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Colorado River states attempt to reach water-use plan — again

States hope to avoid mandates from the Interior Department

A tractor kicks up dust as it works a field near Parker, Ariz. Farms in the area rely on water drawn from the Colorado River.
A tractor kicks up dust as it works a field near Parker, Ariz. Farms in the area rely on water drawn from the Colorado River. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The seven states most affected by dwindling Colorado River levels are meeting over the next few days to draft proposals for managing the basin’s water levels, potentially preventing the Interior Department from imposing its own water cuts. 

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. 

Since 2000, the basin has been in the midst of a “megadrought” that scientists estimate is the worst in well over a millennium. Even after storms dumped record amounts of snow and rain across the West last month, it would take multiple years of these weather events to make up the deficit. 

Despite the urgency, the states have been stuck at the bargaining table since 2019, missing their August deadline to reach an agreement. 

[Tensions rise over drought-stricken Colorado River water use]

Rather than imposing its own water cuts on the states, the Interior Department triggered an environmental assessment process that requires the states and federal government to propose three alternatives by the end of January: one that models what would happen if there was no change to current operations of water levels, another that outlines the federal government’s plan and the final one a basin-states-approved “consensus framework.”

This process, which is a supplemental environmental impact review to 2007 interim water guidelines for the Colorado River, allows Interior to continue to put pressure on the states while allowing state leaders more time to work out an agreement, said Taylor Hawes, director of the Colorado River Program and environmental nonprofit The Nature Conservancy. 

And it also ensures that if the states can’t get to an agreement, Interior has its own plan to fall back on.

“Part of this is [the Interior Department] has to evaluate these options to provide themselves with some legal protection in case they get sued,” she added. “It gives them protection to say, ‘Hey, we looked at these different alternatives, we have public comments, we ran these models, and this is what we have to do to achieve our goals and meet those environmental resources.”

Burden of cuts

But as the states meet in Denver this weekend to devise alternative proposals, they will have to decide who shoulders the burden of water cuts — a key point that’s been keeping them from reaching a deal.

California and Arizona, which make up the Lower Basin states along with Nevada, have argued that they have already sacrificed enough water, and California continues to argue that it has the greatest need due to heavy agriculture. 

After the Bureau of Reclamation reduced allocations to Arizona and Nevada in August, Arizona argued it was bearing most of the cuts while California continued to evade strict water usage restrictions. 

In October, California’s water districts committed to conserving an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead each year from 2023 to 2026. Recently, California water leaders have been touting that theirs is the only state to have done so by its own choice, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Meanwhile, the Lower Basin states are still trying to convince the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — to commit to more water cuts as well, although Hawes added that the Upper Basin states use less than they’re allowed even when evaporation is accounted for.

The states and the federal government are expected to complete their alternative proposals by Tuesday.

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