Click the link to read “Federal government considers major water cuts to protect Colorado River” on The Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:
The stakes in the decision are high for California, which receives the largest share of water from the Colorado River, as well as for Arizona and Nevada. Imposing an equal across-the-board cut would hit California harder, particularly in agricultural regions, while strict adherence to the water-rights priority system would bring larger reductions for cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation presented its alternatives as an initial step in a review aimed at revising the rules for dealing with shortages through 2026. Federal officials said that the proposals still could change and that a solution somewhere between the two options could emerge as representatives of states, water agencies and tribes continue negotiations on how to address the chronic water shortages.
“The prolonged drought afflicting the American West is one of the most significant challenges facing our country today,” Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said. “We’re in the third decade of a historic drought that has caused conditions that the people who built this system would not have imagined.”
The Bureau of Reclamation said it released its initial review of alternatives, called a draft supplemental environmental impact statement, to “address the continued potential for low run-off conditions and unprecedented water shortages” in the Colorado River Basin. Officials said they need plans in place to protect critical levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell and prevent them from dropping so low that the dams would stop generating power and water deliveries would be at risk…
The agency is revising the 2007 guidelines for its operations of Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam, which include measures for dealing with shortages through 2026 — but which federal officials say would no longer be sufficient if reservoirs continue to decline. The Biden administration released its options more than two months after officials from California and six other states presented two conflicting proposals for water reductions. Closed-door talks among state officials and managers of water agencies are set to continue while the federal government receives input on the proposals. And representatives of California, Arizona and other states pledged to continue working toward a seven-state consensus…
Under one of the options, the federal government would consider making water reductions based predominantly on the existing priority system for water rights. That would mean smaller cuts or no cuts for agencies and entities that hold older senior rights, including agricultural suppliers such as California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which uses the single largest share of Colorado River water to supply about 500,000 acres of farmland in the Imperial Valley. Strict adherence to the water-rights priority system would also mean large cuts for junior water rights holders that started taking water from the river later, such as the Central Arizona Project, which supplies Phoenix, Tucson and other cities.
Under a second alternative, the Bureau of Reclamation would analyze the effects of reductions “distributed in the same percentage” for all water users in the three Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. This approach would mean across-the-board cuts for all water users in the region, including senior water rights holders, amounting to a reduction of about 13% on top of cuts that were already agreed to under a 2019 deal. Agricultural irrigation districts, cities and tribes would all need to participate based on a schedule of reductions tied to the levels of Lake Mead. Beaudreau said this second alternative reflects the Interior secretary’s authority to “provide for human health and safety” and manage supplies under emergency conditions. If reservoir levels drop further and additional cuts are triggered, this approach would shore up the allocations of agencies with more junior water rights, such as cities in Arizona, Nevada and Southern California.
Both of these alternatives call for progressively larger reductions as the level of Lake Mead declines. The total amount of potential cuts in 2024, including reductions under existing agreements, could reach slightly more than 2 million acre-feet — a major reduction from the three states’ total apportionment of 7.5 million acre-feet.
After months of fruitless negotiations between the states that depend on the shrinking Colorado River, the Biden administration on Tuesday proposed to put aside legal precedent and save what’s left of the river by evenly cutting water allotments, reducing the water delivered to California, Arizona and Nevada by as much as one-quarter. The size of those reductions and the prospect of the federal government unilaterally imposing them on states have never occurred in American history…
The Biden administration is desperately trying to prevent that situation, known as deadpool. But it faces a political and ethical dilemma: How to divvy up the cuts required.
The Interior Department, which manages the river, released a draft analysis Tuesday that considered three options. The first alternative was taking no action — a path that would risk deadpool. The other two options are making reductions based on the most senior water rights, or evenly distributing them across Arizona, California and Nevada, by reducing water deliveries by as much as 13 percent beyond what each state has already agreed to…
If changes were based on seniority of water rights, California, which among the seven states is the largest and oldest user of Colorado River water, would mostly be spared. But that would greatly harm Nevada and force disastrous reductions on Arizona: the aqueduct that carries drinking water to Phoenix and Tucson would be reduced almost to zero.
“Those are consequences that we would not allow to happen,” Tommy Beaudreau, the deputy secretary for the Interior Department, said in an interview on Monday…
Another challenge with letting the cuts fall disproportionately on Arizona: Doing so would hurt the Native American tribes that rely on that water, and whose rights to it are guaranteed by treaty. Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, which is entitled to a significant share of Colorado River water, said the goal should be “a consensual approach that we can all live with.” Spreading the reductions evenly would reduce the impact on tribes in Arizona, and also help protect the state’s fast-growing cities. But it would hurt Southern California’s agriculture industry, which helps feed the nation, as well as invite lawsuits. The longstanding legal precedent, often called the law of the river, has been to allocate water based on seniority of water rights…
The draft analysis did not formally endorse any option; a final analysis is expected this summer, and it could include still other approaches. But Mr. Beaudreau said he was “pretty comfortable” that allocating cuts evenly would let the department meet its goals — preventing water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell from falling below critical levels, protecting health and safety, and not exceeding the department’s legal authority. He defended the government’s willingness to depart from longstanding seniority rules about water rights, arguing that the shocks of climate change couldn’t have been predicted when those rights were agreed to decades ago. The proposal marks a new and painful phase in America’s efforts to adapt to the decades-long drought in the West. Until now, the federal government has responded to drought primarily by paying farmers, cities and Native tribes to voluntarily use less water.
Click the link to read “Colorado River cities and farms face dire trade-offs with new federal review” on The Washington Post website (Joshua Partlow). Here’s an excerpt:
Interior officials also defended Secretary Deb Haaland’s right to make cuts in a proportional way in times of emergency even if that goes against water rights held by farming communities from more than a century ago…
Through the windows behind [Deb Haaland], the bleached “bathtub ring” on the hillside above Lake Mead was clearly visible — a reminder of how far the reservoir, now about a quarter full, has fallen over the past two decades of drought.
“Some may believe that this winter’s snow and rain has saved the river, but that is not the case,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “We have a lot of hard work and difficult decisions ahead of us in this basin.”
State officials expressed the desire for all seven Colorado River basin states to reach an agreement over the next few months and avoid the need for the federal government to impose cuts unilaterally. Federal officials described the two alternatives they laid out — strictly following water rights, or making cuts of the same percentage across California, Arizona and Nevada — as “bookends” on a spectrum, giving state officials direction to seek compromise in between…
“It gives us the framework … on which we can build and perhaps find something that is partway between those two bookends,” said Estevan Lopez, New Mexico’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. “I think that’s our challenge right now.”
The goal of the document is to assess potential rule changes for how water is released from Lake Powell and Lake Mead to protect these reservoirs from falling below what is known as “minimum power pool.” That’s the point at which the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams can no longer produce hydropower because there is not enough water to flow through the turbines safely. These reservoir elevations — about 3,500 feet above sea level at Lake Powell and 950 feet at Lake Mead — will be the thresholds that the federal government is working to avoid. Lake Powell stands just 20 feet above that level and is less than a quarter full…
In January, six of the states — Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — agreed on an approach that would make major cuts in a proportional way among states. That would hit California farmers in places such as the Imperial Valley — who suck up a lot of the river and have rights to it that predate some cities — particularly hard. California, the largest user of Colorado River water, rejected that approach, and called for cuts that adhered to water rights priority. The plan would be devastating to Arizona, state officials there say…
But Tuesday’s environmental review also establishes a different way to justify the reductions. The six-state plan rationalized departing from a strict adherence to water rights by attributing some 1.5 million acre-feet of cuts to evaporation and other losses as water travels down the canals from the major reservoirs. But the federal government’s second alternative — the one for proportional cuts — is based not on evaporation but on Haaland’s legal authority to protect the river.
“In our mind, the appropriate presentation is grounded in the secretary’s authorities to provide for human health and safety, manage the system under emergency conditions, and provide for beneficial use,” Beaudreau said. “It is the secretary’s responsibility, and she has the authority, to protect the system.”
Click the link to read “Without agreement among states, federal officials say Colorado River cuts are coming” on the KUNC website (Luke Runyon). Here’s an excerpt:
Federal officials made clear they hope not to have to use the plan at all, whether that’s because the region experiences a string of wet winters or the states come up with commitments to reduce their reliance on the river without federal intervention.
“We’re looking to develop a true seven-state consensus in the coming months, ideally in this next 45-day period, if possible,” said J.B. Hamby, California’s top Colorado River negotiator.
If the federal government moves ahead and turns its draft plan into a final form, it could increase the likelihood of interstate lawsuits over state water rights.
“We do see that litigation could be possible,” said Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s top water official. “We are committed to avoiding that litigation outcome as best we can by coming up with a collaborative solution.”
Public comment is open on the draft plan until the end of May, with a final plan expected this summer.
Click the link to read “Federal officials propose reducing Colorado River water to lower-basin states in “shot across the bow” on The Denver Post website (Conrad Swanson). Here’s an excerpt:
The move strengthens the federal agency’s resolve to conserve water from the Colorado River as the seven states within its basin repeatedly fail to find common ground, said Rhett Larson, a water law professor at Arizona State University.
“I am reading this as a shot across the bow,” Larson said. “The federal government is saying, ‘Brace yourselves, because if you don’t come up with something, we will.’”
The cuts are needed because, despite a massive snowpack in the Rocky Mountains this winter, water levels at lakes Powell and Mead — the country’s two largest reservoirs — are still projected to diminish as they face historically dry conditions exacerbated by climate change.
“We’re thankful for this winter’s snow and rain,” Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said at a news conference Tuesday. But, he added, “One good year will not save us from more than two decades of drought.”
While federal officials consider their options, each of the seven states in the Colorado River Basin will continue to negotiate water use for the long term. At risk is the water supply for cities, towns, farms and industries across the West. And if any of the states or Native American tribes in the basin sour on the plan they could sue, which would plunge the entire scheme into an expensive and time-consuming legal tangle…
“So we can do nothing, do what California wants or do what everybody else wants and have cuts across the board,” [Rhett] Larson said.
Doing nothing isn’t an option, Larson said. Doing what California wants could devastate several major cities and cutting water use equally could be illegal and result in major lawsuits.
Larson said he feels as though federal officials, particularly President Joe Biden, might ultimately lean further toward cutting water use across the board.
“Realistically, there isn’t a solution to this that doesn’t require California to take some cuts,” Larson said…
Still, the idea, Beaudreau said, would be to keep water at Powell and Mead high enough so that their dams could still generate electricity and pass water downstream. As of Monday, Lake Powell sat at 22% full while Lake Mead was 29% full.
That 2 million acre-feet also is the minimum amount of water federal officials set out to save when they announced impending action last summer. Some water experts have wondered whether the basin must actually save three times that much.