The Interior Department is considering forcing lower Colorado River Basin states to bear the burden of water shortages over the next three years. 

In a draft supplemental Environmental Impact Statement released Tuesday, the department’s Bureau of Reclamation proposed three alternatives – the standard “no action” alternative, another one based on water rights seniority, and one that simply would have all states shoulder future shortages evenly. 

Interior spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said despite remarks made by DOI Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, the department is not leaning toward any particular option. The draft impact statement doesn't contain a “preferred alternative,” but the final version will, she said. 

Beaudreau told the New York Times he was “pretty comfortable” an equal distribution of cuts would comply with the law and prevent the water levels of Lakes Mead and Powell from falling further.

Initial reaction was muted, with stakeholders in the region pledging to continue working toward a long-term solution for the parched basin. States, utilities and users have so far not been able to come up with an agreement.

“California remains committed to developing a seven-state consensus that will protect the Colorado River system for the duration of the current guidelines,” Colorado River Board of California Chairman JB Hamby said. “California looks forward to closely coordinating and collaborating with our partners in the other Basin States, Basin Tribes, and Reclamation to review the draft SEIS in full.”

The Arizona Department of Water Resources said it was “encouraged that Reclamation is acting to address the 23-year drought on the Colorado River Basin. One good water year is not enough to protect the system. More action is necessary.”

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The comment deadline on the draft statement is May 30.

“We are reviewing the draft and intend to provide comments to Reclamation within 45 days. We’re hopeful the alternatives that are laid out in the draft (EIS) can help us move toward a seven-state agreement and avoid conflict in the Colorado River basin,” the Arizona agency said.

The seven states that rely on the Colorado River were previously tasked with deciding how and where cuts should be made under the threat of unilateral action from the Bureau of Reclamation. These states, however, have already blown past two deadlines without a unanimous agreement.

The gridlock largely comes down to a feud in the Lower Basin over whether states should adhere to the “first-come-first-serve” system that has governed the river for decades or whether cuts should be divided evenly among each.

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