Biden admin analysis on Colorado River puts pressure on Lower Basin states for cuts

Utah and other upper basin states also use the river but Arizona, California and Nevada are in the lower basin.

(John Locher | AP file photo) A bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water line of Lake Mead near water intakes on the Arizona side of Hoover Dam at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area Sunday, June 26, 2022, near Boulder City, Nevada. 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. Department of Interior officials planned to discuss the proposals at Hoover Dam on Tuesday, April 11, 2023.

The Biden administration released an environmental analysis Tuesday of competing plans for how seven Western states and tribes reliant on the dwindling water supply from the Colorado River should cut their use but declined to publicly take a side on the best option.

On one side is California and some tribes along the river that want to protect their high-priority rights to the river’s water, which they use for drinking and farming. On the other side are the other six states — Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — who say it’s time to come up with an approach that more fairly shares the river.

The Interior Department did not say how states should get to deeper water cuts, but defended its authority to make sure basic needs such as drinking water and hydropower generated from the river are met — even if it means setting aside the priority system.

“Failure is not an option,” Interior Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau told The Associated Press.

(John Locher | AP file photo) Water flows down the Colorado River downriver from Hoover Dam in northwest Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2022, near the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The Biden administration on Tuesday, April 11, 2023, released an environmental analysis of competing plans for how Western states and tribes reliant on the dwindling Colorado River should cut their use.

The 1,450-mile (2,334-kilometer) powerhouse of the West serves 40 million people across seven Western states, which spans tribal land, and Mexico, generates hydroelectric power for regional markets, and irrigates nearly 6 million acres (2,428 hectares) of farmland.

A multidecade drought in the West intensified by climate change, rising demand and overuse has sent water levels at key reservoirs along the river to unprecedented lows. That has forced the federal government to cut some water allocations, and to pay farmers and cities billions of dollars to dramatically reduce their use.

The federal government’s proposed cuts announced Tuesday only apply to Lower Basin states, including California, Arizona and Nevada. They do not appear to apply to the Upper Basin states that rely on the river, including Utah.

Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s River Commissioner, was not present at the event on the shores of Lake Mead announcing the Interior Department’s plan, which it calls a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, or SEIS.

“We just received the draft today and we are in the process of reviewing it thoroughly,” Shawcroft said in an emailed statement. “We stand behind the six-state modeling alternative submitted earlier this year and hope the Bureau of Reclamation has incorporated elements of it in the draft. We are grateful for the bureau’s efforts to develop a draft in record time and look forward to continued collaboration with them on a final SEIS by August.”

The Interior Department will accept public comment on the document for the next 45 days before making a decision.

Officials expect some relief this year from a series of powerful storms that blanketed California and the Western Rocky Mountains, the main source of the Colorado River’s water. But it is not clear how that amount of precipitation is affecting negotiations. On Monday, Beaudreau denied that a sense of urgency had gone away after the winter storms, but gave no indication to how the seven states should reach agreement before August, when the agency typically announces water availability for the following year.

“The snow is great. It’s a godsend. But we’re in the midst of a 23-year drought,” Beaudreau said. He said states, Native American tribes and other water users recognized that it would be in no one’s interest to stall talks because of the winter’s healthy snowpack — which stands at 160% of the median in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

In January, six of the seven U.S. states that rely on the Colorado River — Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado — outlined how they would conserve significantly more water, but California disagreed with the approach. California, the largest user of the river’s water, released its own ideas a day later.

Both plans heeded a call last year from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the major dams in the river system, for states to propose how they would cut their water use by roughly 15% and 30% — in addition to existing water cuts agreed upon in recent years. Each achieves about 2 million acre-feet of cuts, which is closer to the 15% threshold.

An acre-foot of water is roughly enough to serve 2 to 3 U.S. households annually.

The lengthy environmental analysis released by the Biden administration on Tuesday explores both options, as well as a third option that includes taking no action. States, tribes and other water users now have until May 30 to comment before federal officials announce their formal decision.

Beaudreau gave no indication of whether the department prefers one approach over the other.

Among the main differences between the two plans is whether states should account for the vast amount of water lost along the Colorado River basin to evaporation and leaky infrastructure as it flows through the region’s behemoth dams and waterways.

Federal officials say more than 10% of river water evaporates, leaks, and spills — yet Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico have never accounted for that loss.

California roundly disagreed with that approach. That’s because the state has senior rights to Colorado River water and because of its location, would lose a significant amount of water if such losses were counted. The further south the river travels, more water evaporates — meaning that if evaporation losses were counted, California, Arizona, and Mexico would stand to lose more than states further north.

The Quechan tribe along the Arizona-California border also opposes that plan because of its priority water rights.

“We’ve got senior water rights and last we checked, we still live in a priority-based system,” said Jay Weiner, the tribe’s attorney.

John Weisheit, conservation director for the environmental group Living Rivers, said the options put forward by the federal government is an indictment on its 2007 water management plan, saying the Tuesday announcement is, “basically just a two year plan to get permission to do radical shortages.”

“They had a (water management) plan to avoid shortages, and it didn’t work,” Weisheit said Tuesday. “40 million people depended on this decision that wasn’t correct in the first place. That’s what I’m disappointed about.”

The six states and California also disagree about when more water cuts should be triggered at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the largest human-made reservoirs in the U.S. that serve as barometers of the river’s health.

Gary Wockner, director of the a group called Save the Colorado, said the cuts would likely not impact more urban areas in California or Arizona, but agricultural areas.

“When you say the state take the cuts, it’s the farmers in the state who are going to take the cut, not the cities,” Wockner said Tuesday.

Arizona and Nevada have more junior water rights than California, and supported a plan that shared water cuts amid worsening drought on a pro-rata basis. California said it would protect its senior water rights, which allows the state to have its water supply cut later, and would likely pursue legal challenges if the government used the six states’ approach.

Reclamation also didn’t say how Mexico might contribute to the savings. The country is entitled to 1.5 million acre feet of water each year under a treaty reached with the U.S. in 1944. In recent years, it has participated in water savings plans with the U.S. amid worsening drought in both countries.


Naishadham reported from Washington, D.C.

Salt Lake Tribune reporters Leia Larsen and Jacob Scholl contributed to this article.