for 30 tribal nations. Failure is not an option,” said Interior’s Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. “Recognizing the severity of the worsening drought, the Biden-Harris administration is bringing every tool and every resource to bear through the President’s Investing in America agenda to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System now and into the future.”

The alternatives presented in the draft environmental analysis tackles actions that may be taken under Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s authority to protect system operations in the face of unprecedented hydrologic conditions, while providing equitable water allocations to Lower Basin communities that rely on the Colorado River system, according to the agency.

‘Water is not going to magically appear,’ says Interior’s Tanya Trujillo

The draft analysis will be available for public comment for 45 calendar days and the final report is anticipated to be available with an official decision this summer. The document will inform the August decisions that will affect next year’s operations for Glen Canyon and Hoover dams.

The intake towers of Hoover Dam near Boulder City, Nev.
The intake towers of Hoover Dam near Boulder City, Nev., are pictured on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Under the compact signed by the seven states in 1922, the Upper Basin states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming are to allow 7.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to flow unimpeded to their partner states in the Lower Basin.

Gene Shawcroft, chairman of the Colorado River Authority of Utah and Utah’s river commissioner, has said that delivery has never been cut short, but actually exceeded that amount in many years.

Utah House reaffirms intent to develop Colorado River water

Upper Basin states have complained that the Lower Basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California have over-developed their allocation of Colorado River water through the years, helping to create an unsustainable hydrological dilemma. While states did come up with water conservation and curtailment plans to meet the bureau’s mandate, California was a holdout and put together its own plan because it wanted credit for loss of water due to evaporation.

In February, six of the states sharing the Colorado River submitted what they described as a Consensus Based Modeling Alternative to the reclamation bureau. While not a formal agreement, they say it provides a step toward helping the federal agency as it crafts this environmental review released Tuesday.

This next proposed step by the Biden administration builds on earlier investments to help save the Colorado River, which has been described as the hardest-working river in the country, or the “workhorse of the West.”

Those investments include:

The Colorado River is visible flowing through the Grand Canyon as seen from the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park.
The Colorado River is visible flowing through the Grand Canyon as seen from the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Paper copies of the analysis are available for public review at the Lower Colorado Basin Regional Office, 500 Fir Street, Boulder City, Nevada, and at the Upper Colorado Basin Regional Office, 125 South State St., Room 8100, Salt Lake City, as well as area offices within the Colorado River Basin. Those offices and their locations can be found on the Bureau of Reclamation’s website. The deadline for comments is May 30.

The bureau is also hosting a series of virtual meetings for additional information on the proposal.