April 15, 2023
By Bruce Babbitt
Mr. Babbitt, the secretary of the Interior Department in the Clinton administration, is a former governor of Arizona.
The Interior Department last summer dropped a bomb on the seven states that depend upon the Colorado River for water. It declared an emergency over the two-decade drought that was parching the West and instructed these states, already scrambling to conserve water, to come up with a plan to cut consumption of as much a four million acre-feet, an amount equal to about one-third of the Colorado’s annual flow.
Then, after delivering this blow, the agency retreated to the sidelines. Instead of taking the lead, it urged the seven states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — to figure out how to make the cuts themselves.
Since then the states have engaged in futile discussions about how much water each must forgo. Tensions have been most acute among Arizona, California and Nevada, the three states that get their water primarily from large reservoirs instead of stream flow and therefore are the only ones who can be ordered to make reductions. Arizona and California, whose allotments are much larger than Nevada’s, should make the biggest cuts, but they have been sharply divided over how to carry them out.
This week, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at last entered the negotiations over how the cuts — revised down to two million acre-feet — should be allocated. Her agency released a draft with three options, but it clearly favors one in which the water delivered to Arizona, California and Nevada is reduced by the same percentage for each state.
Secretary Haaland’s decision to engage offers hope for resolving a problem that threatens the livelihood and welfare of cities and farms throughout the seven states. But laying out these options is not nearly enough. Interior must now take charge of the negotiations and get the parties to consensus. Without that, disaster awaits: The Colorado River’s Lake Mead reservoir, formed by the Hoover Dam, will continue falling toward “deadpool,” the level at which water isn’t high enough to get through the dam to users downstream in Arizona, California and Nevada.
Coming to agreement will not be easy. To date, California has offered insufficient reductions in its water use, claiming that a federal law enacted more than 50 years ago — before climate change reared its head — places much of the burden of cutting back on Arizona.
Arizona has responded that California’s proposal would effectively shut down water deliveries to Phoenix, Tucson and other cities, devastating Arizona’s economy.
As the states quarreled and the Interior Department stood by and watched, precious time was lost. Secretary Haaland must make up for it, and fast. The impending crisis demands that she use all powers at her disposal to force the parties to make their fair share of cuts.
Interior has some firepower to pressure the parties toward agreement. All water users, cities and farmers alike, that take water from Lake Mead must have a contract with the department detailing the terms and conditions on which water is delivered from the reservoir. A regulation known as Section 417 empowers the department to periodically review those contracts to assure that water is being delivered and used with maximum efficiency; contracts can be adjusted to reduce water use that is not absolutely necessary.
The task that Interior must now undertake is to review hundreds of contracts to squeeze out wasteful or unnecessary water deliveries from Lake Mead. It will be arduous and time-consuming but it will help ensure that Arizona and California don’t dodge or delay the necessary cuts. If the states are reluctant to cooperate, Interior can modify the contracts itself.
One opportunity is clear: About 80 percent of Colorado River water delivered to Arizona and California goes to irrigating alfalfa, grain for animal feed and winter vegetables. There is still plenty of room for more efficient water use there.
If no agreement is reached, there will be litigation. When Arizona and California took their differences over the river to the Supreme Court in 1952, the court took 11 years to reach a decision. Imagine the harm that a regulatory delay of that length would cause today.
If states continue the present level of withdrawals from the reservoirs as climate-induced drought accelerates, Lake Mead (now at 28 percent capacity) and another reservoir, Lake Powell (23 percent), which is upstream on the Utah-Arizona border, could reach deadpool in the coming years. That would undermine the dams on those reservoirs, dry up the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon and shut off water to Arizona and California, leaving their lawyers arguing their case to a wasteland.
A black swan event is also in the mix. Across the upper basin of the Colorado River, in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, winter storms have dumped record snowfalls. Some of the spring runoff now flowing into Lakes Powell and Mead is more than 150 percent of normal, leading some of my acquaintances in the West to suggest the crisis is easing and we can relax. They would like to put off the difficult decisions and the resulting cuts.
But waiting will only amplify the crisis. With accelerating climate change and aridification spreading across the West, delay will increase the deficit in our reservoirs, making resolution even more difficult. Interior needs to act now.