Federal pressure mounts as states attempt to break Colorado River standoff

The seven states that use water from the Colorado River are facing another deadline this week to agree on how to live with less water.

The federal government has asked them to weigh in on tweaks to how the river is managed, and could force water cutbacks if states can’t come up with their own plan to reduce demand before February. That’s no small task for states deadlocked in a years-long standoff over how to cut back demand on a river that supplies 40 million people and a multibillion-dollar agricultural sector.

Each of those states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California — each bring a varied set of interests and motivations to the negotiating table to ensure any cutbacks don’t hit them harder than the rest.

The nation’s two largest reservoirs, both filled with water from the Colorado River, have shrunk to record lows after 23 years of dry conditions fueled by climate change. The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages the West’s water, is concerned that low water levels will threaten hydropower generation and normal operations at Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams.

In response, the agency started working on a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, a plan to alter how much water is released to users in 2023 and 2024. That document would tweak river management rules drawn up in 2007 in response to declining reservoir levels at that time .

The Bureau of Reclamation will investigate plans for future releases regardless of whether the states agree on their own plan for cutbacks, and says the states “imposed an unofficial deadline on themselves for January 31, 2023, to ensure that their ideas were included in the draft SEIS process.”

“The notion of a certain date for states to submit their plans was the result of the states’ own recognition of the timing constraints of the supplemental process,” wrote Tyler Cherry, a Department of Interior spokesperson, in an email to KUNC. “States’ contributions to the process began during the scoping period and will continue throughout the comment period.”

Water managers are looking to bolster a patchwork of measures that protect operations at massive dams in the Southwest. Record-low water levels in Lake Powell are threatening the ability to generate hydropower within Glen Canyon Dam, and further drops could render the dam unable to function normally.

Last August, a reclamation appeared to take a firmer stand, giving the states a two-month window to produce plans to conserve an unprecedented amount of water, and threatened to force cutbacks if they failed to meet the deadline. That deadline passed, the states had no plan, and the federal government did not mandate cutbacks, and instead opted to begin the SEIS process.

Sources tell KUNC that delegates from the seven states have met in Colorado in recent days to hash out a deal, but the details of that meeting have been kept behind closed doors, and experts don’t see an obvious outcome.

“It is possible that the states will not be able to come up with an agreement because what they have to agree to do is so very hard,” said Sarah Porter, Director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “They have to agree to take less water. And that requires getting water users within the state to agree to use less water. So it’s an extremely difficult thing to do.”

‘An imperfect alternative’

Negotiations are difficult — and have been for decades — because of the river’s diverse user base and complex, multi-layered governance system. While the river supplies major cities such as Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, 80% of its water is used for agriculture. Farmers in southern California have some of the oldest, and most protected water rights in the Colorado River Basin.

“What you’re talking about are people’s livelihoods and farmers’ livelihoods,” said John Berggren, a water policy analyst at the conservation group Western Resource Advocates. “If you’re an irrigator or a rancher or a farmer, your water is your most important asset.”

Some of Berggren’s work receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports a portion of KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

The river’s water is managed in accordance with a 1922 document called the Colorado River Compact, which makes the oldest water rights virtually untouchable under existing rules, even as water availability has plummeted, aspirations to reduce demand have been hamstrung by the compact, causing some to question its usefulness in the context of a changing climate.

States have come up with a patchwork of band-aid measures to stave off drought-fueled catastrophe at Lake Powell and Lake Mead over the past two decades, but have not been able to agree on more substantial, permanent reductions.

At the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas in December, states stressed the urgency of the moment and the need for a collective solution to the region’s collective problem. Water managers looked ahead toward the January 31 deadline as the next major inflection point.

CRWUA 2022 panel

Delegates from states that use the Colorado River met in Las Vegas to discuss the future of a water supply for 40 million people. Talks centered on the need for collaboration, but policymakers remain stuck in a standoff as they figure out where to make necessary cutbacks.

“I think there is some heavy optimism that hopefully everyone will come to something that we can all agree on,” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s top water negotiator, at the Las Vegas gathering. “But it’s going to take real cuts to everyone.”

That optimism seemed somewhat limited, as delegates placed a larger emphasis on 2026, when current rules for the river expire, and states are under pressure to come up with more permanent, broad-reaching changes.

“We’ll probably come up with an imperfect alternative that gets us through the next few years as we continue to work on the longer term, more durable solution,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, also at the December conference.

Analysts have provided a raft of reasons that states would benefit from providing a plan before the deadline.

“Having your voice in the discussion of alternatives from the very beginning, we call that setting the political agenda,” said Elizabeth Koebele, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. “If the states fail to do that, if they are continuing to have some disagreements and can’t come together to back a plan, regardless of how loose it is, I think it’s a huge missed opportunity for them to be shaping the ultimate decisions and actions of the federal government.”

Accounting for evaporation and other losses could provide a reasonable starting point in that state-led plan. Losses of more than a million acre-feet of water per year currently remain unaccounted for along the river’s Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada. Forcing users to account for water lost to evaporation would translate to steeper cuts to those states.

If states miss the deadline, the Bureau of Reclamation could impose cuts of its own. Although the first day of February will not bring a federal ultimatum, even the threat of that outcome could be enough to bring the states together on a deal.

“It’s really just a vague marker in a complex timeline needed to get a draft Environmental Impact Statement out by early April, and a final decision document done by summer,” wrote John Fleck, an economics professor at the University of New Mexico who has authored several books on water management.

A tale of two basins

Besides the tension between cities and agriculture, river negotiations are often divided between the river’s Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — and the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

The Upper Basin argues that it has to carefully watch its water use, since its supplies are dependent on each year’s snow and highly variable, while the Lower Basin can consistently rely on a legally-mandated annual delivery that is the same size each year.

Tensions often center on the amount of water used by sprawling fields of crops in the Imperial and Coachella valleys of California, and around Yuma, Arizona. The region provides the majority of winter vegetables sold in the US, driving a multibillion-dollar economy.

Just last week, as the federal deadline drew nearer, the Colorado River Authority of Utah released a video in which its top negotiator, Gene Shawcroft, emphasized the importance of using water stashed away in Upper Basin reservoirs to protect Lake Powell and the dam which holds it back, rather than sending it downstream to be used for cities and crops.

What will happen with Flaming Gorge? River Commissioner Gene Shawcroft discusses why water from Flaming Gorge should reside in Lake Powell. pic.twitter.com/TG1zeIeQLY

— ColoradoRiverAuthorityUT (@AuthorityUT) January 25, 2023

“Water from Flaming Gorge [Reservoir] should be allowed to stay in Lake Powell to protect Lake Powell rather than have it simply go down to be used below the dam,” Shawcroft said.

Colorado River Dotsero

States in the Colorado River’s Upper Basin argue that they have to carefully watch its water use, since supplies are dependent on each year’s snow and highly variable, while the Lower Basin can consistently rely on a legally-mandated annual delivery that is the same size each year.

Long-standing tensions like those revealed in Utah’s video have made it hard for states to step forward and volunteer cutbacks.

It’s political suicide back home if people perceive you’ve given up more water than you should.

Felicia Marcus, a fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West Program

Marcus, a fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West Program, has been in similar negotiations herself, having previously run city and state water agencies in California. She also served as a regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration. Marcus said federal pressure may be exactly what states need to agree on a deal, because they’ll be able to shift the blame for painful cutbacks onto the “800-pound gorilla” that is the Bureau of Reclamation.

“The beauty or the value of that 800-pound gorilla stepping in is that it gives people either the motivation or the cover to make the decisions that the gorilla probably wishes those people could make on their own — but you really can’t expect them to be able to,” Marcus said.

Also looming over these negotiations, and states’ general inability to find agreement, is the potential that water sharing rules could end up in court.

“That litigation thing scares me,” said Berggren with Western Resource Advocates. “I thought six months ago, this wouldn’t end up in courts for decades. I am becoming more concerned that folks are not coming to an agreement and litigation is a real possibility.”

Region-wide river management rules, and the Colorado River Compact itself have been largely untested in court. Negotiators have said they want to avoid litigation and divvy up the shrinking water supply on their own terms, but can only do so by coming to agreements before 2026.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.

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