The Biden administration on Tuesday released an environmental analysis of competing plans about how seven Western states and tribes that rely on the Colorado River’s dwindling water supply should reduce their use, but refused to publicly take sides for the best option.
On one side is California and some tribes along the river who want to protect their high-priority rights to the river’s water, which they use for drinking and farming. On the other hand it’s the other six states — Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — that say it’s time to come up with an approach that shares the river more fairly.
The Interior Department did not say how states should get to deeper water cutoffs, but it defended its authority to make sure basic needs like clean drinking water and hydroelectric power generated by the river are met, even if it means stopping side the priority system.
«Failure is not an option,» Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau told The Associated Press.
The 1,450-mile (2,334-kilometer) West Power Plant serves 40 million people in seven states, spanning tribal lands and Mexico, generates hydroelectric power for regional markets, and irrigates nearly 6 million acres (2,428 hectares) of farmland .
A multi-decade drought in the West intensified by climate change, increased demand and overuse has driven water levels in key reservoirs along the river to record lows. That forced the federal government to cut some water allocations and offer billions of dollars to pay farmers and cities to cut back.
Officials are hoping for some relief this year from a series of powerful storms that blanketed California and the western Rocky Mountains, the main source of water for the Colorado River. But it’s unclear how that amount of rainfall is affecting the negotiations. On Monday, Beaudreau denied that the sense of urgency has faded after the winter storms, but gave no indication of how the seven states should come to an agreement before August, when the agency usually announces water availability for the following year. .
«The snow is great. It’s a godsend. But we are in the middle of a 23-year drought,” Beaudreau said. He said states, Native American tribes and other water users recognized that it was in no one’s interest to stop the talks because of healthy winter snowpack, which is 160% average in the upper Colorado River basin.
In January, six of the seven US 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, publishing his own ideas a day later
Both plans responded to a call last year from the US Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the major dams on the river system, for states to propose how they would reduce their water use by about 15% to 30%. , in addition to the agreed existing water cutoffs. in recent years. Each gets about 2 million acre-feet of cuts, which is on the lower end of requested cuts.
One acre-foot of water is enough to supply 2-3 American homes a year.
The extensive environmental analysis released by the Biden administration explores both options, as well as a third 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 whether the department prefers one approach over the other.
“Some of the comments have represented an us-versus-them dynamic in the basin,” Beaudreau said. «I don’t see that at all.»
Arizona and California, on opposite sides of divergent plans, are looking to develop «a true seven-state consensus in the coming months,» said JB Hamby, who chairs California’s Colorado River Board. «Ideally in this next 45-day period, if possible.»
Among the main differences between the two plans is whether states should account for the vast amount of water that is lost along the Colorado River Basin to evaporation and infrastructure leaks as it flows through the region’s massive dams and waterways .
Federal officials say that more than 10% of the water in rivers evaporates, seeps and spills; however, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico have never accounted for that loss.
California disagreed with that approach. This is because the state has priority rights to the Colorado River water and, due to its location, would lose a significant amount of water if such losses were counted. The further south the river travels, the more water evaporates, which means that if evaporative losses were counted, California, Arizona, and Mexico would lose more than states further north.
The Quechan tribe along the Arizona-California border also opposes that plan because of their priority water rights.
“We have senior water rights and last time we checked, we still live in a priority-based system,” said Jay Weiner, the tribe’s attorney.
The six states and California also disagree on when more shutoffs should be activated at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the largest man-made reservoirs in the US that serve as barometers of the river’s health.
Arizona and Nevada have more minor water rights than California, and supported a plan that shared water outages amid a worsening drought on a pro-rata basis. California has offered to voluntarily reduce its use by 400,000 acre-feet, but the state wants bigger cuts in Arizona and Nevada. California officials have indicated they will take legal action if the federal government ignores their priority right to water.
Reclamation also did not say how Mexico could contribute to the savings, but discussions are ongoing. He country is entitled to 1.5 million acre-feet of water each year under a treaty reached with the US in 1944. In recent years, Mexico has engaged in water-saving plans with the US in between of the worsening drought in both countries.