Energy & Environment

Arizona water chief predicts feds will step in on Colorado River conflict

The federal government will likely end up putting its foot down in a state-to-state squabble over cuts in Colorado River consumption, Arizona’s water chief told The Hill.

“We will continue to try to get an agreement,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “The path we’re on seems like the federal government’s going to step in.”

Negotiations among the seven states that rely on this key Western waterway have been taking place for months, with the goal of significantly reducing usage of an overallocated resource.

The states had agreed to a rough deadline of Jan. 31, aware that the Federal Bureau of Reclamation had threatened to impose cuts itself if an agreement failed to materialize.

What did materialize were two opposing proposals — a joint deal from six out of the seven states last Monday and a competing offer from the outlier, California, on Tuesday.

The details of the plans are so incompatible that the government will likely intervene, either with a unilateral solution or a combination of imposed and voluntary measures, according to Buschatzke, who has served as Arizona’s chief negotiator in the matter.

“Differences between the six-state proposal and California’s proposal just further cements in my mind that that’s the path we’re on,” Buschatzke said.

Some 40 million people across seven U.S. states and Mexico rely on the Colorado River for drinking water, agriculture and hydroelectric power. But this lifeblood of the West is governed by a century-old agreement that allotted river users with more water than was actually available. 

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 divided the U.S. states into two sections that would each receive 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year. Upper Basin states are Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin comprises Arizona, California and Nevada.

Two decades after the domestic compact, a cross-border agreement — the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944 — earmarked an additional 1.5 million acre-feet each year to Mexico, where the river historically met its endpoint in the Sea of Cortez.

A single acre-foot of water today can meet the annual needs of between one and three U.S. West households, depending on the precise location.

One major focus of the six-state plan, negotiated by Buschatzke and his colleagues, involves sharing the burden for water losses that occur during evaporation and transit.

The plan calls for combined reductions of 250,000 acre-feet — 93,000 acre-feet for Arizona, 10,000 for Nevada and 147,000 for California — when the water level of the Lake Mead reservoir reaches an elevation of 1,030 feet and below.

Additional collective cutbacks of 200,000 acre-feet would apply to these states if Lake Mead’s elevation plunged to 1,020 feet and below.

Today, Lake Mead sits at an elevation of 1,046.97 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

California’s competing proposal, on the other hand, adheres to the basin’s traditional water “priority” system determined in the 1922 compact. That system granted the largest Colorado River allocation to California, despite its location at the end of the waterway.

The proposal builds on previous agency commitments, through which the Golden State would conserve an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water each year through 2026. Also included in the plan are voluntary cuts of 560,000 acre-feet from Arizona and 40,000 acre-feet from Nevada.

Additional reductions would occur if the elevations of Lake Mead and of Lake Powell — a second key reservoir — drop further.

A statement from California’s Colorado River Board, which represents local water agencies, described the proposal as a “realistic and implementable” solution that upholds an “existing body of laws.”

Stressing that the six-state proposal “directly conflicts” with the historic water rights system, the agency also criticized the opposing plan for its focus on “evaporative losses.” The California solution, on the other hand, would “minimize the risk of legal challenge,” according to the board.

Buschatzke said he does not view this type of language as a serious legal threat, as Western states all recognize the benefit of collaborative solutions over lengthy litigation.

“I don’t see it as a threat so much as them staking out their position publicly about their view that the priority system should be strictly adhered to,” he said.

“There are many interpretations of what that priority system requires, not just California’s interpretation,” Buschatzke added, noting that this system contains certain “inequities.”

California’s plan, according to Buschatzke, would lead to Arizona shouldering an outsized proportion of the necessary cutbacks. He also expressed concern over the uncertain nature of the proposal, which predominantly relies on voluntary action.

“We’re not in a position to have that uncertainty hanging over our heads,” Buschatzke said. “Reservoirs are too low, and we’re too close to the edge to be able to afford an outcome in which an uncertain voluntary program might create the volume of water we need.”

Asked when he thinks the federal government will officially step in, Buschatzke said that although there is no “hard and fast deadline,” he believes this will occur by the end of March.

By that point, the Bureau of Reclamation is expected to publish a draft environmental impact statement probing several alternatives to the current Colorado River operating guidelines.

Those alternatives were supposed to include a “consensus-based” proposal from the seven states — to be submitted by Jan. 31 — as well as an in-house plan “applicable under federal law,” according to a fall announcement from the Interior Department.

The Bureau of Reclamation at the time issued a notice of intent that it was “initiating an expedited, supplemental process” to protect Lakes Powell and Mead — with an expected first draft released in “Spring 2023” and an end date of “late Summer 2023.”

Finishing up by summer would allow the outcome to be integrated into a hydrological report that “sets the operating criteria for the water year and the calendar year,” Buschatzke explained.

But to get there, the agency must meet milestones required by the National Environmental Policy Act — such as public comment periods — at set time intervals, according to Buschatzke.

The Hill has reached out to the Interior Department about whether there is a firm deadline as to when the government will step in and publish the draft.

While the government has yet to divulge its in-house alternative, Buschatzke said that one possible solution could combine mandatory cutbacks and voluntary compensation measures.

The Biden administration launched a similar such program this fall, allowing select Colorado River users to receive federal funds in return for conserving water.

Buschatzke stressed, however, that Bureau of Reclamation officials “have in their own minds their own federal alternative that they’re going to address” and that he is not privy to the details.

Regardless of whether the federal government does step in, the Arizona water chief said that it is “incumbent upon us to do everything we can to try to get a collaborative outcome.”

“If we’re not talking, we’re not getting to any agreement,” he continued. “That doesn’t mean that because we are talking, we will. But I know if we don’t talk, we’re not getting to one.”

“So we’re going to continue to get in a room and there will be some continued difficult conversations,” Buschatzke added.

Tags Arizona California Climate change Colorado River System Colordao Mexico Nevada New Mexico Utah Wyoming

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