Arizona, other Southwest states agree on new Colorado River water plan
May 22, 2023, 8:16 AM | Updated: 2:04 pm
(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
PHOENIX – Arizona and six other Southwest states that rely on water from the Colorado River have agreed to a new usage proposal, the Biden administration announced Monday.
Arizona, Colorado, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have submitted the plan to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for analysis.
The three Lower Basin states – Arizona, Nevada and California – reached an agreement to conserve an additional 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water by the end of 2026, with half of the savings made by the end of 2024.
“We agreed to a proposal. This is not an agreement,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said during a conference call with reporters. “This is critical to the understanding of what we’ve done here.”
In exchange for temporarily using less water, cities, irrigation districts and Native American tribes in the three states will receive federal funding, though officials did not say how much funding individual users in the states would get.
“This proposal does more than just ‘protect’ elevations in the system’s major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” Buschatzke said in a press release. “It builds critical elevation in both reservoirs.”
The Lower Basin states are entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet of water altogether from the river (an acre-foot is roughly enough to serve two or three U.S. households for a year). But for the past two years, Arizona and Nevada to a lesser degree have not received their full allocations thanks to agreed-upon water cuts to keep more water in the system. California has been spared so far from those cuts thanks to its senior water rights.
“Thanks to the partnership of our fellow Basin States and historic investments in drought funding, we now have a path forward to build our reservoirs back up in the near-term,” Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs said in a press release. “From here, our work must continue to take action and address the long-term issues of climate change and overallocation to ensure we have a sustainable Colorado River for all who rely upon it.”
Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said on Monday that Upper Basin states didn’t have a chance to analyze Arizona, Nevada and California’s plan in detail. The plan doesn’t change how much water the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah or Wyoming will receive.
The Department of the Interior said it will formally advance the process for developing new operating guidelines early next month. The current guidelines were implemented in 2007 and were set to run through 2026. A new plan was necessary sooner because long-term drought put Lake Powell and Lake Mead at risk of falling below levels needed to sustain water deliveries and power production.
“There are 40 million people, seven states and 30 Tribal Nations who rely on the Colorado River Basin for basic services such as drinking water and electricity,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a press release.
“Today’s announcement is a testament to the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to working with states, Tribes and communities throughout the West to find consensus solutions in the face of climate change and sustained drought.”
The Colorado River has been in crisis thanks to a multidecade drought in the West intensified by climate change, rising demand and overuse. Those pressures have sent water levels at key reservoirs along the river to unprecedented lows, though they have rebounded somewhat thanks to heavy precipitation and deep snowpack this winter.
In recent years, the river’s woes have forced the federal government to cut some water allocations, and to offer up billions of dollars to pay farmers and cities to pay farmers, cities and others to cut back.
Last summer, the Bureau of Reclamation called for the seven Colorado River Basin states to figure out how to cut their collective use of the river’s water by about 2 million-4 million acre-feet — or roughly 15% to 30% of their annual use — but states blew past that deadline and an agreement remained elusive for several more months.
In April, the bureau released a plan that considered two ways to force cuts in the Colorado River supply for Arizona, Nevada and California, which make up the river’s Lower Basin.
One contemplated using an decades-old water priority system to reduce usage that would have benefitted California and some Native American tribes with senior water rights. The other would have been a percentage cut across the board to spare Arizona and Nevada – states with lower-priority rights – some pain.
The Interior Department on Monday said it would pull back that proposal so that it could analyze the broader plan submitted by Western states and reissue it later this year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.