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California, Nevada and Arizona want a deal on proposed Colorado River cuts

Interior Department shelves it own proposal, for now, to review plan from Lower Basin states

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The Colorado River cuts its path through southern Utah near Moab on July 22, 2022.

The Colorado River cuts its path through southern Utah near Moab on July 22, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

In a move to stave off a proposed first-in-history drastic reduction by the federal government of water that California, Nevada and Arizona receive from the Colorado River, the trio of Lower Basin states submitted a plan to the U.S. Department of Interior to voluntarily make their own cuts.

Announced Monday, the three states say they will conserve 3 million acre-feet, or 977.5 billion gallons, of Colorado River water in Lake Mead by the end of 2026. Half those water savings, they say, will be achieved by the end of 2024.

The seven states that make up the Colorado River Basin, including Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming, are requesting the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation analyze the proposal as an “action alternative” in a draft supplemental environmental impact statement and in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

As a result of this new plan, the Interior Department said it is temporarily putting on hold the draft supplemental environmental impact statement published last month so that it can fully analyze the effects of the proposal. It also scrapped a May 30 deadline for comments, but will resume the process later this year.

“I commend our partners in the seven basin states who have demonstrated leadership and unity of purpose in developing this consensus-based approach to achieve the substantial water conservation necessary to sustain the Colorado River System through 2026,” said Interior’s Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. 

But many say the plan is a short-term fix to a problem that will only endure.

“Today’s news is another stopgap measure to quell hostilities among the states and show a concerted effort to address longstanding accounting failures in the Lower Basin — all of which should have been done 16 years ago,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, an organization working on water conservation in Nevada and Utah. “The bureaucratic machinations between now and 2026, however, must finally address the reality that tomorrow’s means of river management won’t be adequate 10 years from now. 

The basin states believe the plan can work.

“California and our partners in Arizona and Nevada have developed a plan to better perform and protect the Colorado River system than either action alternative identified in the current Draft SEIS released last month by Reclamation,” said JB Hamby, Colorado River Board of California chairman.

“The Lower Basin Plan will generate unprecedented volumes of conservation that will build elevation in Lake Mead, make strategic use of the improved hydrology, and build upon partnerships within and between states, urban water agencies, agricultural irrigation districts, and Basin Tribes who rely upon and share the Colorado River.”

The plan, they say, demonstrates that the states can work together to solve difficult problems and continue to protect the river. Ongoing partnerships within the Lower Basin — and across the seven basin states — and with the country of Mexico are all imperative to face the challenges that lie ahead for the river. 

The states acknowledge that one good year of hydrology will not reverse the scenario that lies ahead amid climate change and over diversion on what has been called the hardest working river in the country.

“The collaborative nature of this proposal continues to be the path forward to successful management of the basin,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona Department of Water Resources. “This proposal provides robust protection for Lake Powell and Lake Mead and will help bolster storage volumes in these two critical reservoirs.”    

They insist the unilateral exercise of federal authorities is not required to achieve the Lower Basin Plan.

“The plan set forth by the Lower Basin States is not a panacea for the river, but rather a consensus solution that will help manage near-term water demands while serving as a bridge to negotiate the post-2026 operating criteria,” said John Entsminger, Southern Nevada Water Authority’s general manager. “The Colorado River Basin has a warmer and drier future ahead and reducing water use, increasing water efficiency and maximizing water recycling and reuse is paramount to a sustainable future for the 40 million people that depend upon this critical water supply.”

In April, 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.

“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 at the time. “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. 

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 had 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 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.

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. The Upper Basin is not facing any cuts — yet.

Upper Basin states have complained that the Lower Basin states 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.

The Lower Basin states’ proposal comes as the deadline for comment on the draft analysis by the Bureau of Reclamation was supposed to end May 30.

In exchange for giving up a total of 13% of their total allocation of Colorado River water, the deal proposes $1.2 billion in federal compensation to the trio of states.

“Long-term payment by the federal government for reductions in the usage is not a solution — it’s a stop gap. The positive of this agreement is that it shows the Lower Basin states will find ways to reduce usage when the proper legal incentives are in place; and the Upper Basin states will join into an agreement they find shows mutuality in reduction between all Colorado River states,” said Gage Zobell, a water law expert and partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney.