The Bureau of Reclamation is laying out two sharply different alternatives for future Colorado River water cuts: Prioritize reductions based on water rights seniority — California’s preferred option — or distribute cuts evenly across all Lower Basin water users.
The agency included both options in a draft environmental impact statement on Tuesday amid gridlock in state discussions over plans for cutting between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet of water to preserve operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
The proposals highlight the fault line that has become apparent during state-level discussions over the future of the river. Officials from California, the largest user of water on the river, have previously expressed support for using the “first-come, first-serve" system that has governed water rights in the river for decades. Negotiators from neighboring Arizona, under pressure to save the low-priority Central Arizona Project, prefer for cuts to be distributed evenly throughout the basin.
Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau told the New York Times Tuesday that he was “pretty comfortable” the equal distribution approach would protect water levels and comply with the law. But Interior spokesperson Melissa Schwartz stressed to Agri-Pulse that the department is not leaning toward any particular option.
The agency has “no preferred alternative,” Schwartz says.
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.
California is the river’s largest water user, with a 4.4-million-acre-foot allocation. Many of the state’s water users have long-standing rights to water from the river, and California water officials have tightly guarded their current level of access in negotiations.
J.B. Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said in a statement Tuesday that the board “remains committed” to reaching a consensus with other states in the basin. He didn’t say which approach he supported.
Arizona is allocated around 2.85 million acre-feet of water annually, though it has already lost 592,000 acre-feet of that. Most of these cuts came from the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile aqueduct system that delivers Colorado River water to central and southern Arizona.
Congressional approval of the aqueduct in 1968 required Arizona’s lawmakers to make one concession: In a time of drought, the Central Arizona Project would be the first lower basin user to take cuts. But because it is a primary water source for the fast-growing metropolitan regions of Phoenix and Tucson, as well as for tribes in the region, state officials are worried about water levels dropping low enough to cut off access to the reservoir entirely.
The Arizona Department of Water Resources said Tuesday it is “encouraged” by Reclamation’s decision to release a draft environmental impact statement, saying long-term action is “necessary” for protecting the system.
“As we have said in the past, burdens associated with managing risks on the Colorado River must be shared across all sectors and by all water users,” the agency said.
The “rights-based approach” also seems to have support from the Family Farm Alliance, a group of farmers, ranchers and irrigation districts focused on irrigation-related issues.
The alliance's executive director, Dan Keppen, said in a statement to Agri-Pulse that the organization believes the use of water resources must “be based in existing state and interstate water law.”
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“A commitment to work within the framework of existing appropriative systems, rather than pursuing a new system that circumvents current water rights allocation and administration, provides the only certainty required to make responsible, long-term water management decisions,” Keppen said.
In previous discussions, Arizona officials have called for California to take a larger share of cuts due to its large allocation. California publicly offered to make a 400,000-acre-foot reduction in January, but the state opposes larger cuts.
Arizona, Nevada and the Upper Basin states found common ground in late January with a proposed “Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative,” after failing to agree on a solution last August.
The plan 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.
But California water officials were dissatisfied with this proposal and presented their own plan, which aimed 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. The California plan also calls for making changes to Lake Powell operational tiers and releases and modifying shortage conditions.
Ahead of Tuesday's release of the draft environmental impact statement, the Biden administration announced more than $340 million in projects aimed at conserving water in the basin.
As much as $233 million is going to the Gila River Indian Community, with $83 million going to a water pipeline project that will reuse about 20,000 acre-feet of water per year in Lake Mead.
More than $54 million will go to 14 projects in the basin that will improve water delivery and storage infrastructure, water treatment and improve hydropower generation. The Bureau of Reclamation is also working on an agreement with California’s Imperial Irrigation District to conserve 250,000 acre-feet of water per year from 2023 through 2026.
Some $36 million is designated for water conservation in California’s Coachella Valley, and another $20 million is designated for four small projects in California and Utah for both surface water and groundwater storage.
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