States miss deadline to agree on water cuts
The water intake towers of the Hoover Dam on Lake Mead, the country’s largest man-made water reservoir formed by the dam on the Colorado River in the southwestern United States, have dropped 2 inches (26 feet in a year) every day since February on March 12. July 2022 near Boulder City, Nevada indicated at approximately 25% capacity. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
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The seven states that depend on the drought-stricken Colorado River have failed to meet a Jan. 31 federal deadline to reach an agreement to voluntarily cut water use, an impasse the Biden administration eventually pushed to do so could prompt cuts to be imposed as the West grapples with an historic drought and record-low water levels in reservoirs.
After negotiations stalled, six of the seven Colorado River-dependent states instead submitted a proposal to the Bureau of Reclamation that outlined ways to reduce water use and accounted for water losses due to evaporation and leaking infrastructure.
The proposal, entitled Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative, was jointly submitted by Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The proposal specifically excluded California, the largest user of the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people. Officials said the state will release its own plan.
The six-state document outlined an approach to protect the infrastructure, water supply and power generation of Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam and prevent the Colorado River reservoirs from reaching a “dead basin,” which happens when the Water falls to as low a level as possible Do not move downstream from the dam.
The Colorado River has long been congested, but climate change has worsened drought conditions in the region and reservoir water levels have dropped sharply in recent decades. As the western United States experiences its driest two decades in at least 1,200 years, water levels in the country’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have hit record lows.
Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, said the states’ proposal appears to be a “very sincere commitment” to advance negotiations on water cuts and prevent reservoirs from sinking to dangerous levels.
“It’s easy to overlook how difficult and complex this is for each individual state,” Porter said. “We need to remove less water from the system and that’s the most difficult negotiation.”
Water officials stressed the proposal is not an official agreement between states, but is a critical step in protecting the Colorado River and eventually reaching a seven-state agreement.
“This modeling proposal is an important step in the ongoing dialogue between the Seven Basin States as we continue to seek a common solution to stabilize the Colorado River system,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said in a statement .
But the failure to reach an agreement is the second time in six months that the seven states that use the Colorado River’s waters have missed a deadline to agree on cuts under the Interior Department, which manages flows on the river.
In the past, it was the states that figured out how to part the waters of the Colorado River. But if no agreement is reached on cuts, the federal government could be held responsible.
A spinach field is irrigated with water from the Colorado River in Imperial Valley, California December 5, 2022.
Caitlin Ox | Reuters
The Biden administration has asked the seven states to conserve between 2 million and 4 million acres of water, or up to a third of the river’s average flow. For comparison, California is entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of river water per year and Arizona is entitled to 2.8 million acre-feet per year. (An acre-foot of water is roughly equivalent to the consumption of two average households per year.)
So far, Arizona has borne the brunt of the government’s water savings — particularly the state’s farmers, who grow their produce in the desert and use nearly three-quarters of the available water supply to irrigate crops.
The alternative outlined by the six states proposes water cuts that would nearly reach the low end of 2 million acre-feet that federal officials have been pushing for, with nearly all mandatory cuts concentrated in Arizona, California and Nevada.
The proposal also calls for the introduction of “voluntary conservation measures” in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said this approach “properly distributes the load across the basin and provides protection for the tribes, water users and environmental assets in the upper basin.”
The Bureau of Reclamation is expected to release a draft of its proposal to operate the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams in March, considering the letter from the six states as part of that plan.
An irrigation device adjusts a pump that draws Colorado River water from a lined canal to irrigate a cauliflower field in Imperial Valley, California December 5, 2022.
Caitlin Ox | Reuters