States and Interior Department are still wrestling over process, compensation for conserving a river that sustains millions 

By Joshua Partlow

May 17, 2023

The Colorado River flowing from Lake Mead toward the Hoover Dam last month. (Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)


After nearly a year wrestling over the fate of their water supply, California, Arizona and Nevada — the three key states in the Colorado River’s current crisis — have coalesced around a plan to voluntarily conserve a major portion of their river water in exchange for more than $1 billion in federal funds, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

The consensus emerging among these states and the Biden administration aims to conserve about 13 percent of their allocation of river water over the next three years and protect the nation’s largest reservoirs, which provide drinking water and hydropower for tens of millions of people.

But thorny issues remain that could complicate a deal. The parties are trying to work through them before a key deadline at the end of the month, according to several current and former state and federal officials familiar with the situation.

Participants are discussing cutting back about 3 million acre-feet of water over the next three years, the majority of it paid for with federal money approved in the Inflation Reduction Act. But the parties are still negotiating how much of those water savings will go uncompensated. In meetings over the last month, representatives for the three states, which form the river’s Lower Basin, have also raised doubts about the federal government’s environmental review process that is now underway to formally revise the rules that govern operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

State officials have suggested they could make a deal on their own and are resisting a May 30 deadline to comment on the alternatives the federal government has laid out in that process, according to people familiar with the talks. The review process is intended to define Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s authority to make emergency cuts in states’ water use, even if those cuts contradict existing water rights.

These developments represent a new phase in the long-running talks about the future of the river. For much of the past year, negotiations have pitted California against Arizona, as they are the states who suck the most from Lake Mead and will have to bear the greatest burden of the historic cuts that the Biden administration has been calling for to protect the river. But these states now appear more united than ever and are closing their differences with the federal government, even as significant issues remain unresolved.

The Interior Department declined to comment on the status of the private negotiations. The Colorado River commissioners from Arizona, California and Nevada also declined to comment.

The Colorado River runs through seven states and supplies more than 40 million people with water, and is a major resource for agriculture in the western U.S. But the river has been drying up for decades, and water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead — both reservoirs on the river — hit historic lows in the past year.

A combination of chronic water overuse and historic drought, accelerated by a warming climate, is draining the river. Snow has been abundant in California this year, and while the snowpack helps replenish the reservoirs, it won’t solve the Colorado River crisis or reverse the effects of a 23-year drought.

What’s being done to save the Colorado River?

It’s complicated. States could agree to cut back on their water use, or the federal government could step in. But cuts could affect the farming regions that keep supermarkets stocked with fresh produce in the winter months, or populations of cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles, or both. But if nothing is done, experts fear that the impact could be even worse.

Some water authorities in the West want to ensure that any deal that emerges would entail binding commitments among the Lower Basin states, which draw from Lake Mead and consume more of the river each year than the states of the Upper Basin: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

“We want to support the Lower Basin if they have significant additional reductions, verifiable, binding and enforceable,” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner for the negotiations. “Are we going to make a choice to do better? If we don’t want the secretary to manage us, can we show we can manage ourselves?”

The Colorado River runs 1,450 miles from the Rocky Mountains to Mexico and is a vital lifeline for cities and farms throughout the West. But climate change has made the region hotter and drier, and exposed how rules made over a century ago to share the river among Western states are inadequate to keep it from drying up.

Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam are seen from a helicopter in October. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

In June, with Lake Mead and Lake Powell about a quarter full and nearing levels where the hydroelectric dams could no longer produce power, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton testified before the Senate that states needed to stop using 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water — up to one-third of the entire average annual flow — or the federal government would step in to protect the river.


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