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Millions in U.S. rely on Colorado River for water. Now they must cut their usage

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The Biden administration released an environmental analysis Tuesday of competing plans for how seven Western states and tribes reliant on the dwindling water supply from the Colorado River should cut their use but declined to publicly take a side on the best option.

On one side is California and some tribes along the river that want to protect their high-priority rights to the river’s water, which they use for drinking and farming. On the other side are the other six states — Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — who say it’s time to come up with an approach that more fairly shares the river.

The Interior Department did not say how states should get to deeper water cuts, but defended its authority to make sure basic needs such as drinking water and hydropower generated from the river are met — even if it means setting aside the priority system.

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“Failure is not an option,” Interior Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau told The Associated Press.

The 1,450-mile (2,334-kilometer) powerhouse of the West serves 40 million people across seven states, which span tribal land, and Mexico, generates hydroelectric power for regional markets, and irrigates nearly 6 million acres (2,428 hectares) of farmland.

A multidecade drought in the West intensified by climate change, rising demand and overuse has sent water levels at key reservoirs along the river to unprecedented lows. That’s forced the federal government to cut some water allocations, and to offer up billions of dollars to pay farmers and cities to cut back.

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Officials expect some relief this year from a series of powerful storms that blanketed California and the Western Rocky Mountains, the main source of the Colorado River’s water. But it’s not clear how that amount of precipitation is affecting negotiations. On Monday, Beaudreau denied that a sense of urgency had gone away after the winter storms, but gave no indication to how the seven states should reach agreement before August, when the agency typically announces water availability for the following year.

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“The snow is great. It’s a godsend. But we’re in the midst of a 23-year drought,” Beaudreau said. He said states, Native American tribes and other water users recognized that it would be in no one’s interest to stall talks because of the winter’s healthy snowpack — which stands at 160% of the median in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

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In January, six of the seven U.S. states that rely on the Colorado River — Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado — outlined how they would conserve significantly more water, but California disagreed with the approach and released its own ideas a day later.

Both plans heeded a call last year from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the major dams in the river system, for states to propose how they would cut their water use by roughly 15% and 30% — in addition to existing water cuts agreed upon in recent years. Each achieve about 2 million acre-feet of cuts, which is at the low end of the requested cuts.

An acre-foot of water is roughly enough to serve 2 to 3 U.S. households annually.

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The lengthy environmental analysis released by the Biden administration explores both options, as well as a third that includes taking no action. States, tribes and other water users now have until May 30 to comment before federal officials announce their formal decision.

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Beaudreau gave no indication of whether the department prefers one approach over the other.

“Some of the commentary has depicted an us-versus-them dynamic in the basin,” Beaudreau said. “I don’t see that at all.”

Arizona and California — on opposite sides of the divergent plans — are looking at how to develop “a true seven-state consensus in the coming months,” said JB Hamby, who chairs the Colorado River Board of California. “Ideally in this next 45-day period, if at all possible.”

Among the main differences between the two plans is whether states should account for the vast amount of water lost along the Colorado River basin to evaporation and leaky infrastructure as it flows through the region’s behemoth dams and waterways.

Federal officials say more than 10% of river water evaporates, leaks, and spills _ yet Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico have never accounted for that loss.

California disagreed with that approach. That’s because the state has senior rights to Colorado River water and because of its location, would lose a significant amount of water if such losses were counted. The further south the river travels, more water evaporates — meaning that if evaporation losses were counted, California, Arizona, and Mexico would stand to lose more than states further north.

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The Quechan tribe along the Arizona-California border also opposes that plan because of its priority water rights.

“We’ve got senior water rights and last we checked, we still live in a priority-based system,” said Jay Weiner, the tribe’s attorney.

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The six states and California also disagree about when more water cuts should be triggered at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the largest human-made reservoirs in the U.S. that serve as barometers of the river’s health.

Arizona and Nevada have more junior water rights than California, and supported a plan that shared water cuts amid worsening drought on a pro-rata basis. California has offered to voluntarily cut its use by 400,000 acre-feet, but the state wants bigger cuts from Arizona and Nevada. California officials have indicated they’ll pursue legal challenges if the federal government ignores its priority right to water.

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Reclamation also didn’t say how Mexico might contribute to the savings, but that discussions are ongoing. The country is entitled to 1.5 million acre feet of water each year under a treaty reached with the U.S. in 1944. In recent years, Mexico has participated in water savings plans with the U.S. amid worsening drought in both countries.

Naishadham reported from Washington, D.C.

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