Potential Water Supply Reductions Proposed for Western States
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Tuesday proposed cutting water allotments from the Colorado River in a potentially precedent-setting bid to save the waterway by dramatically reducing the water Arizona, California and Nevada draw from it.
Along with the Rio Grande River, the 1,450-mile-long Colorado River is considered the lifeblood of the American West.
Its expansive watershed encompasses parts of seven U.S. and two Mexican states.
According to the Nature Conservancy, it supports roughly $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
That’s equivalent to about 1/12 of the total U.S. domestic product.
As it does this, it supplies drinking water to about 40 million Americans and residents of Mexico and irrigates 5.5 million agricultural acres.
Thanks to its large flow and steep gradient, electricity generated by dams on the river’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, provide power to millions of homes and businesses in the Intermountain West.
But climate change, coupled with intensive water consumption, has so dried up stretches of the lower 100 miles of the river that it has rarely reached the Pacific Ocean over the past several decades.
“The period from 2000 through 2022 is the driest 23-year period in more than a century and one of the driest periods in the last 1,200 years,” the Interior Department, which manages the river and its tributaries, said on Tuesday.
So dire has the situation become that the amount of water held in Lake Mead and Lake Powell may soon be too low to turn the turbines that generate the region’s electricity.
“Failure is not an option,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau in a written statement.
On Tuesday afternoon, the department released a 476-page draft analysis proposing three potential approaches to dealing with the crisis.
The first alternative is to take no action, effectively dooming the river to stop flowing.
The second alternative would mandate reductions on water withdrawals from what remains of the water body based on “priority” or the most senior water rights.
That would bode well for California, but effectively doom agricultural and tribal interests in Arizona and Nevada, something the administration is unlikely to allow for a variety of reasons, including the fact both are going to be key swing states in the 2024 election.
The third alternative would impose a system of equal distribution of the water to Arizona, California and Nevada, a move that would reduce water delivered to each of them by as much as 13% — this on top of what each state has previously agreed to in the form of what the department calls “voluntary, measurable reductions in consumptive use.”
It would spread the pain, but also force some key agricultural areas to take a hit they wouldn’t experience under the second alternative.
The situation is further complicated by the fact the Interior Department only has the legal authority to impose water reductions on certain states that get their water from the Colorado River.
Other states, those that draw water directly from the river system rather than Lake Mead or Lake Powell, which include Colorida, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, are immune from the mandated cuts.
The situation came to a head last summer, when Lake Mead plummeted to its lowest elevation since 1937, the year the reservoir was filled for the first time.
Last July, the lake stood at just 1,043 feet above sea level, coming dangerously close to the 1,000-foot threshold required to operate its hydropower turbines.
At the same time, the water elevation at Lake Powell, which feeds hydropower turbines at Glen Canyon Dam, stood at just 26% of its total capacity, according to media reports at the time.
In response, the Interior Department gave the states two months to agree to their own plan for reducing their consumption of water from the Colorado River by at least 20%.
The states initially argued themselves to a standstill. The Interior Department granted them an extension, but again the talks proved fruitless. Instead of finding common ground, six of the seven states that were parties to the talks agreed only one state should curtail its water use.
That state, California, simply balked at the proposal.
“Drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have been two decades in the making. To meet this moment, we must continue to work together, through a commitment to protecting the river, leading with science and a shared understanding that unprecedented conditions require new solutions,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton.
“The draft released today is the product of ongoing engagement with the basin states and water commissioners, the 30 basin tribes, water managers, farmers and irrigators, municipalities and other stakeholders. We look forward to continued work with our partners in this critical moment,” she said.
The draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement will be published in the Federal Register on April 14, 2023, starting the 45-day public comment period.
Paper copies are available for public review at the Lower Colorado Basin Regional Office, 500 Fir Street, Boulder City, Nevada 89005, and at the Upper Colorado Basin Regional Office, 125 South State Street, Room 8100, Salt Lake City, Utah 84138, as well as area offices within the Colorado River Basin.
Written comments on the SEIS should be submitted by May 30, 2023. The department is particularly interested in receiving specific recommendations related to the analyses or alternatives that can be considered and potentially integrated into the SEIS.
The department will also hold four virtual public meetings to provide information on the draft SEIS, answer questions and take verbal comment.
Additional information on the public comment process and the virtual meetings can be found here.