7 states and federal government lack direction on cutbacks from the Colorado River
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — As the Colorado River shrinks, the seven states in the western United States that rely on it for water and power need to cut their use dramatically to keep the biggest reservoirs from getting critically low, according to federal analysts.
But a recent deadline for a plan to conserve an unprecedented amount of water came and went without many specifics from either the states or the federal government on how to achieve the cutbacks.
In June, federal officials gave leaders in the states the draw from the river — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — a mid-August deadline to come up with a plan to conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water across the Southwestern watershed. One acre-foot is more than 325,000 gallons. Federal officials said they wanted to see cuts from all seven states, from every sector.
With the deadline now passed, and lingering uncertainty about where those cutbacks will come, some of the region's leaders are calling for the federal government to take charge.
Water stored in the Colorado River's biggest reservoirs has declined during the past two decades due to climate change and overuse. The river and its tributaries provide drinking water to 40 million people, and irrigate millions of acres of cropland. In addition to the seven U.S. states, the river also crosses into Mexico and provides water supplies to cities and farmers in two Mexican states as well.
At Lake Powell, the nation's second-largest reservoir on the river, water levels are threatening to dip low enough that its dam would lose the ability to produce hydropower. That could come as early as November 2023. All but two boat ramps at the recreation hotspot are now closed due to its low level.
"We want to encourage [the states] to be doing as much as possible," said Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for water and science. "There is an urgent requirement to be doing that. We're trying to explain the modeling information that we have paints a very, very urgent situation. We feel the urgency. They should feel the urgency."
Trujillo and other federal water managers said that if the states couldn't come up with a plan for those cuts by the August deadline, the federal government would take action to protect the river system. The possible actions the federal government has laid out start administrative processes to study how the river's large dams might be re-engineered or operated. They also plan to incentivize agricultural efficiency by offering additional funding.
The federal government also announced incremental increases in existing water cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, starting in January 2023. Those cuts were already agreed to, and it's still not clear what specific actions federal officials could or will take to prevent the reservoirs from declining to critically low levels.
"Our water users really would like to understand the federal government when they say, 'If you don't take action states, we will,' " said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, a water agency in rural Western Colorado. "Well, what are the actions being proposed?"
Even though the federal government has yet to deliver on its threat to intervene, it could still happen, Mueller said. The call for cuts was clear and came with specifics – 2 to 4 million acre-feet in cuts across the watershed. But the threat of what happens if the states can't get there remains unclear.
"If you don't know what that threat is, it's really hard to be motivated to take action," Mueller said.
Aversion to federal intervention runs deep along the Colorado River. Some state leaders say the federal government should simply run the dams, and not wade into policy-making. Others doubt the forcefulness of federal authorities to mandate cutbacks, most of which are entirely untested. As the river's scarcity crisis has deepened in recent years, others in the basin are beginning to crave federal leadership.
"There was a deadline that came. It passed. Nothing happened," said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves the Las Vegas metro area. "I think it would be much more effective if the federal government actually, in writing, articulates a plan."
When it became clear the states were not going to reach an agreement ahead of the deadline, he pleaded with federal officials to take the reins and make hard decisions about where some of the cuts need to come from. This tension between the states and the federal government only works as a motivator when state leaders believe a federal crackdown might really happen, he said.
"The states have never accomplished anything meaningful without a credible federal threat," Entsminger said.
But it is not only the Biden administration applying pressure through the various federal agencies involved in the West's water management. Pressure from the city leaders, farmers and residents in the Southwest is mounting as well.
"I think the general public is aware of the real crisis that's developing in the Colorado River basin in a way they previously haven't," Entsminger said. "There's pressure building from constituencies across the basin to do something."
Members of Congress have begun to take notice as well.
U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, an Arizona Democrat, called for the river's users to "share the sacrifice to solve this crisis," and called the federal threats to intervene, "hollow."
In Nevada, U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto gave federal officials her own deadline, asking to see firm plans on how to spend the $4 billion set aside in the Inflation Reduction Act to help solve the region's water-scarcity problems.
In response to the complaint that they should be doing more, federal water managers said they are going to continue working with states on a plan for cutbacks. No new deadline has been set.
Kathryn Sorenson, a water policy researcher at Arizona State University, said if the federal government were to take drastic action, it could alienate people in states that rely on the river.
"Certainty is just paramount," Sorenson said. "And the cities, the tribes, those who are depending on this water, they need to know what to expect. And right now, that's completely lacking."
But if the feds don't take action, she said, the risk falls on the reservoirs.
"No one wants to make this call, right? It's not enviable to be in a position of saying who gets water and who doesn't," Sorenson said.
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