At a Senate committee hearing on June 14, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton sat before federal lawmakers and delivered a grave ultimatum on the Colorado River.
Without significant cuts to water use, she warned, Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the nation’s two largest reservoirs — could fall so low that hydropower production could cease in the near future. At that point, the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages both reservoirs, would struggle to deliver water to the majority of the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River.
Touton called on the seven states in the Colorado River basin to plan for the largest cuts to water use ever made, between 2 and 4 million acre-feet, or roughly 15% to 30% of the total water use in the basin. And Touton gave the states 62 days, until Aug. 15, to propose a plan while stating her federal agency had the authority to make unilateral decisions if necessary.
The deadline passed on Monday, and the states still had no deal on the table, with the upper and lower ends of the basin looking at each other for more cuts.
On a call with reporters Tuesday, officials with the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Interior indicated they would put off the decision to force between 2 and 4 million acre-feet in cuts.
Instead, federal water managers will be pursuing plans already made in previous drought contingency agreements to cut water use in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico by around 720,000 acre-feet, far short of the millions of acre-feet Touton cited earlier this summer. California, the basin’s biggest water user, will not take any immediate cuts due to its senior water rights.
Utah also escaped Tuesday without having to make any immediate water-use reductions.
(Water managers typically use acre-feet to measure large volumes of water, or the amount of water required to fill an acre of land with one foot of water. An average Utah family of four uses roughly one acre-foot per year.)
Although the officials emphasized that there is a continued need for states, Tribal nations and Mexico to work together as partners, they did not downplay the severity of the water crisis in the Southwest.
“Sixty-three days ago,” Touton said, “I briefed Congress on the science of the Colorado River, the risks we see for the system and the action needed to stabilize the system. The conditions and risks have not changed.”
Touton said the seven Colorado River states — which include Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming in the Upper Basin, and Nevada, Arizona and California in the Lower Basin — have not yet adopted sufficient actions to reverse the decline of lakes Powell and Mead.
The system is approaching a tipping point, she added, repeating a line she used in Congress in June.
Touton did not give a definite deadline for when greater cuts would be enforced.
“Today we’re starting the process,” she said. “More information will follow as far as the action we will take in that process.”
Will Glen Canyon Dam be modified?
Tanya Trujillo, the assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of Interior, said all states and all sectors will need to reduce water use, and she pointed to billions of dollars in drought funding available through federal legislation like the bipartisan Infrastructure bill and the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act to facilitate those conservation measures.
The assistant secretary also said the federal government will study potential modifications to the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams.
“Reclamation will evaluate whether physical modifications can be made to Glen Canyon Dam to allow water to be released from below currently identified critical elevations,” Trujillo told reporters.
Earlier this month, a coalition of environmental groups released a report that detailed how the engineering of Glen Canyon Dam would not allow for sufficient releases of water through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead if Lake Powell’s level continues to drop.
In a news conference Tuesday following the federal water manager’s announcement, the Utah Rivers Council, Glen Canyon Institute, Center for Biological Diversity and the Great Basin Water Network reiterated their call for Congress to study the feasibility of whether new tunnels could be drilled at the base of the Glen Canyon Dam to allow Lake Powell to be drawn down completely, if necessary.
The environmental groups said the modifications will likely be needed to ensure the required water deliveries from the Upper Basin to the Lower Basin through the dam.
Jack Stauss, outreach director for the Glen Canyon Institute, said the construction of new tunnels at river level would present an opportunity “to restore one of the most beautiful parts of the nation: a free-flowing Colorado River through Glen Canyon.”
Earlier, Trujillo and other officials declined to directly answer questions from reporters about whether the Bureau of Reclamation is studying a potential decommissioning of the Glen Canyon Dam.
“We are focused on maintaining the integrity of the existing structures and the existing system,” Trujillo said. “And that’s our highest priority.”
A forecast released by the Bureau of Reclamation on Tuesday indicates that it is possible power generation at the Glen Canyon Dam could stop by next October if runoff next spring is below average.
A lack of consensus among Colorado River states
While federal officials called for partnership and cooperation among states, some state water officials expressed frustration about the planning process over the last two months.
Arizona Division of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project general manager Ted Cooke released a joint statement Tuesday saying Arizona and Nevada put forward a proposal that would cut 2 million acre-feet in Lower Basin water use in 2023 and beyond.
“That proposal was rejected,” the Arizona water officials said. “... It is unacceptable for Arizona to continue to carry a disproportionate burden of reductions for the benefit of others who have not contributed.”
John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in a letter to federal officials on Monday that “despite the obvious urgency of the situation, the last sixty-two days produced exactly nothing in terms of meaningful collective action to help forestall the looming crisis.”
Utah’s Colorado River Commissioner Gene Shawcroft told reporters Tuesday that the Upper Basin put forward a five-point plan to study ways to reduce water use, but failed to see a similar effort on the part of the Lower Basin. Critics of the Upper Colorado River Commission called that plan insufficient last month.
“Utah is fighting aggressively to make sure we get to use the water that we have available for the state of Utah,” Shawcroft said. “We don’t expect to use more than our fair share. We expect everyone to use their fair share, but certainly expect Utah to be able to use its fair share.”
He added that while everyone will have to use less water should the 23-year drought in the Colorado River basin continue, cuts for Utah are not on the table.
“The cuts that we have to make in the Upper Basin states are cuts that frankly come from Mother Nature,” he said. “As the runoff comes, we get a chance to use whatever water is available.”
Multiple officials from the Upper Basin states have claimed recently that water use is reduced during dry years because the water simply isn’t there to divert.
But an independent analysis last month from Jack Schmidt, director of the Future of the Colorado River Project at Utah State University, Eric Kuhn, retired general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, and John Fleck, a writer in residence at the University of New Mexico School of Law, found that the opposite was true in the basin in most years.
Reviewing publicly available data from the Bureau of Reclamation, the researchers concluded that “on average, overall Upper Basin use is slightly greater in dry years, and less in wet years.”
A spokesperson for the Colorado River Authority of Utah did not respond to questions Tuesday about the analysis.
A slow-down for Lake Powell Pipeline plans?
“We were all going to have to make sacrifices,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said in a live discussion hosted by The Washington Post on Tuesday, and he pointed to a slew of water conservation legislation passed in the state this year as evidence of progress.
Cox also acknowledged that Utah’s decades-long plan to build a controversial pipeline from Lake Powell to Washington County in southwest Utah might be “slowed down” unless Lake Powell’s levels recover.
“We would love to build that pipeline,” Cox said, “but we’re also very practical and recognize that that’s not going to do as much good with Lake Powell and Lake Mead at record low levels.”
Environmental groups, including the Utah Rivers Council, called on Utah to abandon its long-delayed plans for the Lake Powell pipeline once and for all, and for all states and the federal government to step up to meet the urgency of the situation.
“If we don’t get an all-hands-on-deck effort right now,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, “we’re just going to be realigning the deck chairs on sinking houseboats at lakes Mead and Powell.”
Tribune reporter Bryan Schott contributed to this story.