Interior imposes limited water cuts, but lets Colorado River talks go into overtime

Officials did not commit to a strict new deadline for action, but said there would be work on additional agreements “throughout the rest of the year, at least”.

The backstory: With water levels at Lake Powell, one of the river’s two main reservoirs, rapidly falling to the point where hydroelectric generation and water deliveries could be compromised, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, issued an ultimatum in June to the seven states that depend on the river. flows. She told them to agree on a plan to save 2 million to 4 million acre feet of water — up to a third of the river’s flows — or the federal government will step in.

But states have been locked in a dispute over how to share the pain between them and how much to compensate farmers and others who forego water use, and have failed to reach a deal before today’s deadline.

The federal system: Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Science, acknowledged that “without swift and responsive action and investment now, the Colorado River and the citizens who depend on it will face a future of uncertainty and conflict. “.

She said the Bureau of Reclamation will develop a “detailed work plan” outlining what steps can be taken to protect the system. These include potentially harnessing its authority to define what constitutes beneficial water use in the thirsty lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada, and incorporating evaporation into the amount of water to which the parties are entitled.

But each of these moves would require an administrative process and comes with its own set of legal and political landmines.

Instead, the tangible actions that the Interior is now beginning relate to preparing for the operation of reservoirs at extremely low levels. This includes an investigation into whether the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell needs to be redesigned to allow the release of greater amounts of water when water levels fall below hydroelectric turbines.

There are a few water cuts: Hydrological projections released Tuesday by Interior show Lake Mead water levels falling further and, under the terms of a 2019 drought plan signed by the states, putting the lower basin into a “Level 2” shortage. This locks in additional water delivery cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico beyond the very first delivery cuts that were instituted last year. But those reductions were already included in Interior planning and are only a fraction of what water managers say are needed now.

The reactions : While key river players expressed appreciation for the additional time needed to reach an agreement, they also highlighted the unresolved issues that have so far stalled a deal.

Arizona’s top water official and chief of its main distribution system argued that their state, which is first in line for cuts, has done more than its fair share so far.

“It is unacceptable that Arizona continues to bear a disproportionate burden for reductions to benefit others who have not contributed,” said Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke and the Central Arizona project general manager Ted Cooke in a statement.

California’s Imperial Irrigation District, the largest user of Colorado River water whose participation in conservation is seen as essential to any solution, said it “looks forward to learning more” about the financing of voluntary water conservation projects. The district also noted that it was “strongly encouraged” by the funding included in the Democrat-only spending bill that could be used to restore the Salton Sea where an ongoing environmental disaster could be made worse if farmers in the region use less water.

Meanwhile, Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, which like many urban users holds lower-priority water rights, argued that users must be prepared to reduce consumption over the long term, not just for a year, as some farmers seek.

“As these discussions continue, we urgently call on all those who depend on water from the Colorado River, including communities in Southern California, to prepare for a permanent reduction in supplies from this source,” he said. said Adel Hagekhalil, the district’s chief executive, in a statement. “It’s not just a drought that will end, allowing reservoir levels to recover on their own – it’s a drying up of the Colorado River basin.”


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