Bloomberg Law
Jan. 31, 2023, 2:36 PMUpdated: Jan. 31, 2023, 4:34 PM

California Lone Holdout Amid Colorado River Cuts Consensus (1)

Bobby Magill
Bobby Magill

Six of the seven Colorado River Basin states submitted a consensus proposal to the Bureau of Reclamation for water use cuts from the river late Monday, pitting those states against California, which didn’t sign onto the plan.

California will submit its own plan because the six states’ proposal violates the law, JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California and the state’s Colorado River commissioner, said Tuesday.

The six states that reached a consensus—Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming— are calling for less water to flow downstream from Lake Powell to Nevada, Arizona, and California to ensure that the reservoir’s hydropower turbines at Glen Canyon Dam can continue to generate electricity amid declining lake levels.

The proposal also calls for each of the downstream states to take additional water cuts as Lake Mead’s elevation continues to fall. Lake Mead is the reservoir on the Colorado River that supplies water to Arizona, California, and Nevada.

All downstream water users would take a hit when Lake Mead levels drop to a certain level due to evaporation, according to the proposal. Upstream states, including Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico, would take voluntary cuts depending on hydrologic conditions.

The proposal “appropriately distributes the burden across the Basin and provides safeguards for the Tribes, water users, and environmental values in the Upper Basin,” Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission and director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said in a statement.

California, which has senior water rights on the river, wants neighboring Arizona to cut water before it does. The Bureau of Reclamation’s next steps are unclear as it considers the proposal.

“Water agencies in California will be submitting a proposed modeling framework for additional water use reductions based on what is practical, voluntary and achievable through 2026 in a way that works within the existing body of laws, compacts, decrees, and agreements known collectively as the Law of the River,” Hamby said.

California is committed to finding a solution that doesn’t involve litigation, he said.

Bureau of Reclamation officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Megadrought Causes Shortage

The Colorado River provides water to 40 million people from Denver to Los Angeles, and it’s used to irrigate more than 5 million acres of cropland across the Southwest.

Amid historic low water levels in lakes Mead and Powell in 2022, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation asked states to reduce their water use to protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams. The Colorado River Basin is in the midst of a 23-year megadrought.

The bureau ordered the states to submit a consensus plan for drastic water cuts by the end of January. Without such a plan, the bureau said it would consider imposing cuts on the states—a move the states are trying hard to avoid.

“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.” John Entsminger, Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager, said in a statement.

The proposal was submitted as part of the bureau’s supplemental environmental review of possible updates to a 2007 plan governing water shortages in the Colorado River basin. The review will consider options that would require water use cuts in 2023 and 2024.

(Updated with California official saying the state will submit its own plan.)

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