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The Colorado River flows along Interstate 70 inside Glenwood Canyon on Aug. 13, 2021, near Glenwood Springs, Colo.
The Colorado River flows along Interstate 70 inside Glenwood Canyon on Aug. 13, 2021, near Glenwood Springs, Colo. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

California water agencies that use Colorado River water indicated Wednesday they’d be willing to cut 400,000 acre-feet of water use annually starting next year and running through 2025 — a move a top Upper Basin water official cast as a promising development in the negotiations over the future of the river. 

“All in all, it appears to be an encouraging first step,” said Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, an interstate agency that manages water in the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. 

The California water users outlined their new position in a letter sent Wednesday to the U.S. Department of Interior. “This water, which would otherwise be used by California’s communities and farms, will meaningfully contribute to stabilizing the Colorado River reservoir system,” the water agencies wrote in the letter. 

A 400,000 acre-feet reduction in an annual use by California equates to about one-tenth of the state’s overall Colorado River supply. 

In June, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton called for 2 million to 4 million acre-feet in cuts in Colorado River use by the end of next year to prevent the system from reaching “critically low water levels.” The system supplies water and generates electricity for millions of users across the West.

In July, the Upper Basin states submitted a plan to conserve water that included restarting a water conservation project known as the System Conservation Pilot Program, which paid farmers to leave fields fallow. The original Upper Basin-wide effort ran from 2015 to 2018, spent about $8 million and reduced consumptive use by roughly 50,000 acre-feet.

Until now, however, the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada had not — either collectively or individually — directly proposed to the federal government a plan for Colorado River cuts.

“We applaud California’s intention to conserve water and look forward to better understanding how this conservation will be achieved and its impact on elevations at Lake Mead,” Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell said in a written statement. 

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead also said he was encouraged by the letter. 

“All eyes have been on California and Arizona, as these are the areas where major reductions in demand are going to have to occur to help bring the system into balance,” Lochhead said. “To me the letter represents a very positive step.”

Denver Water, which serves about 1.5 million people, gets roughly half of its supply from the Colorado River. 

“I view it as a good-faith overture to begin discussions,” Lochhead said.

Last month, Denver was part of a coalition of Western cities, including Colorado Springs, Aurora, Pueblo, Las Vegas and some Southern California municipalities, that pledged to introduce or ramp up programs to remove nonfunctional turf grass. In Colorado, municipal water use takes up about 5% to 8% of the available water statewide; agriculture can use up to 85%.

The California letter does not mention specifically how the agencies would reduce water use by the proposed amount. “We have identified a collection of proposed water conservation and water use reduction opportunities that would yield approximately 400,000 acre-feet of System Conservation water supplies that could be retained in Lake Mead each year through 2026,” the letter reads. 

California’s annual Colorado River water allotment totals 4.4 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is enough to supply about two to three households a year. 

Given the magnitude of the problem, 400,000 acre-feet is a “modest” number, Cullom said. 

Cullom said he would like to see the 400,000 acre-feet proposed by California be in addition to the federal government accounting for water lost to evaporation and transit in the Lower Basin. He said the Bureau of Reclamation estimates that figure at about 1.2 million acre-feet annually, but that the Lower Basin states do not currently have to account for that water loss. 

“That gets you to 1.6 million,” Cullom said. “More needs to happen in the Lower Basin and we look forward to the Lower Basin putting a more complete package together. The expectation is that that would be in excess of 2 million acre-feet combined.” 

Cullom said that California putting a specific number on the amount of water they are willing to cut does not change the Upper Basin’s plan submitted to the federal government this summer. Cullom reiterated a point made often by Upper Basin water managers: Farmers and ranchers in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico must deal with variable supplies each year due to drought and other factors while at the same time producers in the Lower Basin have received a fixed water supply.

“They’re approaching farmers and growers who in California have not seen a reduction in water supply,” Cullom said. “We’re approaching farmers and ranchers who are sustaining reductions every year and are uncompensated for those reductions.”

Earlier this year, Cullom presented provisional numbers that showed Upper Basin water use declined by about 1 million acre-feet from 2020 to 2021, dropping to 3.5 million acre-feet. At the same time, water use in the Lower Basin increased to roughly 10.5 million acre-feet after accounting for evaporation losses, Cullom said. The figure includes Mexico’s allotment. 

“The Upper Basin is committed to our plan,” Cullom said. “We were committed to it with or without the work coming out of California. But our hope is that the Lower Basin collectively will develop a more comprehensive plan that, along with evaporation and other reductions, starts to achieve the range that Commissioner Touton outlined in June.”

Chris Outcalt covered Western water issues for The Colorado Sun until December 2022. He began his journalism career in New Hampshire, then moved West and became a reporter at the Lafayette News. He also was an associate editor at 5280 and a...