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Colorado River states still fractured over water cuts

Federal intervention awaits if they don't reach an agreement on supply cuts

The impact of a severe drought can be seen in the Lake Mead behind the  Hoover Dam.
The impact of a severe drought can be seen in the Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The seven Colorado River Basin states have spent years clashing over how they should share the burden of drastic water-supply cuts to save the river from dropping to dangerously low levels – and it’s not clear if they moved closer to an agreement to avert a federal intervention during talks late last week.

After the states missed an August deadline for an agreement, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation delayed imposing supply reductions and urged them to reach a “consensus framework” by the end of January.  

The process allowed the bureau to continue to pressure the states while allowing them more time to work out an agreement, said Taylor Hawes, director of the Colorado River Program at the environmental nonprofit, The Nature Conservancy.

“It’s almost like they think there’s a secret reservoir here or something,” Hawes said of two of the states, California and Arizona. “The water just isn’t here. That’s just the reality of climate change … every state is hurting, every state is dealing with less water, every state is dealing with difficult decisions.”

If the states can’t get to an agreement, the negotiating process at least gives the DOI a case for making cuts on its own, she said.

“Part of this is [DOI] has to evaluate these options to provide themselves with some legal protection in case they get sued,” said Hawes. “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.”

Although the states had been conducting friendlier, more constructive negotiations since the summer, according to a person familiar with the discussions, they were not close to an agreement for the entire basin as they entered last week’s talks. It was likely, the person said, that California would submit its own proposal while the six other states submit a unified one.

Familiar water feuds

The first time the states hashed out river management plans was in 1922 with the Colorado River Compact. It assumed that more than 17.5 million acre-feet of water (enough to cover 17.5 million acres to a depth of one foot, an area a bit larger than West Virginia) flowed through the river each year. In reality, the river flowed at an average of fewer than 15 million acre-feet annually between 1906 and 2020. Between 2000 and 2020, the flow fell to 12.5 million acre-feet. 

Although the states have endured deeper and deeper water cuts over the past 20 years, they haven’t been able to offset what scientists are estimating is a worst-in-over-a-millennium “megadrought.” The winter storms that dumped record amounts of snow and rain across the West barely made a dent. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that years of above-average rainfall would be required to make up the deficit, even as climate change promises declining rainfall in the region.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille C. Touton sounded alarms in June, telling the states to devise an agreement within 60 days to conserve an additional 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water, or the bureau would impose cuts. 

Fights between California and Arizona, which have rights to 4.4 million and 2.8 million acre-feet from the river, respectively, were in the public eye over the summer. Both have argued they have already sacrificed enough water, and both point to the other state to give up more. 

Tensions rose after Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., who has been vocal about the imbalance of state water cuts, wrote a letter to the Interior Department in November urging the agency to withhold funding for a Salton Sea reclamation project in California — an effort to protect 650,000 people in the state from harmful dust particles blowing off the dried-up seabed — until California agrees to more conservation measures.

“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.”

In mid-January, California and Arizona were close to agreeing on a unified proposal for the river’s lower basin, which includes those states and Nevada, while the upper basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — would submit their own, said the person familiar with the talks. What brought them together was the realization that federally imposed water cuts would likely be worse than any agreement the states could come to — and it would look bad to voters.

However, negotiations in the lower basin took a turn for the worse after California did not join a Nevada and Arizona proposal that called for steep water cuts for the Golden State.

Although six of the seven states — all but California — might sign on to a “consensus framework,” discussions are likely far from over. The Bureau of Reclamation has yet to release its draft plan for federal intervention. That plan, or any by the states, would be submitted for public comment before the bureau finalizes them later this year. 

All the while, states will likely continue to negotiate. And if the bureau moves forward with federal cuts, it will likely invite litigation.

“Unless we move towards a governance system or allocation system that’s representative of the reality, we’re going to continue to be facing the pain and we’re going to continue to struggle with the reality of this new climate future,” Hawes said. “Negotiators are so set on their positions that they’re missing the bigger point — this will be hard.”

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