Energy & Environment

California submits separate Colorado River usage plan

FILE – People walk by cracked earth in an area once under the water of Lake Mead at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Jan. 27, 2023, near Boulder City, Nev. California released a plan Tuesday, Jan. 31, detailing how western states reliant on the Colorado River could save more water, a day after it was the only state that didn’t sign a proposal agreed to by six states in the basin. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

California’s water agencies have issued an alternate proposal for dividing usage of the Colorado River, two days after the other six states in the basin issued a joint proposal of their own.

The proposal, announced late Tuesday night, is based in part on existing agency commitments announced in 2022 that state officials say would preserve 400,000 more acre-feet of water per year. It is distinct from the submission by the other six states, which would rely on California for the majority of the necessary water reductions in the river’s lower basin. This proposal, the California agencies wrote, directly contradicts the Law of the River that currently governs apportionment.

“The alternative provides a realistic and implementable framework to address reduced inflows and declining reservoir elevations by building on voluntary agreements and past collaborative efforts in order to minimize implementation delays,” state Colorado River Commissioner J.B. Hamby said in a statement. “California’s alternative protects critical elevations and uses adaptive management to protect critical reservoir elevations through the interim period.”

Earlier this week, the other six states in the river basin — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — submitted their own proposed alternative, which would update 2007 guidelines for the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell and the Hoover Dam at Lake Mead. Neither the six states’ proposal nor the California submission constitute a binding agreement.

Representatives of the six states have been negotiating for months over usage of the river, which is severely overallocated due to a century-old usage agreement that has not been updated as water demand evolved. The states had agreed to a rough Jan. 31 deadline, with the Federal Bureau of Reclamation saying it could step in to unilaterally impose cuts if a new usage agreement could not be reached in the meantime.

In a statement to The Hill, the Arizona Department of Water Resources said the proposal adheres to the California definition of the Law of the River but does not account for the practical conditions along the river.

“[Bureau of Reclamation] Commissioner [Camille] Touton last June requested that states in 2023 begin conserving 2-4 million acre-feet – an emergency broadly brought on by drought, climate-change and over-use. But in the real world, the main culprit is an annual deficit of 1.2-1.5 million acre-feet – a deficit that tracks with the failure to account for evaporation and water lost prior to delivery to end users,” the statement reads. “That is a physical reality that strict adherence to the Law of the River avoids.”

The Hill has reached out to the water authorities in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming for comment. “[O]ngoing conversations with the Basin states, Tribes, water managers, farmers, irrigators and other stakeholders are helping to inform the supplemental process,” an Interior Department spokesperson told The Hill in an email.

A spokesperson for the Southern Nevada Water Authority told The Hill it has not yet fully reviewed the California proposal.

This story was updated at 5:30 p.m.

Tags California Colorado River Department of the Interior Federal Bureau of Reclamation JB Hamby Law of the River Southern Nevada Water Authority

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