Deputy Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau during a press conference at the Lake Mead Spillway House Tuesday. (Photo by Jeniffer Solis)
Federal officials on Tuesday proposed unprecedented cuts to the amount of water Nevada, California, and Arizona could get from the Colorado River in an attempt to course correct after decades of drought and overuse.
The U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation released a draft environmental impact statement detailing three possible operation revisions, one of which would evenly cut the amount of water delivered to Nevada, California, and Arizona in order to prevent depleting reservoirs along the river from falling to critically low levels.
Under the proposal, federal water managers proposed rule changes governing Glen Canyon and Lake Mead that would cut up to 2 million acre-feet in water usage — more than 15% of the river’s average annual flow — for users in Arizona, California and Nevada to ensure reservoirs do not fall below what is needed to produce hydropower used to sustain eight states.
The Colorado River Basin supplies drinking water to 40 million people, fuels hydropower resources, and sustains agriculture across the West.
The first-ever water shortage was declared for Lake Mead in August 2021 and was followed by mandatory water cuts the next year. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation— which operates the major dams in the river system — reported that Lake Mead is at 28% capacity as of April.
Ultimately, federal water managers reiterated that if nothing is done to safeguard the Colorado River — the source of the region’s vitality — there won’t be enough water for anyone.
“The existing guidelines may in the near future prove inadequate to protect the system and ensure power generation and water deliveries,” said Tommy Beaudreau, the Deputy Secretary of the Interior during a press conference at the Lake Mead Spillway House Tuesday.
For more than a century water in the Colorado River has been divided up based on senior water rights. The proposal is a stark departure from that framework. Interior Department officials emphasized the federal government’s authority to operate the system to ensure basic needs, like drinking water and hydropower, can be met – even if it means setting aside the priority system.
The three operation revisions proposed under the draft environmental impact statement, include no federal intervention, continuing reductions based on senior water rights, and equal water cuts spread evenly across all lower Colorado Basin states.
Under the first scenario with no federal intervention, the Interior Department would rely on the seven western states that draw water from the Colorado River to reach a compromise on their own, something they have failed to do so far.
The second option would implement water cuts based on senior water rights, meaning fewer cuts for California and more severe cuts for Arizona and Nevada.
And finally, the third scenario would spread water cuts evenly across Arizona, California and Nevada — potentially igniting legal challenges from California which has priority water rights.
Wanted: ‘a true, seven-state consensus’
Beaudreau, the Deputy Secretary of the Interior, however emphasized that the proposals introduced by the department are not set in stone. The draft proposal is meant to clearly state the federal government’s ultimatum to states in order to drive conversations and negotiations among all Colorado River basin states.
“These are difficult issues decades in the making. And so yes, some of the conversations can be difficult as well. The reason I’m hopeful that new agreements and solutions will continue to emerge, though – the spirit in the basin is one of community and collaboration. All seven basin states and the communities they represent are unified in finding common solutions in the best interests of the 40 million people who depend on this precious resource to the Colorado River,” Beaudreau said.
Federal water managers said the bulk of future water cuts will need to come from lower basin states — including Nevada — to reach reductions large enough to protect critical elevations in the reservoirs.
Water managers for several states who spoke at the press conference said states are still negotiating on a compromise all states can agree on. California’s lead negotiator, JB Hamby, said the state is “looking to develop a true, seven-state consensus over the next two months.” No state, including California, is advocating for a solution based solely on senior water rights, Beaudreau said.
Nevada uses only a small share of the river’s water and has made great strides in conservation, but both Arizona and California will likely need to make painful reductions and incur massive expenses to stabilize their water use.
“Over the last two decades, many steps have been taken, including very difficult ones, and they have helped to stave off draconian outcomes for the river and the reservoirs we depend on, but looking out at Lake Mead behind me it’s a stark visual reminder of why we are here today,” said Tom Buschatzke, Director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources, referring to the lakes “bathtub” rings. “Let us accelerate our discussions in the basin for a collaborative consensus based outcome.”
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said recent funding from the Biden administration has created more flexibility for the department. The bipartisan infrastructure law includes $8.3 billion for infrastructure to advance drought resilience. Another $4.6 billion has been set aside to address the Western drought via the Inflation Reduction Act.
The draft supplemental environmental impact statement will be available for public comment for 45 days. The final record of decision is expected in summer 2023, Calimlim Touton said. The draft will inform August 2023 decisions that will affect 2024 operations for Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams.
“We pored over hydrologic assessments and data reports to ensure our actions are guided by the best and latest science. We’ve toured water infrastructure projects among the Colorado River across the basin states to see firsthand the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead of us. All of this work has been done to ensure that the draft supplemental impact statement that we are releasing charts the strongest possible path forward to protect the Colorado River system,” Calimlim Touton said.
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