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A bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water line of Lake Mead near water intakes on the Arizona side of Hoover Dam June 26, 2022. The Biden administration on Tuesday released an environmental analysis of competing plans for how Western states and tribes reliant on the dwindling Colorado River should cut their use. (John Locher, AP Photo, File)

The federal government has laid out its ideas for water cuts in the Colorado River Basin, which means time is running out for basin states to agree on a plan of their own.

In Colorado, water officials say the onus is on California and Arizona to make it work.

“This is the federal government saying, ‘We’re going to have to step in if you can’t come up with something for yourselves, and here are the bookends of what we’re looking at,’” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission.

The Colorado River Basin is in the midst of its worst drought in centuries — a drought that threatens local economies, public health, recreation, agriculture, the environment and more for 30 Native American tribes, part of Mexico and seven Western states. 

The basin supplies water for 40 million people, but its key water storage reservoirs have dwindled to crisis levels. States have been in a standoff, debating painful water cuts and methods for replenishing reservoirs. Last week, the federal government stepped in, laying out three options that will have big impacts on both reservoir levels and water supply in the river basin.

The river basin has a system of water storage reservoirs that act as savings banks for water users as the river’s flow fluctuates, but overuse and two decades of sustained drought have caused storage to plummet. The basin’s reservoirs can store up to 60 million acre-feet of water — in mid-March, they held 18.82 million acre-feet, or about 32% of their capacity. One acre-foot can support roughly two households for a year.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, operated by Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam, respectively, store about 83% of the system’s water. If they fall too low, the dams can no longer produce hydroelectric power or release water at all to downstream users in the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

In 2021 and 2022, the water levels at the behemoth reservoirs hovered around crisis points, prompting water officials to trigger emergency releases from upstream reservoirs and launch into new negotiations about deeper water cuts.

“The prolonged drought afflicting the American West is one of the most significant challenges facing our country today,” said Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, during a news conference Tuesday. “We’re in the third decade of a historic drought that has caused conditions that the people who built this system would not have imagined.”

Three options for the Lower Basin

The draft alternatives announced Tuesday came after months of fruitless negotiations among basin states.

In 2022, the federal government said states had a year to cut water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet or the federal government would step in. States could not come to agreement by their August deadline, and in October, the U.S. Department of the Interior decided to take action: It announced it would launch its own process to evaluate new tools to address the water crisis. The goal was to expand the department’s drought-response toolkit and to drive interstate negotiations forward, Beaudreau said.

“The Colorado River Basin includes a myriad of states, tribes, cities, towns, farms and ecosystems,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation. “Fundamentally, it is one community comprised of 40 million people and landscapes that need us to get this right.”

The Interior Department’s 476-page initial review of alternatives, called a draft supplemental environmental impact statement, maps out a potential framework for water operations for Glen Canyon and Hoover dams over the next three years. Members of the public have until May 30 to comment on the draft, which will likely be finalized this summer.

Each alternative calls for water use reductions in Lower Basin states, for which the Interior Department has legal authority over water deliveries. Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — have full authority over how they administer water.

The devil is in the details, though, as each alternative outlines varying degrees of painful water cuts. In one initial alternative, water cuts would be made primarily based on the existing priority system in the basin.

Agencies and entities with older senior rights would see smaller cuts, a boon for some entities, like the agricultural industry in Southern California which helps feed the nation. Water users with more junior rights would see large cuts in how much water they can use — a cause for concern in Arizona, where fast-growing cities like Phoenix and Tucson would be impacted.

A second alternative would distribute water cuts proportionately among the Lower Basin states. This plan would call on all water users to cut water use by about 13% based on a schedule of reductions tied to the levels of Lake Mead.

Proportionate cuts run counter to the longstanding legal precedent to allocate water based on seniority. Although its technical and legal implications are still being reviewed, the alternative wouldn’t, and couldn’t, change the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which forms the foundation of water division in the basin, according to Amy Ostdiek with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

In each alternative, water users would make progressively larger cuts as the level of Lake Mead declines. The total amount of potential cuts in water year 2024, which begins in October, could reach about 2 million acre-feet. The Lower Basin’s total apportionment is 7.5 million acre-feet.

The federal government is also required by law to propose a no-action plan, but federal officials acknowledged Tuesday that it would mean conditions in the basin would continue to deteriorate.

“What I think it shows is that operating the way that we are currently operating does not help the system,” Mitchell said. “Operating in the way we have been operating in the last 20 years is essentially what’s gotten us into this situation.”

The draft environmental analysis incorporates ideas from two separate plans proposed by states in January, Mitchell said. The proportionate-cuts approach aligns with the six-state consensus model put forward by Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and Nevada. California released its own plan, which more closely aligns with the priority-based alternative.

One big takeaway: The draft shows that the Interior Department is ready to call for real reductions to save the system, Mitchell said. The draft plan represents bookends of a range of operational alternatives, and it’s up to California and Arizona to determine how they want to address those bookends.

“We’re pleased to see the focus where it should be, which is reductions in the lower division states, specifically Arizona and California,” Mitchell said. “Those are where the biggest uses are, so the biggest cuts must come from those places that use the most.”

The Hite Marina and boat ramp were closed in July 2022 as water levels dropped at Lake Powell. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Colorado officials hope for consensus

Upper Basin states won’t see their water supplies cut in the final version of the environmental impact statement. They are upstream from Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and their water supply is fed by snowpack.

These states have long argued that they have to live within the limits of the river, while Lower Basin water users have been able to draw from large reservoirs to compensate for the river’s fluctuating flow. In years like 2021 and 2022, when emergency releases from the Upper Basin were required to support the reservoirs, their communities were directly impacted. 

In the Upper Basin, water users suffer regularly, Mitchell said.

“They (Lower Basin states) have not had that experience. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out,” she said.

Leading up to the plan’s release, Colorado water officials focused on how the federal alternatives would address key factors, like water loss due to evaporation and leaky infrastructure. 

Water loss amounts to about 1.5 million acre-feet in the Lower Basin, but California, Arizona and Nevada don’t incorporate the loss into their accounting when they determine water apportionment.

“So we need 9 million acre-feet a year to maintain 7.5 million acre-feet of uses, and that’s a problem,” said Steve Wolff, general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, which spans nine counties in southwestern Colorado. “I think it’s probably the single most important issue to the Upper Basin water users.”

Wolff said the volumes of cuts proposed in the proportionate-cuts alternative is roughly equal to the unaccounted for losses.

“From my perspective, I don’t care what you call it, evaporation and conveyance losses or strawberry shortcake,” he said. “If they’re cutting to the volume they need to, it’s fine.”

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has reservation land in Colorado, declined to comment until staff had more time to analyze the federal alternatives. 

Basin tribes, which collectively have rights to roughly 25% of the Colorado River, have very limited structural inclusion in its operations, so how tribes will be included in the conversation is key, said Daryl Vigil, a member of the Water and Tribes Initiative and the water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation in northern New Mexico.


Rosa Long, chair of the Ten Tribes Partnership, a coalition of basin tribes including those in Colorado, echoed that sentiment during the news conference Tuesday.

“The collaboration between tribal and federal governments is essential in ensuring the long-term health and sustainability (of this) invaluable resource and its success,” said Long, who is vice chairwoman of the Cocopah Indian Tribe located along the Arizona-California border.

Colorado state officials and water agencies are hoping that a seven-state consensus will come out of the federal government’s draft alternatives. 

“We’re encouraged by the focus on reductions for the Lower Basin states, primarily California and Arizona,” Gov. Jared Polis said Friday during a water law symposium at the University of Denver. “The threats to the Colorado River are a reminder of the very real consequences of drought, demographic changes and overuse by the Lower Basin.”

States and stakeholders need to work toward a collaborative solution for managing water scarcity that honors communities, the sovereignty of Native American tribes and the concerns of agricultural producers, said U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper in a prepared statement.

“This year’s good snowpack can’t be an excuse to kick the can down the road,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in a statement. “I continue to urge all seven basin states to come to an agreement. We have no time to lose.”

The Colorado River District, which spans 15 counties in Western Colorado, focused on next steps, like working with other water agencies to analyze the proposals and collect public input, the district said in a prepared statement.

“The Western Slope of Colorado, our district, is the headwaters of that system, and how this system is operated has the potential to impact the water security of our entire state,” it said.

The next step is for Colorado agencies, including those in the Front Range that divert Colorado River Water from the Western Slope, to discuss the alternatives and see if they can agree on an approach. They will likely develop joint comments to submit to the Interior Department, Wolff said.

“Everybody, especially the federal government, is hopeful that all seven states agree on how we can move forward on this,” he said. “That really comes down to California and Arizona finding some space to agree to things that came out in the California and the six-state proposals.”

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Shannon MullaneWater Reporter

Shannon Mullane writes about Western water issues for The Colorado Sun. She focuses on the Colorado River Basin, tribal affairs related to water, and West Slope water issues. Born in East Tennessee, Shannon has been in Colorado for a decade or so and is holding down the fort in Durango,...