6 Colorado River states submit a plan to cut water use, but California says 'no deal'
Late last year, the federal government asked the seven states that share the Colorado River’s water to submit a plan by the end of January to rapidly cut their use of water or face mandatory cuts. Six of them found a consensus proposal and submitted their idea on Tuesday.
The seventh — California — is an ominous exclusion, given that it is the largest water user on the river and could thwart efforts to preserve the system if it presses its rights in court.
Even so, water policy experts found it encouraging that six states could come together to present the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation with a state-driven option, one that fast-forwards through a plan devised 15 years ago.
“It really is kind of an agreement to keep talking,” said Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy. “It’s a good step.”
One of the proposal’s authors, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger, said talks with California would continue.
“We absolutely intend to continue to work in good faith with California,” he told The Arizona Republic. “I don’t see the fact that that six states submitted a letter as any sort of declaration of failure.”
The proposal essentially asks Reclamation’s dam managers to model what would happen to the river and its stored water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell if the states accelerated cutbacks that they agreed to in 2007, taking them now instead of waiting for declining reservoir levels to trigger the cuts as envisioned back then.
It would also reduce states’ water deliveries based on the amount of evaporation and seepage losses that their use causes, collectively saving about 1.5 million acre-feet a year.
In submitting the plan, the states didn't formally agree to specific cuts, which means negotiations will continue.
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Reclamation officials have said river users must cut between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet to stabilize the system. Officials from the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — believe their plan will save 3.3 million. Each acre-foot contains about 326,000 gallons and is enough to supply two or three households, though roughly 80% of the river’s water is applied on farms.
The agency is preparing what amounts to an emergency update to its 2007 rules, which already have forced Arizona to give up 592,000 acre-feet this year, or about a fifth of its share, based on Lake Mead’s current and still-dropping elevation. California has not yet lost water, due to its higher-priority allocation, a condition that Arizona accepted when it sought congressional approval to build the Central Arizona Project canal.
By August, Reclamation intends to choose an option for preserving reservoir storage and hydropower production over the next few years. Late last year it said it would choose among three options: no action, a state-proposed plan or its own authority allowing the U.S. Interior secretary to ration supplies.
Entsminger said the "no action" alternative is too risky in an age when a warming and drying climate has drained most of the reservoirs' capacity.
"You're just rolling the dice on an extremely high-percentage chance that these reservoirs are going to continue to decline and you could go below minimum-power pool at Lake Powell and dead pool at Lake Mead," he said.
Any reductions to senior rights holders, whether by the six states’ plan or the federal government’s, could lead to lawsuits. California interests, including the river’s largest users at the Imperial Irrigation District, have said whatever federal officials adopt must comply with 100 years of compacts and settlements — the so-called Law of the River — that effectively reward those who put the river to use first.
“At this time, the modeling proposal submitted by the six other basin states is inconsistent with the Law of the River and does not form a seven-state consensus approach,” Imperial board member JB Hamby said in a statement.
Hamby also serves as chairman of the Colorado River Board of California. He noted that his state already has offered to reduce consumption by 400,000 acre-feet between now and 2026, when the 2007 guidelines are due for a full rewrite. He said California would submit its own proposal, and would continue talking to the other states and the federal government.
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Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said he hopes the six states can ultimately reach a deal with California. The math doesn't work without substantial contributions from the system's biggest user, he said.
In the meantime, he said it was important to provide Reclamation with an option so it can move forward with its environmental review of possible actions, preparing the legal groundwork for quick implementation whenever the states do reach agreement.
"I can't tell you what might move us and California (together). Maybe it's the federal alternative that they're going to model," he said. "Maybe it's something else."
In the meantime, he said, his department must continue working with in-state water users to apportion whatever cuts ultimately affect Arizona.
The environmental organizations Living Rivers, Glen Canyon Institute, Utah Rivers Council and Great Basin Water Network released a joint statement condemning the states’ continued commitment to keeping enough water in Lake Powell to keep generating power there.
“Instead of bending over backwards to prop up Lake Powell, officials should be making plans to save Lake Mead and utilize Glen Canyon a backup facility,” Glen Canyon Institute Executive Director Eric Balken said. “There’s just not enough water to save both reservoirs, and Mead is more vital to the Basin.”
While the federal government had asked the states to present a proposal by month’s end, ASU’s Porter said, they were never likely to agree to specific cuts by then. In fact, though six states have now offered an idea, she said, none of them has formally agreed to the envisioned cuts or specified who among their users would sustain them. Rather, the framework they presented offers Reclamation an alternative that would require continued haggling.
The threat of legal action by California irrigators or others likely will not stop the federal government from acting to save water and protect the dams and their power plants, Porter said. Rather, any legal challenges would likely respond to federal action, only later defining federal authority.
The reality of the river’s 20-year decline and continued overuse requires quick action, Porter said. Otherwise it’s possible Lake Mead will fall below Hoover Dam’s outlets to “dead pool,” a condition that would cut off downstream users regardless of their legal rights.
“It think the action would occur and (then) we would have really interesting briefs to read about whether or not the federal government has authority to act in this situation,” Porter said.
Now the Interior Department and its officials at Reclamation are on the clock for preparing their own option to weigh against the state’s plan by summer. Whatever they choose will is intended to preserve reservoir storage through 2026, when a fuller rewrite of dam-operating rules is due.
Brandon Loomis covers environmental and climate issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @brandonloomis.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Colorado River states, minus California, pitch conservation plan