Feds are preparing to order water cuts for Utah, other states that depend on the Colorado River

washington • The seven states that depend on water from the shrinking Colorado River are unlikely to agree to voluntarily sharply reduce their water use, negotiators say, which would force the federal government to impose water supply cuts for 40 million Americans for the first time.

The Interior Department had asked states to voluntarily submit a plan by Jan. 31 to collectively reduce the amount of water they get from the Colorado. Demand for these cuts on a scale unparalleled in US history was prompted by sharp declines in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which supply water and power to Arizona, Nevada and southern California. Drought, climate change and population growth are causing the water levels in the lakes to drop sharply.

“Think of the Colorado River Basin as a slow-motion catastrophe,” said Kevin Moran, who leads the state and federal water policy advocacy group at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We really are in a moment of reckoning.”

Negotiators say the chances of a voluntary agreement appear slim. It would be the second time in six months that Colorado River states, which also include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, have missed a deadline for a consensus on cuts the Biden administration is seeking to make by one to avoid catastrophic failure of the river system.

Without a deal, the Home Office, which manages flows on the river, will have to push through the cuts. This would break with the centuries-old tradition of states sharing the waters of the river. And it would all but ensure that the government’s increasingly urgent effort to save the Colorado would be embroiled in lengthy legal battles.

The Colorado River crisis is the latest example of how climate change is overwhelming the very foundations of American life — not just the physical infrastructure like dams and reservoirs, but the legal foundations that have made those systems work.

A century of legislation that gives users of the Colorado River different priorities based on how long they’ve been using the water faces a competing philosophy that says water cuts as climate change accompanies water cuts should be shared on practical grounds.

The outcome of this dispute will shape the future of the American Southwest.

“We use more water than nature provides,” said Eric Kuhn, who worked on previous water contracts as general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Somebody’s going to have to cut back a lot.”

(John Burcham | New York Times File) The Colorado River flows through the Grand Canyon in Arizona, March 7, 2020. Seven states that rely on the river for a water source should voluntarily make cuts. Now it looks as if the government will have to implement cuts.

There isn’t enough water (and probably never was)

The rules governing who gets water from the Colorado River and how much has always been based to some degree on magical thinking.

In 1922, states along the river negotiated the Colorado River Compact, which divided the water between two groups of states. The so-called upper basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) would receive 7.5 million acre-feet per year. The lower basin (Arizona, California, and Nevada) totals 8.5 million acre-feet. A later treaty guaranteed Mexico, where the river meets the sea, 1.5 million acre-feet.

(An acre of water is enough water to cover one acre of land with one foot of water. That’s about as much water as two typical households use in a year.)

But the premise that the river would flow an average of 17.5 million acre-feet each year turned out to be wrong. In the past century, the river’s actual flow rate was less than 15 million acre-feet per year.

For decades, this gap was obscured by the fact that some users of the river, including Arizona and some Native American tribes, lacked the canals and other infrastructure to use their entire allotment. But as that infrastructure grew, so did demand on the river.

Then the drought struck. From 2000 to 2022, the river’s annual flow was just over 12 million acre-feet. In each of the last three years, the total flow has been less than 10 million.

The Bureau of Reclamation, an office of the Interior Department that manages the river system, has attempted to offset this loss of water by urging states to reduce their use. In 2003, California, which had exceeded its annual allotment, the largest in the basin, was urged to stick to that limit. In 2007 and again in 2019, the department negotiated between states for even deeper cuts.

It wasn’t enough. Last summer, Lake Mead’s water level dropped to 1,040 feet above sea level, its lowest level on record.

If the water level drops below 950 feet, the Hoover Dam can no longer generate hydroelectric power. At 895 feet, no water would be able to pass the dam at all – a condition known as “deadpool.”

In June, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille C. Touton gave states 60 days to come up with a plan to reduce their use of Colorado River water by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet — about 20% to 40% to be submitted % of the total flow of the river.

Touton stressed that she prefers that the states work out a solution. But if they didn’t, she said the Bureau would act.

“It’s up to our authorities to act unilaterally to protect the system,” Touton told lawmakers. “And we will protect the system.”

The 60-day period came and went. States did not produce a plan for the cuts requested by the bureau. And the bureau did not come up with a plan of its own.

A spokeswoman for Touton said she could not be reached for comment.

“You can’t take blood from a stone”

The department’s latest request and the new deadline set for Jan. 31 has prompted a new round of negotiations and finger-pointing between the states.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming argue that they cannot reduce their water content significantly. These states get their water primarily from the river flow rather than from huge reservoirs like in the lower basin states. As the drought reduces that flow, the amount of water they use is already down to about half their allotment, officials said.

“Clearly, the lion’s share of what needs to be done needs to be done by the lower basin states,” said Estevan López, chief negotiator for New Mexico, who headed the Bureau of Reclamation during the Obama administration.

Also, not much of the solution can come from Nevada, which is allocated just 300,000 acre feet from Colorado. Even if the state’s water supplies were cut off completely and Las Vegas became effectively uninhabitable, the government would get little closer to its goal.

According to John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Nevada has already imposed some of the most aggressive water conservation strategies on the basin. The state has even banned some types of lawns.

“We use two-thirds of our allocation,” Entsminger said in an interview. “You can’t draw blood from a stone.”

Farms versus subdivisions

That leaves California and Arizona, which have rights to 4.4 million and 2.8 million acre-feet of Colorado — typically the largest and third-largest parcels among the seven states. Negotiators on both sides seem convinced of one thing: the other state should come up with more cuts.

In California, the largest water user of the Colorado River is the Imperial Irrigation District, owning rights to 3.1 million acre-feet – as much as Arizona and Nevada combined. This water lets farmers grow alfalfa, lettuce and broccoli on about 800 square miles of the Imperial Valley in the southeast corner of California.

According to JB Hamby, vice president of the Imperial Irrigation District and chair of the Colorado River Board of California, which is being negotiated, California has priority water rights to Arizona, which means Arizona’s supply should be cut before California is forced to make cuts in the Country.

“We have a solid legal basis,” Hamby said in an interview. He said fast-growing Arizona should have been prepared for the Colorado River to dry up. “It’s kind of a responsibility on your part to plan for those risk factors.”

Tina Shields, head of Imperial’s water department, put the argument more bluntly. It would be hard to tell California farmers who depend on the Colorado River to stop growing crops, she said, “so other people can keep building subdivisions.”

Still, Hamby acknowledged that significantly reducing water supplies for large urban populations in Arizona would be “a little difficult.” California has offered to reduce its water use from the Colorado River by up to 400,000 acre-feet — up to a fifth of the cuts the Biden administration has sought.

If the government wants to impose deeper cuts in California, it’s welcome to try, he said.

“Reclamation can do what Reclamation wants,” Hamby said. “The question is, will it stand up to legal challenge?”

justice against the law

Across the Colorado, Arizona, officials concede that the laws governing the river may not work in their favor. But they have their own arguments.

Arizona’s status as a junior rights holder was cemented in 1968 when Congress agreed to pay for the Central Arizona Project, an aqueduct that would carry water from Colorado to Phoenix and Tucson and surrounding farms.

But the money had a catch. In exchange for their support, California lawmakers insisted on a provision that their state’s water rights take precedence over the aqueduct.

If Arizona could have predicted that climate change would permanently reduce the river’s flow rate, it might never have agreed to that deal, said Tom Buschatzke, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources.

Because of its juvenile rights, Arizona has taken the brunt of recent rounds of voluntary cuts. The state’s position now, said Buschatzke, is that everyone should make a meaningful contribution and no one should lose everything. “It’s a fair result, even if it’s not necessarily strictly legal.”

There are other arguments for Arizona. About half of the water supplied by the Central Arizona Project goes to Native American tribes — including those in the Gila River Indian Community, which is entitled to 311,800 acre-feet per year.

The United States cannot cut off that water, said Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community. “That would be a rejection of the fiduciary duty that the federal government has for our water.”

In an interview this week, Tommy Beaudreau, assistant secretary of the Home Office, said the federal government will consider “equity, public health and safety” when considering how to distribute the cuts.

The department will compare California’s preference for cuts based on seniority of water rights with Arizona’s proposal to cut allotments to “meet the basic needs of lower basin communities,” Beaudreau said.

“We are in a 23-year period of sustained drought and system overruns,” he added. “I’m not interested in finger pointing under the circumstances.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/nation-world/2023/01/27/feds-prepare-order-water-cuts/ Feds are preparing to order water cuts for Utah, other states that depend on the Colorado River

Justin Scaccy

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