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Tensions rise over drought-stricken Colorado River water use

Lawmakers look to must-pass legislation as Interior considers smaller allocations

Beachgoers cool off in the waters of Lake Havasu, fed by the Colorado River, at the Rotary Community Park in Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
Beachgoers cool off in the waters of Lake Havasu, fed by the Colorado River, at the Rotary Community Park in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As the Interior Department continues to delay implementing a program to reduce water consumption from the drought-stricken Colorado River Basin, tensions are thickening between the seven states with stakes in the watershed.

Now, lawmakers in Congress are fanning the flames as Capitol Hill looks ahead to must-pass, biennial water legislation.

The seven Colorado River Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California — have been sparring over who receives the biggest reductions in allocations after Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton announced a 2019 deal with the states that hinged on them saving 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water — as much as a third of the river’s flows — or the federal government would intervene.

The states have been stuck at the bargaining table since, missing their August deadline to reach an agreement.

As they continue to debate, the basin that provides drinking water to more than 40 million people and irrigates 15 percent of the nation’s farmlands has dipped to historically low levels. The two largest reservoirs in the United States, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, were at 28 percent and 26 percent of capacity, respectively, on Aug. 22, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

The BOR has taken steps to address the issue, including reduced allocations to Arizona and Nevada in August and a proposed amendment to a 2007 rule that would provide more federal control over the river. But the agency has yet to implement a comprehensive plan, leaving states on edge about what federal water cuts will look like and when they’re happening.

The delay spurred Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., who has been vocal about the imbalance of state water cuts, to write a letter to the Interior Department last week urging the agency to withhold funding for Salton Sea reclamation in California — a project that will protect 650,000 people in the state from harmful aerosol particulate matter exposure — until California agrees to more strict water conservation measures.

Bargaining chip

Such an ultimatum is necessary, Kelly argues, as states like Arizona continue to bear the brunt of water cuts even though California uses the majority of the water in the basin.

“California, the largest water user on the Colorado River, only recently proposed to try to conserve up to nine percent of the state’s water allocation,” he wrote. “Arizona, on the other hand, is forgoing more than 20 percent of its allocation beginning in January and is willing to conserve more.”

The Bureau of Reclamation targeted Arizona and Nevada in August as the agency announced it will withhold 21 percent of Arizona’s annual allocation of water from the Colorado River beginning in 2023, while Nevada will see an 8 percent cut. California received no additional cut.

Last month, California’s water districts committed to conserving an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead each year from 2023 to 2026, and according to the Colorado River Board of California, a state-authorized water negotiations board, they have conserved and transferred over 13 million acre-feet of Colorado River water since 2003.

However, California is still allocated more water from the basin, 4.4 million acre-feet per year, than any other state. And Kelly said in a June 15 Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing that in recent years Arizona has “led the way” in cutting water, conserving over 800,000 acre-feet in 2022 alone.

“Arizona has done everything that Arizona has been asked,” Kelly said in the hearing. “We’re going to continue to step up here, but we need partners.”

Environmentalists argue the letter is a slap in the face to communities surrounding the Salton Sea that are facing increased health conditions like bronchitis because toxic dust is becoming more common as the lake dries up.

“The criticism that individual basin states have not done enough to contribute to preserving Colorado River water supplies may be valid, but one thing is clear: the communities and wildlife of the Salton Sea, which face serious health, economic, and environmental consequences, cannot be treated as a sacrifice zone or political bargaining chip through these negotiations,” the Salton Sea Partnership, a coalition of environmental groups, said in a statement.

Antonio Ortega, spokesperson for Imperial Irrigation District, one of the bodies that manage Colorado River water in California, added that cutting Salton Sea funding will continue to hurt disadvantaged communities and urged the Interior Department to use $4 billion in funding from the budget reconciliation bill to “appropriate these critical funds expeditiously.”


But the letter sets the stage for potentially fraught discussions on Capitol Hill as lawmakers turn to the Water Resources Development Act, a bill that would reauthorize key U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water projects, in the next year.

In the Senate WRDA, Kelly already secured $200 million for Arizona water projects in the Army Corps of Engineers’ Rural Western Water program, including water agreements for farmers set to lose Colorado River water. He also added provisions to authorize studies on the corps’ ability to prepare for and respond to drought conditions.

California lawmakers like Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla have also added their state proposals to the mix. Padilla’s provisions aren’t as focused on the Colorado River Basin, but Kelly’s ultimatum could shift the discussions toward the watershed. And some are still holding out hope that the talks can be unifying.

“Given the importance of the issue to all seven Basin states, we are pleased that lawmakers — both those up for reelection and those who aren’t — are engaged on this issue,” said Daniel Keppen, executive director of Western nonprofit Family Farm Alliance, which advocates for agricultural water use. “[But] the combative and accusatory statements about agricultural water users coming from some stakeholders in the Basin is not helpful.”

In the meantime, states continue to wait on Interior for its next move.

“Reclamation has many more dollars at its disposal than the agency had just one year ago,” Keppen said. “Those funds may provide opportunities for voluntary proposals that give Reclamation some breathing room that prevent the federal government from making hasty executive, unilateral decisions that could very likely trigger litigation from one or more quarters.”

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