Feds apply pressure for water deal

Feds apply pressure for water deal

water, Bureau of Reclamation, drought, Arizona, California, Colorado River
Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the Interior, speaks during a news conference on Lake Mead at Hoover Dam on April 11 near Boulder City, Nev. The Biden administration on April 18 released an environmental analysis of competing plans for how Western states and tribes reliant on the dwindling Colorado River should cut their use. (Photo by John Locher/Associated Press)

The federal government is prodding Colorado River basin states, particularly Arizona and California, to come to a deal for shared cuts in water use.

In an effort to create more urgency for such a deal, the feds are proposing their own potential solutions – including outlining one scenario that could effectively wipe out Arizona’s Colorado River water deliveries.

The latest prod came last week in the form of a pair of proposed plans for cutting water deliveries to Arizona, California and Nevada, the three lower basin states served by the river.

The first option is to reduce water use based on seniority of water rights. That would favor California, which has the largest allocation and most senior rights, to the detriment of Arizona, which holds the most junior water rights.

The second option would cut water allocations by a uniform percentage across the basin states, which would mean that California, which has the greatest share of water rights by volume, would take the largest hit in terms of total volume reduction.

“Either of the two action alternatives have very negative impacts on water users in Arizona,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

The proposals aren’t going to be imposed – at least not yet – but they’re meant to add a sense of urgency to negotiations among the states over how to share the burden of reducing water use across the West.

Under the first proposal, Arizona would face water cuts of 1.67 million acre-feet per year before California cut any water at all, according to information distributed by the Bureau of Reclamation.

With higher volumes of overall cuts, California would take a hit as well. To achieve a reduction of 4 million acre-feet among the three states, Arizona would cut 2.1 million acre-feet, California would cut 1.7 million acre-feet and Nevada would cut 160,000 acre-feet.

In a normal year, Arizona’s annual share of water deliveries is 2.8 million acre-feet, Nevada gets 300,000 acre-feet and California takes 4.4 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is roughly enough water for three Phoenix-area households for one year.

drought, Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado River, water cutbacks,
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 on June 26, 2022, near Boulder City, Nev. (Photo by John Locher/Associated Press)

Under the second proposal outlined last week, Arizona would still face additional early cuts, but the pain would be distributed more evenly. For instance, to achieve three-state cuts of about 2 million acre-feet, Arizona would lose less than 1.1 million acre-feet, California would cut about 950,000 acre-feet and Nevada would sacrifice about 70,000 acre-feet.

(The feds also suggested a third option: do nothing, which could lead to water levels falling so low that no water flows past Lake Mead at all.)

The proposals would update rules drafted in 2007 that currently govern water distribution among the states, which have led to reductions in recent years. In Arizona, the standard 2.8 million acre-feet was slashed to about 2.2 million acre-feet.

Colorado River water, which makes its way to Arizona cities through the Central Arizona Project canals, represents a significant share of the approximately 7 million acre-feet of water used in the state each year.

But as water levels have continued to decline in recent years, officials have said that the reductions outlined in the 2007 plan won’t be sufficient.

Last year, the federal government told states that rely on Colorado River water to come up with a plan for shared cuts by August. The states – Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona – missed that deadline and then, a second deadline that came and went earlier this year. By this January, six of the seven states had reached an agreement, but they couldn’t get California on board, so the plan couldn’t go ahead.

Buschatzke said that ongoing negotiations among the states are roughly aimed at reaching an agreement somewhere between the two proposals outlined by the federal government. He cautioned that another wrinkle in the bargaining is the possibility for a lawsuit over changes to the water priority system.

The proposals came as the feds rolled out another tool that’s meant to alleviate some of the Colorado River shortage, a so-called compensated conservation program that will pay major water users to leave some of their water in the river.

Earlier this month, the Gila River Indian Community announced a plan that will have the federal government pay the tribe up to $150 million over three years in exchange for foregoing up to 125,000 acre-feet of water.

The cities of Phoenix and Tucson have also said they’ll participate in that program in coming years, in moves that will save tens of thousands of acre-feet of river water and bring millions of dollars to the cities.