Colorado River Basin States Reach Accord On Water Reductions

After a year of disputes over Colorado River water consumption restrictions, the seven states that rely on it for survival have agreed to a consensus-based plan proposed by the three Lower Basin states.

The proposal, developed by California, Arizona, and Nevada, would commit the three states to collectively conserving at least 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River system water by the end of 2026 when the Colorado River’s current operating standards are slated to expire.

In a proposal addressed to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, the states stated that at least 1.5 million acre-feet would be conserved by the end of next year.

The Colorado River, which supports about 40 million people throughout the West, is separated into the Lower and Upper basins, encompassing California, Arizona, and Nevada, and Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, respectively.

Each basin will receive 7.5 million acre-feet of water, totaling 15 million. A typical suburban household in the United States uses roughly one acre-foot of water annually.

The Department of the Interior stated Monday that 2.3 million acre-feet of the overall savings would be compensated with government cash from the Inflation Reduction Act to assist near-term water conservation.

“I commend our partners in the seven basin states who have demonstrated leadership and unity of purpose in developing this consensus-based approach to achieve the substantial water conservation necessary to sustain the Colorado River System through 2026,” said Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau.

Almost two months ago, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation produced a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) with proposed alternatives for consumption reductions.

Last year, the seven basin states missed an early mid-August deadline to produce a cohesive plan. Eventually, they agreed to a new goal date of Jan. 31 — knowing that if they failed to reach that one again, the Bureau would likely present its own alternatives.

At the end of January, two competing offers emerged: a single paper from six of the seven states and a separate proposal from California.

Colorado River Basin States Reach Accord On Water Reductions

While the six-state plan intended to spread evaporation losses across the basin, with California receiving the greatest reductions, California’s proposal included higher cutbacks for Arizona.

“California worked hard with our basin states partners to achieve consensus between all seven states to protect the Colorado River system for the duration of the current guidelines,” said JB Hamby, California’s Colorado River Commissioner, in a statement Monday.

 The newly suggested consensus-based action will achieve the goals outlined in the federal SEIS paper. Another benefit of the idea is that it “does not require any unilateral exercise of federal authority to achieve these levels of conservation.”

All seven states urged the Bureau of Reclamation to extend the current draft SEIS comment period, due to end on May 30, in a separate letter accompanying the Lower Basin plan. Instead, they demanded that the SEIS, which includes the Lower Basin designs, be recirculated.

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“California and our partners in Arizona and Nevada have developed a plan to perform and protect the Colorado River system better than either action alternative identified in the current draft SEIS,” Hamby stated.

The California commissioner praised the new plan’s capacity to “generate unprecedented volumes of conservation that will build elevation in Lake Mead,” the Colorado River’s largest reservoir.

Hamby also emphasized the agreement’s potential to “build upon partnerships within and between states, urban water agencies, agricultural irrigation districts, and Basin Tribes who rely on and share the Colorado River.”

The “collaborative nature of this proposal,” according to Tom Buschatzke, head of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, is “the path forward to successful basin management.”

“This proposal provides robust protection for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and will help bolster storage volumes in these two critical reservoirs,” Buschatzke said in a statement.

Nevada’s main Colorado River negotiator, John Entsminger, acknowledged that the plan is “not a panacea for the river.”

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However, he emphasized that it is “a consensus solution that will help manage near-term water demands while serving as a bridge to negotiate the post-2026 operating criteria.”

“The Colorado River Basin has a warmer and drier future ahead of it, and we’re reducing water use and increasing water efficiency,” said Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

“Improving water recycling and reuse is critical to ensuring a sustainable future for the 40 million people who rely on this critical water supply,” he said.

Following the announcement of the agreement, the governors of all three states issued a joint press release expressing their support.

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) commended the water managers for “months of tireless work” and urged the states to “address the long-term issues of climate change and overallocation.”

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