Colorado River Basin states fail to reach drought agreement

After Colorado River Basin states missed an emergency drought reduction deadline on Tuesday, the US Bureau of Reclamation announced new emergency water cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico as the country’s two largest reservoirs plummet to dangerously low levels .

The seven states that depend on the water of the Colorado River were told two months ago they should develop plans to drastically reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, but those talks turned acrid. At a Tuesday news conference, federal officials said a deal was urgently needed and that it was declaring a Tier 2 shortage for next year — a historic first for the shrinking river.

“To avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River system and a future of insecurity and conflict, water use in the basin must be reduced,” said Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science.

Under Tier 2 scarcity conditions, Arizona’s annual water allocation is reduced by 21%, Nevada’s by 8%, and Mexico’s by 7%. No water savings contribution is required for California.

“The risks we see for the system are based on the best available science that we have seen – and those risks have not changed. So today we are starting the process and more information will follow about the actions we will be taking in this process,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation.

The river’s two main reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — are now nearly three-quarters empty and are expected to continue to sink. As a result, the Biden administration ordered states to come up with a plan that would reduce the total amount of water diverted by about 15 to 30 percent.

The lack of an agreement between states now increases the risk that the Colorado River Crisis – caused by chronic overexploitation, global warming and the West’s drying climate – could become a legal morass. At the same time, Home Office officials have warned they stand ready to make cuts if necessary to protect reservoir levels.

Asked by reporters on Tuesday whether the federal government was prepared to order further unilateral cuts, Touton said: “I want to continue to urge the need for a partnership in the basin and the need to work together and find a consensus solution, not just for the next year, but for the future.”

Those involved in the negotiations say there have been difficult discussions between states and between urban and agricultural water districts. There were also growing tensions between the states of the river’s lower basin – California, Arizona, and Nevada – and those of the upper basin – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah.

Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau told reporters that the federal government will continue to work with the states to develop a consensus solution.

“As dire as the situation is, there are reasons for encouragement,” he said. “While there is still work to be done, states have come together to try to work out voluntary solutions. It’s a complex environment.”

Tensions between the states remain high, however, as Arizona and Nevada have already weathered a previous round of water reductions. They say other states need to do more.

On Tuesday, U.S. Senator Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland arguing that farmers, major cities and tribes in his state had already reduced their water use faster and to a greater extent than other states in the basin .

“Arizona has offered to put more wet water on the table than any other state, while other parties have offered a fraction of the same amount,” Kelly wrote.

This sentiment was echoed in a joint statement by Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project: “It is unacceptable that Arizona should continue to impose a disproportionate burden of reductions on the benefits of others, who have contributed nothing.”

In California, the Imperial Irrigation District – which controls about a fifth of all water rights on the Colorado River – and the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California issued statements saying they would continue to work towards a joint solution.

The MWD – which provides drinking water for 19 million people – said it appreciated the “limited extension” federal officials had granted them to try to reach a deal and warned water users to brace themselves for permanently reduced supplies.

“As these discussions continue, we urge all who depend on Colorado River water, including communities throughout Southern California, to permanently prepare for reduced supplies from this source,” wrote MWD Director General Adel Hagekhalil. “This is not simply a drought that will end and allow reservoirs to recover on their own — this is a drying up of the Colorado River Basin. We will all have to live with less. If we work together, we know we can overcome this challenge.”

The water cuts announced on Tuesday were agreed by the states of the Colorado River Basin under a 2019 accord known as the Drought Emergency Plan, while Mexico’s water cuts will be governed by a separate binational pact. Although California avoided water cuts, if reservoir levels continue to drop, it could be next in line to reduce its consumption.

The ominous reservoir projections and water impasse in several states have underscored the importance of investing in drought resilience and water stewardship. On Tuesday, President Biden signed the Comprehensive Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $4 billion in funding for water stewardship and efforts to protect water in the Colorado River drainage basin and other areas with similar drought conditions.

Much of this money will be used to pay farmers and others to voluntarily use less water. Under a proposal from Arizona farmers, participating growers would forgo 1 acre-foot of water for every acre of farmland, yielding approximately 925,000 acre-feet savings.

Last November, Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides $8.3 billion to address drought-related challenges in western water and power infrastructure.

On Tuesday, environmental groups expressed frustration at the lack of progress by state leaders and water managers and called on upper basin states to make voluntary sacrifices for the well-being of the watershed.

“I think the office has created a space where people can come together, sit around a table and negotiate a deal like adults,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. “But from what I’m hearing… it’s like the kids don’t play well together in the sandbox. And we always hear from these performances that everyone sings kumbaya and it’s so wonderful and great to work together. How many times have we heard that, but they’re actually sharpening their knives?”

Roerink and others said they fear that without a settlement, the matter will become mired in litigation and lengthy court proceedings.

“I think everyone prepares for the worst when it comes to their own interests, but they don’t necessarily prepare for the worst when it comes to the interests of the river,” Roerink said.

As cuts are demanded from agriculture and municipal systems, some activists have called on regulators to review the way the tourism and leisure industries are using water.

“We also need to address the fact that in the Coachella Valley, for example, there are at least 124 golf courses that I can explain, countless water parks, and then there are the Disney operations that have their own lagoons and lakes,” he told Robin Silver , co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“This is the desert. It’s time to grow up.”

Times staffer Ian James contributed to this report. Colorado River Basin states fail to reach drought agreement

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