States miss deadline to reach deal on Colorado River water

Seven states that depend on the Colorado River failed to agree on plans to reduce water use by a Tuesday deadline, raising the prospect of more friction as the West grapples with how to manage the dwindling river.

In an effort to sway federal officials after contentious talks stalled, six of seven states submitted a last-minute proposal outlining possible cuts to help prevent reservoirs from falling dangerously low, proposing a A united front while ruling out California, which uses the lion’s share of the river.

Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are calling their plan a “consensus-based modeling alternative” that could serve as a framework for negotiating a solution. The US Bureau of Reclamation set an end-January deadline for seven states to reach consensus. But California officials objected to accounting for evaporation and other water losses in the lower basin of the river, because such a change would translate into larger supply cuts in the state.

In announcing the proposal Monday, Arizona Department of Water Director Tom Buschatzke called it a critical step in an “ongoing dialogue” among the seven states as “we continue to seek collaborative solutions to stabilize the Colorado River system.”

“While our goal remains the seven-state agreement, developing and submitting this consensus-based alternative is a positive step forward,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, as federal officials expedite the review to Revise existing rules for dealing with shortages.

Federal officials told the region’s water managers at a meeting in mid-December that they would weigh near-term options to protect the levels of reservoirs that have dried up this year and that the region must prepare for rivers permanently reduced by climate change Prepare.

The country’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are now about three-quarters empty. The river, which supplies cities, farming regions and tribal nations from Wyoming to the U.S.-Mexico border, has been pushed to breaking point by chronic overuse, years of drought and global warming.

Nevada submitted a proposal to the federal government last month that includes starting to account for water lost to reservoirs and along rivers to evaporation in the three lower basin states, California, Arizona and Nevada. But the latest talks in Denver last week ended with the states still at an impasse, said Bart Fisher, president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District Commission in California.

“It becomes combative and hostile rather than cooperative for consensus,” Fisher said. “No one wants their cattle to be jacked. So everyone retreats to their corners and focuses on the biggest target, which is California.”

Fisher and other California officials said they are working on a proposal they plan to submit to the federal government. Farmers in the Valley of the Kings, who have advanced water rights and use the lion’s share of the river’s water supply, have offered to reduce their water supply in exchange for compensation. But they argue that the water rights priority system should be maintained and respected, and that cities with secondary water rights, such as cities in Arizona, should get bigger cuts first.

“Other states are trying to profit by urging the federal government to ignore existing laws and do some redistribution of the river to their own advantage, as an alternative to working together to reach a common understanding,” Fisher said.

“In the situation we face today, of course, rivers are everywhere. We have to adjust demand to match supply.”

Federal officials in June called on seven states to develop plans to drastically reduce water diversion by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet a year, a reduction of about 15% to 25%. But negotiations between the states have become tense and heated, and no agreement has been reached.

In October, the Biden administration announced plans to revise existing rules for dealing with water scarcity and seek new agreements to achieve greater reductions in water use. Interior Department officials said they would consider alternatives to reduce emissions during the review and would likely need to significantly reduce the release of water from Glen Canyon Dam, where water levels have dropped so low that the dam is no longer able to generate electricity.

So far, four California water districts — Imperial Irrigation District, Southern California Metropolitan Water District, Palo Verde Irrigation District and Coachella Valley Water District — have proposed reducing water use by up to 400,000 acre-feet annually. That would account for about 9 percent of the state’s total water allocation from the river over the next four years through 2026.

But politicians and officials in other states have called for deeper cuts by California water agencies.

Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Arizona) sounded tough on California while urging the Bureau of Reclamation to consider the six-state proposal.

“The depletion of the Colorado River is a slow-moving natural disaster — threatening the livelihoods of 40 million people in seven basin states,” Stanton said. “While many states have worked together to reach an agreement that works for everyone, the California refuses to do its part.”

Stanton urged the federal government to take action, saying: “We cannot wait any longer.”

Officials representing the six states said their proposal would help protect water supplies and hydropower production, and would reduce the risk of reservoirs degrading into “dead pools,” the point at which water no longer flows downstream.

The proposal outlines cuts for Arizona, California and Nevada beyond what those three states had previously agreed to. It calls for an account for more than 1.5 million acre-feet of water loss, primarily due to evaporation. The proposal also calls for various efforts, including “additional voluntary conservation measures,” to be implemented in the four upper basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

The approach “appropriately distributes the burden” to the Colorado River Basin, said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Council.

Brenda Burman, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, said the region needs to move on and “lay the groundwork for finding durable long-term solutions.”

“We have a lot of work to do, and this is a critical next step,” Berman said.

Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, said California water managers have spent the past two months working with their counterparts to “develop consensus-based alternatives.”

“While we couldn’t agree on alternatives across all seven states,” Hagekhalil said, “we did agree on the emissions reductions that needed to be modeled.”

The main hurdle, he said, is “the need to allocate and allocate cuts prematurely, before modeling the outcome.”

“California recognized many years ago that climate change would have an impact on this vital water supply and has made significant investments to improve efficiency,” he said.

Elizabeth Koebele, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, said the task of reaching an agreement was complicated by the need to manage currently depleted reservoirs while also preparing to negotiate long-term rules after the guidelines expire in 2026, Reno.

“I don’t think the states want to say, ‘We’re going to give up X amount of water,’ and show their cards on that, because my hunch is that it sets a precedent for what they might give up after 2026,” Koebele said. “That’s what makes this so challenging because we’re also trying to put out the fires while thinking about long-term sustainability.”

While it’s unlikely that the Bureau of Reclamation will adopt the six-state proposal, which would almost certainly mean a lawsuit from California, Koebele said that doesn’t mean the program is worthless. She said it was both strategic and substantive.

“It puts hard numbers on what other basin states expect California to cut, and frankly, that cuts a lot of water right away,” Koebele said. “It puts the ball in California’s courts to respond.”

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