.The seven states that rely on the river for water are not expected to reach a deal on cuts. It appears the Biden administration will have to impose reductions.
Graphics by Mira Rojanasakul
Jan. 27, 2023
WASHINGTON — The seven states that rely on water from the shrinking Colorado River are unlikely to agree to voluntarily make deep reductions in their water use, negotiators say, which would force the federal government to impose cuts for the first time in the water supply for 40 million Americans.
The Interior Department had asked the states to voluntarily come up with a plan by Jan. 31 to collectively cut the amount of water they draw from the Colorado. The demand for those cuts, on a scale without parallel in American history, was prompted by precipitous declines in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which provide water and electricity for Arizona, Nevada and Southern California. Drought, climate change and population growth have caused water levels in the lakes to plummet.
“Think of the Colorado River Basin as a slow-motion disaster,” said Kevin Moran, who directs state and federal water policy advocacy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re really at a moment of reckoning.”
Negotiators say the odds of a voluntary agreement appear slim. It would be the second time in six months that the Colorado River states, which also include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, have missed a deadline for consensus on cuts sought by the Biden administration to avoid a catastrophic failure of the river system.
Without a deal, the Interior Department, which manages flows on the river, must impose the cuts. That would break from the century-long tradition of states determining how to share the river’s water. And it would all but ensure that the administration’s increasingly urgent efforts to save the Colorado get caught up in lengthy legal challenges.
The crisis over the Colorado River is the latest example of how climate change is overwhelming the foundations of American life — not only physical infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, but also the legal underpinnings that have made those systems work.
A century’s worth of laws, which assign different priorities to Colorado River users based on how long they’ve used the water, is facing off against a competing philosophy that says, as the climate changes, water cuts should be apportioned based on what’s practical.
The outcome of that dispute will shape the future of the southwestern United States.
“We’re using more water than nature is going to provide,” said Eric Kuhn, who worked on previous water agreements as general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Someone is going to have to cut back very significantly.”