Six Colorado River states remain at odds with California over proposals for how to conserve between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of water, leaving the decision in the hands of the Bureau of Reclamation. 

The agency had given the seven states until Tuesday to agree on water usage cuts that are needed to preserve water levels in lakes Mead and Powell.

The disagreement hinges on a new apportionment method based on "system and evaporative losses," which was included in a "Consensus Based Modeling Alternative" drafted by the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. 

California offered a rival proposal on Jan. 31. In a letter to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, California officials argue that the six-state plan conflicts with the current legal and water rights systems governing the river's allocations and does not provide the tools for the states to manage the proposed cuts. 

"California has done its part and is willing to do more, but it’s time for the other states to step up and create their own conservation programs that sustain the quality of life in their communities,” Jim Madaffer, vice chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said in a release

The six states' Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative would require Arizona to reduce its use by 93,000 acre-feet, Nevada to reduce its use by 10,000 acre-feet and California to reduce its water use by 147,000 acre-feet if the elevation of Lake Mead dropped below 1,030 feet. If Lake Mead’s elevation were to fall below 1,020 feet, Arizona would lose 75,000 acre-feet, Nevada would lose 8,000 acre-feet, and California would lose 117,000 acre-feet.

The three states would also have to make any other reductions necessary to keep Lake Mead’s elevation above 1,000 feet.

When the plan was introduced, water officials from all six states emphasized that is not a formal agreement and merely an “alternative framework for Reclamation to analyze in its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement process.” They believe, however, that it is a potential solution for protecting both Glen Canyon and Hoover dams from dead-pool conditions.

“While our goal remains achieving a seven-state agreement, developing and submitting this consensus-based alternative is a positive step forward in a multi-phased environmental review process critical to protecting the Colorado River system,” said John Ensminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and Nevada’s primary Colorado River negotiator.

California's plan, on the other hand, is meant to keep Lake Mead's elevation at 1,000 feet and Lake Powell's at 3,500 feet by discontinuing the use of "operational neutrality" — or making operational determinations based on a formula that does not include cuts to the system that take effect in the upcoming year. It also calls for making changes to Lake Powell operational tiers and releases and modifying shortage conditions. 

California's plan does not specify which states should experience cuts, but instead says reductions should be applied using existing authorities.

The current conflict goes back to a long-standing feud — and what J.B. Hamby, the current chair of the Colorado River Board of California has referred to as "bad blood" — between California and Arizona. California holds "senior rights" to water from the river. Arizona has historically also had long-standing rights to the water, ceded some of them to build the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile canal system that delivers water to Central and Southern Arizona. 

Existing water law calls for the Central Arizona Project to take all drought-related cuts before other parts of the basin. But because it is a primary water source for the fast-growing metropolitan regions of Phoenix and Tuscon, as well as a source of water for tribes in the region, state officials are worried about water levels dropping low enough to cut off access to the reservoir entirely. 

Arizona farmers that rely on the aqueduct system have already lost their access entirely. 

In previous discussions Arizona officials have called for California to take a larger share of cuts, since it is allocated 4.4 million acre-feet, the largest amount of any state. But while California had offered to make a 400,000 acre-foot reduction in previous discussions, it vigorously resisted larger reductions.

The Bureau of Reclamation previously set an Aug. 15 deadline for negotiations over the same 2 to 4 million acre-foot cuts. But Arizona, Nevada and California failed to agree on how much water each needed to give and emerged from the discussions empty handed.

Officials from all seven Colorado River Basin states have indicated they would continue the current talks. 

But California leaders seems ready to push back.

While noting that “no state will be spared from water reductions,” U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla (both D-Calif.) noted in a statement yesterday that California was the first state to come forward with a voluntary plan to reduce water use.

“But six other Western states dictating how much water California must give up simply isn’t a genuine consensus solution – especially coming from states that haven’t offered any new cuts to their own water usage. The proposal further fails to recognize California’s senior legal water rights.

New Mexico Colorado River Commissioner Estavan Lopez said in a statement that the “process to prepare a proposal in such a short timeframe was imperfect” and that all seven states would need to continue discussions as they continued on the path forward. 

“We have much more to do, but the CBMA is a tremendous step in the right direction,” Lopez said.

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