Arizona, California and Nevada made waves when, after tense disagreement, they finally agreed on a plan to cut Colorado River Basin water use in response to the ongoing megadrought.
Colorado officials would like one thing to be clear: They haven’t agreed to the plan, but they do want to see what an upcoming federal review from the Bureau of Reclamation turns up.
“We have not agreed to anything,” said Amy Ostdiek with the state’s top water agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “What we have agreed to is that Reclamation should analyze this proposal. … At that time, we can better understand it and our positions on it.”
The Colorado River Basin is in an ongoing, sustained drought which, alongside overuse and faulty management guidelines, sent the basin’s water storage system to the brink of collapse in 2021 and 2022. The crisis ramped up negotiations among basin states on how to cut back water use even further, pouring urgency onto an already-heated debate that affects the livelihoods and water security of millions.
The agreement among the three Lower Basin states is a milestone in the negotiations. But it’s also a stopgap measure to get the basin’s water users through 2026, when a set of rules that govern how water cuts are made during drought are set to expire. Those negotiations are going to be critical to finding long-term solutions that address water insecurity in the West and take climate change into account. Colorado might not be agreeing to any water cuts in this particular agreement, but that doesn’t mean they’ve dodged potential impacts, experts say.
“It’s not designed to be a solution past 2026,” said Ostdiek, who is the water conservation board’s interstate, federal and water information section chief. “We need to start negotiating post-2026 operations immediately.”
The Colorado River Basin includes Colorado, six other Western states, 30 Native American tribes and part of Mexico. Not only does it provide water for millions of people, but it also supports agricultural, recreational, tourism and industrial economies.
The basin’s water is stored in reservoirs, which act like savings banks and help distribute water through a system of ditches, tunnels, pumps, rivers and streams.
Twenty-three years of drought, the worst drought in 1,200 years, stressed the storage system. Water officials agreed on drought-response measures in 2007 and 2019, but they weren’t enough. As of June 2022, the basin’s reservoir network was in crisis.
The vast network of reservoirs only held 35% of its full capacity, 58 million acre-feet, according to records from the Bureau of Reclamation, an agency within the Department of the Interior that manages the federal reservoirs.
The basin’s largest storage banks, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, were 27% and 28% full, respectively. Their water levels had dropped dangerously low. Lake Powell’s water level elevation was 3,536 feet — at 3,490 feet it would no longer be able to produce hydroelectric power. Lake Mead’s elevation was 1,046 feet — it would have to stop power generation at 950 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
In August 2022, Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called on basin states to voluntarily reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet in 2023. The Interior proposed a range of annual reductions between 600,000 acre-feet and 4 million acre-feet, depending on basin conditions from 2024 through 2026. In total, over the three years, the voluntary cuts could equal between 1.8 million acre-feet and 12 million acre-feet.
One acre-foot of water supports two families of four to five people for one year, according to the 2023 Colorado Water Plan.
The seven basin states couldn’t agree on a plan to meet the cuts needed to balance the system, so the federal government stepped in and drafted three options to respond to water scarcity in the Lower Basin, which includes Arizona, California and Nevada.
The Lower Basin’s agreement, announced May 22, is part of this federal process to choose a strategy to address water insecurity in the Colorado River Basin.
The agreement proposes a fourth alternative: Over three years, the Lower Basin would conserve an additional 3 million acre-feet by the end of 2026. Of that, at least 1.5 million acre-feet would be conserved by the end of 2024.
The pact asks the federal government to pay $1.2 billion from the $700 billion Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 to compensate irrigation districts, cities and tribes on federal funding for 2.3 million acre-feet of conservation. The rest of the cuts would be uncompensated or paid for through other means, like state and local entities or other federal programs.
The proposal is a milestone in frequently contentious Colorado River negotiations, but it has not been approved by the federal government, water officials say. There’s no guarantee it will be the chosen strategy to address the basin’s supply issues.
The proposed cuts also make up a small portion of the Lower Basin’s annual use, which is between 9.3 million acre-feet and 10 million acre-feet, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Over three years, the Lower Basin states use between 27.9 million acre-feet and 30 million acre-feet, not counting tributaries in the region that feed the river system.
It’s also not — and is not designed to be — a long-term solution.
“There might be some precedent that it sets, but this is about covering our bases until 2026,” said Aaron Citron, senior policy advisor at The Nature Conservancy. “It’s also a lot of water over a short period of time and it’s important — not trying to undermine the value of it. But it’s a short-term solution that’s going to cover the next three years, hopefully to get us into a new management paradigm.”
What do we, and don’t we, know about the Lower Basin proposal?
There are also key questions about the proposal that still need to be answered.
There are questions about who will bear the burden, how cuts will be timed, and how they will fit in with existing cuts out of previous agreements, Citron said.
“The details are scarce,” he said. “One thing we could say is different is the availability of the IRA funding, which is allowing more of this to happen hopefully more quickly.”
The proposal does offer Lower Basin states more flexibility in how they account for conserved water. Under this agreement, water agencies could simply shift their stored water into a new administrative category, called system conservation, which means it would stay in the reservoir permanently.
“It’s fancy water accounting that has the ability to keep Mead at higher elevations than otherwise,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University.
Also, California could potentially wind up conserving more water than it has agreed to in the past. In the last go-round, California was willing to conserve up to 400,000 acre-feet per year in exchange for compensation, which would equal up to 1.2 million acre-feet over three years. In this proposal, the state is willing to save up to 1.6 million acre-feet.
Experts want to know how the cuts will be divided both between states and within states and how the commitment to conserve 3 million acre-feet will be enforced.
No one knows who will take those cuts, said Daniel Cordalis, tribal partnerships manager at the Colorado River Sustainability Campaign.
“I would suspect that some of the tribes in Arizona have been really key in making Arizona feel like they can meet their conservation requirements under this plan,” he said. In California, tribes don’t have the same water rights as the state, so key cuts would likely be to irrigation. “It’s yet to be seen how tribes would fit into these reductions.”
Collectively, the 30 tribal nations in the basin own rights to about 25% of the water supply, but some tribes, like the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe which has some reservation land in Colorado, are still trying to quantify their water rights or need costly infrastructure to deliver and develop their water. Without hard numbers on how much water is actually being used, it’s hard to get into a numbers-based discussion about water cuts, said Cordalis, a former Biden administration water attorney who’s also Diné.
“If they can use their water rights then they can get into the game,” he said. “But they’re not there yet. So it’s hard for them to become a part of the conversation.”
The issue of enforcement raises legal questions about how much authority the federal government has to take unilateral action in the Colorado River Basin.
The Department of the Interior has practical control over the levers that send water downstream to the Lower Basin, but it’s simply not established in the law that the secretary of the Interior has the authority to take action beyond decades of compacts and agreements — by, say, unilaterally cutting the water released from the dams outside what is legally allocated, Porter said. That type of action would quickly become mired in the court system.
“Are they going to take action and have years of litigation, or are they going to reach an agreement and we’ll be spared that?” Porter said. “Everyone’s concerned that litigation would get in the way of negotiations we need for 2026.”
The proposal does come with some teeth. For example, if the water level in Lake Mead drops to 1,025 feet in elevation, the Lower Basin states have 45 days to agree on a plan to balance the reservoir. If the Bureau of Reclamation doesn’t think the plan is acceptable, it can intervene to make sure the reservoir doesn’t fall below 1,000 feet in elevation, Porter said.
The Lower Basin proposal could be enforced through different tools, like contracts requiring savings over three years or including a backstop that would give the Interior Department a way to reduce deliveries to the Lower Basin if it did not reach 3 million acre-feet in cuts for some reason.
In the Upper Basin, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are paying close attention to how the Lower Basin proposal impacts Glen Canyon Dam operations and protects water levels at Lake Powell. They also want to know how the amount of conservation in the Lower Basin alternative will compare to the amount of water conserved in the three alternative strategies identified by the federal government.
“The bottom line is we need to understand how this will perform relative to the other alternatives listed in the draft supplemental environmental impact statement,” Ostdiek said. “We also need to understand the extent to which these cuts would come from enforceable, binding agreements, and how those would be carried out.”
How did Colorado get out of making cuts in the proposal?
This whole process — the federal alternatives and the Lower Basin proposal — is tied to a set of water management guidelines established in 2007.
Those guidelines are important because they explain Colorado’s role in the Lower Basin’s agreement — and why the proposal is a just temporary fix meant to last until 2026, according to water experts.
“There have been questions about what the Upper Basin can contribute, certainly. This is why the scope of this (agreement) is really important,” Ostdiek said. “This all is currently correctly focused on the Lower Basin and operations of Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam.”
After several years of drought in the 2000s, water officials realized they needed new water management protocols to try to keep reservoirs full. In 2007, they established interim guidelines that linked water storage at lakes Mead and Powell to water reductions through a tiered system based on the reservoirs’ water levels.
Because the guidelines manage operations at the two dams, they directly impact Lower Basin water users: If Glen Canyon Dam cuts the amount of water it releases from Lake Powell, less water flows downstream to users in Lower Basin states. The guidelines do not directly impact upstream users in Upper Basin states including Colorado, which do not receive water from the two dams.
Colorado didn’t dodge having to make water cuts in the Lower Basin agreement. The 2007 guidelines just don’t apply to them in the same way they apply to Lower Basin states.
“The ’07 guidelines are limited to operations of Glen Canyon Dam and below,” Ostdiek said, adding that Colorado and other Upper Basin states are discussing ways to conserve water. “They don’t say anything about Upper Basin operations.”
The basin’s supply crisis in 2021 and 2022 showed water officials that their previous agreements to respond to the deepening drought weren’t enough.
In April, the Interior department and the Bureau of Reclamation released three more drought-response options. One option proposed no changes; another used the longstanding, seniority-based system of water cuts to reduce supply, which would drastically cut Arizona’s water because of its more junior rights. The third would make proportionate cuts based on water use and would heavily impact California.
This option assumes water cuts from Native American tribes, although there’s some question about the Interior’s authority to make those cuts, Cordalis said.
The federal government gave states 45 days, until May 30, to submit comments or alternative plans. The Lower Basin’s pact was submitted as part of this process, and in response, the federal government suspended the comment period to analyze the proposal. Later this summer, the Bureau will release its updated draft alternatives and hold another comment period before deciding on a plan.
Colorado’s involvement in this process is limited. So far, the state has offered support for the analysis to be done, Ostdiek said, although it did participate in some meetings as the Lower Basin was developing the proposal. The state can also submit comments during the next comment period.
Importantly, the 2007 guidelines are set to expire in 2026, which means states, tribes and Mexico are preparing for a high-stakes round of negotiations. That also means the Lower Basin’s proposal, which if chosen would supplement the 2007 guidelines, would also expire in three years.
“It’s not designed to be a solution past 2026. This is meant to be near-term operations under the scope of the 2007 guidelines,” Ostdiek said.
How could Colorado get caught in a ripple effect?
In worst-case scenarios, Coloradans could be more directly impacted by water management in the Lower Basin.
The guidelines link Lake Mead, which acts as a savings account for the Lower Basin, and Lake Powell, which acts as a buffer. This link acts like a trigger: If Mead is drawn down to a certain elevation, Powell sends more water downstream to balance the reservoir levels. In extreme scenarios, Lake Mead could be drawn down enough to drop both reservoirs to dangerously low levels.
If Lake Powell dropped low enough, Glen Canyon Dam wouldn’t be able to release water from the reservoir. Upper Basin states are required by the 1922 Colorado River Compact to release 75 million acre-feet of water downstream every 10 years. If the states can’t meet that requirement, Upper Basin water users would be in jeopardy of having their water cut until the compact requirements are met.
That’s never happened, and it’s low on the list of concerns for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Ostdiek said.
“We have never been out of compliance with it, and we are well within compliance of the compact, so we feel good about that,” she said.
This ripple effect does illuminate how Colorado could be impacted by the amount of water used in the Lower Basin.
Under the 2007 guidelines, Lower Basin states have been able to continue drawing on those savings accounts regardless of how much water is in the river. In 2021, the Lower Basin states used 9.987 million acre-feet of water. That year, the Colorado River’s estimated natural flow was 6.2 million acre-feet, and about 3.534 million acre-feet flowed into Lake Powell. The Upper Basin states used about 3.5 million acre-feet, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
That’s an issue with the guidelines, experts say. They tie water reductions to reservoir elevations — not to what’s actually available in the system.
This year’s above-average snowpack offered some reprieve from the crisis, but it also triggered larger releases from Powell to Mead because of the guidelines. Some experts would rather keep that water in reservoirs further upstream, arguing it would allow for more flexible release options.
“In my mind, if we send more water down to the Lower Basin, it’ll encourage them to continue using it,” said Jennifer Gimbel, senior water policy scholar at the Colorado State University Colorado Water Center.
And as demand continues to outpace supply, the overall trend of water use and storage in the Colorado River Basin is in the wrong direction.
“We need to start negotiating post-2026 operations immediately,” Ostdiek said. “I think there’s also a broad recognition that the operation of the ’07 guidelines has been a little bit less than perfect, which is why we are where we are now. The best thing that we can do is create more durable solutions for the system by negotiating those (guidelines) and putting something in place that will better align the supply and demand.”
What top issues could be discussed in the post-2026 negotiations?
The Bureau of Reclamation announced May 22 that it would be moving the process forward in June for establishing post-2026 guidelines.
Water officials from across the basin will be weighing key issues in how the Colorado River is managed and shared. Officials will likely also be considering whether paying people to conserve water is a viable long-term solution.
“It’s this house of cards. All of these things are built upon maintenance and management of our reservoirs,” The Nature Conservancy’s Citron said. “Everything we’ve been doing over the last couple of years has been critical to avoid the immediate crisis. We really need to pivot towards these comprehensive solutions with a full range of perspectives … so the river provides for management and the needs of the river itself.”
Tribal nations are seeking ways to quantify — and finally use — their water while trying to find common interests among the dozens of tribes in the basin. And if they can’t use their water, the tribes are interested in finding ways to be compensated for its use by others through more flexible tools, like leases.
“Everyone’s working on restrictions and cutting back,” Cordalis said. “The tribes need to actually get more water. That becomes really hard.”
Water officials will need to negotiate how to account for water lost to evaporation. Those losses count as consumptive water use in the Upper Basin, but remain unaccounted for in the Lower Basin, said Gimbel from the Colorado Water Center.
Officials will need to balance environmental and ecosystem needs for endangered species. They could even rethink the tier system used in the 2007 guidelines.
“I’m not sure operating the reservoirs together really worked that much,” she said.
In the past, water officials have been too soft on themselves and have continued to kick the can down the road.
“I was one of those policy decision-makers from 2008 to 2013. When you’re dealing with people’s livelihoods and drinking water for people, you want to figure out how to make it work for everybody,” Gimbel said. “And I look back on this, and I think, ‘Man, I wish I would’ve paid more attention to the climate scientists. They were out there yelling at us. This is serious. This is climate change.’”