Energy & Environment

Feds cut Colorado River allocation to Arizona, Nevada as talks fail

Correction: Any earlier version of this file misidentified the level required for a Tier 2 shortage.

States along the Colorado River have officially missed a federally imposed deadline to develop a new water-sharing agreement, and the federal government on Tuesday announced new water allocation reductions, including nearly 25 percent in cuts to Arizona. 

The Colorado River basin serves seven states — an Upper Basin of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and a lower one of Arizona, California and Nevada — and its waters are allocated based on the terms of a century-old agreement from when there was substantially more water in the river.

Meanwhile, the region is facing a 20-years-and-counting drought, the worst in centuries.

In June, the Interior Department gave the states 60 days to agree on a new allocation plan for an additional 15 percent reduction on top of expected federal reductions before the federal government stepped in. That period expired Tuesday. 

In a news conference Tuesday, federal Bureau of Reclamation officials announced cuts to the yearly water allocation to Arizona and Nevada, as well as Mexico, which is also party to the compact. The bureau will withhold about 21 percent of Arizona’s yearly water allocation next year, as well as 8 percent of Nevada’s.

California will not see its allocation affected, and no immediate changes are planned for the Upper Basin.

“Everything blew up” in negotiations last week, Kyle Roerink, executive director at the Great Basin Water Network, told The Hill in an interview.  

“You had some parties bringing a good chunk of water to the table. Others didn’t even want to be bothered with coming to the table with anything meaningful,” Roerink said. As a result, as of Monday evening, the states had not reached an agreement “as the nation’s largest reservoirs rapidly deplete themselves.” 

In January, Lake Mead will be at the level required for a Tier 2 shortage, 1,050 feet above sea level, for the first time ever, according to federal officials. 

Roerink called the breakdown a microcosm of the poor relations among stakeholders on the river. The major players, whom he dubbed the “water buffaloes,” have “touted their ability to collaborate and coordinate and negotiate in a civilized manner, but if the last week is any indicator, folks are not singing ‘Kumbaya,’ they are sharpening their knives,” he said.  

Rather than negotiate towards a mutually beneficial agreement, he said, parties have been focused on reaching an arrangement that benefits them at the expense of others. 

“What we are seeing is a situation where folks are talking about for legislation, litigation, other tactics to try and get the best deal, they believe, for their respective constituencies,” he said. “But I think one way to describe what we’re seeing so far is that there are entities out there that think this is a zero-sum game.” 

John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, specifically blamed what he referred to as “drought profiteering” in a Monday letter to federal officials.  

“Over the last 20 years, there’s been several years where there were opportunities to not take all the water from the system, but we still did,” said Christopher Kuzdas, a senior water program manager with the Environmental Defense Fund. “So we kept drawing down our water supplies in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. And so those water supplies in those lakes, almost roughly 60 million acre-feet of water, that’s been our buffer that has allowed us to keep going forward using more water than actually provided by the river each year.” 

Now, however, water use has exceeded the cushion Lakes Mead and Powell provided, Kuzdas said. Compounding the issue, another abnormally dry winter in the Rocky Mountains could reduce runoff from snowpack to the point that there is insufficient storage in the two reservoirs to avert “a major water supply system failure.” 

Notably, one X-factor is present that wasn’t there in June: billions of dollars in drought preparedness funds for the river from the Inflation Reduction Act, the tax and climate package President Biden is signing into law Tuesday. The law includes $4 billion in funds to rent, buy or save water for the beleaguered basin. 

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton and other federal officials emphasized in Tuesday’s phone call the flexibility the funds will provide, but acknowledged the reality of the cuts as well.

“As dire as this situation is, there are reasons for encouragement,” Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said. “We’re bringing resources to the table in the form of infrastructure investments to help with water delivery, improvement so the system to support efficiency, and support for users, including irrigators, as everyone has to tighten their belts in this situation.” 

Kuzdas called the funds in the Inflation Reduction Act “a really positive element” in charting a path forward. However, he said, the affected area will still need to develop more long-term plans to adjust for water use in line with the available supply of water in a warmer world.  

“Are we going to need a lot more funding to do that? Probably … But we’ve kind of started going down the path where we’re looking at real lasting, durable solutions that involve less water use year over year as a pattern, probably permanently,” he said. 

“I think the question then ultimately becomes, well, if money is the only way to solve all these problems, are we going to be putting ourselves in a position where year after year, Uncle Sam open up his checkbook?” Roerink said. 

—Updated on August 17 at 9:11 a.m.

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