As the river shrinks, the Biden administration is getting ready to impose, for the first time, reductions in water supplies to states.

An aerial view looking down on rocky orange cliffs on a receding Lake Powell. A long concrete ramp at left extends into the distance out of frame, but stops short of the water. A couple of tiny cars are parked toward its end.
A boat launch ramp that no longer reaches the water at Lake Powell outside Page, Ariz.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

By Christopher Flavelle

April 11, 2023

WASHINGTON — After months of fruitless negotiations between the states that depend on the shrinking Colorado River, the Biden administration on Tuesday proposed to put aside legal precedent and save what’s left of the river by evenly cutting water allotments, reducing the water delivered to California, Arizona and Nevada by as much as one-quarter.

The size of those reductions and the prospect of the federal government unilaterally imposing them on states have never occurred in American history.

Overuse and a 23-year-long drought made worse by climate change have threatened to provoke a water and power catastropheacross the West. The Colorado River supplies drinking water to 40 million Americans as well as two states in Mexico, and irrigates 5.5 million agricultural acres. The electricity generated by dams on the river’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, powers millions of homes and businesses.

But the river’s flows have recently fallen by one-third compared with historical averages. Levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell are so low that water may soon fail to turn the turbines that generate electricity — and could even fall to the point that water is unable to reach the intake valves that control its flow out of the reservoirs. If that happened, the river would essentially stop moving.

The Biden administration is desperately trying to prevent that situation, known as deadpool. But it faces a political and ethical dilemma: How to divvy up the cuts required.

The Interior Department, which manages the river, released a draft analysis Tuesday that considered three options.

The first alternative was taking no action — a path that would risk deadpool. The other two options are making reductions based on the most senior water rights, or evenly distributing them across Arizona, California and Nevada, by reducing water deliveries by as much as 13 percent beyond what each state has already agreed to.

Several farm workers, one wearing an orange safety vest, pick broccoli early in the morning on a bright day next to a truck where two other workers are processing the broccoli that’s picked.
Workers picking broccoli in Imperial County, Calif., which gets nearly 80 percent of its water from the Colorado River. Credit…Mette Lampcov for The New York Times

If changes were based on seniority of water rights, California, which among the seven states is the largest and oldest user of Colorado River water, would mostly be spared. But that would greatly harm Nevada and force disastrous reductions on Arizona: the aqueduct that carries drinking water to Phoenix and Tucson would be reduced almost to zero.

“Those are consequences that we would not allow to happen,” Tommy Beaudreau, the deputy secretary for the Interior Department, said in an interview on Monday.

Arizona and Nevada are both important swing states for President Biden, if he decides to run again next year. Both states also have Senate seats held by Democrats who are up for re-election in 2024.

Chuck Coughlin, a political consultant who worked for former Republican governor Jan Brewer, said that if the Biden administration limits the pain imposed on Arizona, he had “no doubt” it would benefit Mr. Biden politically.

Another challenge with letting the cuts fall disproportionately on Arizona: Doing so would hurt the Native American tribes that rely on that water, and whose rights to it are guaranteed by treaty. Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, which is entitled to a significant share of Colorado River water, said the goal should be “a consensual approach that we can all live with.”

Spreading the reductions evenly would reduce the impact on tribes in Arizona, and also help protect the state’s fast-growing cities. But it would hurt Southern California’s agriculture industry, which helps feed the nation, as well as invite lawsuits. The longstanding legal precedent, often called the law of the river, has been to allocate water based on seniority of water rights.


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