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

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

The backstory: With water levels at Lake Powell, one of two main reservoirs on the river, falling quickly toward the point where hydropower production and water deliveries could be jeopardized, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton issued a June ultimatum to the seven states that rely on the river’s flows. She told them to agree on a plan to save 2 million to 4 million acre feet of water — as much as a third of the river’s flows — or the federal government will intervene.

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

The federal plan: Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary of Interior for water and science, acknowledged that, “without prompt, responsive actions and investments now, the Colorado River and the citizens that rely on it will face a future of uncertainty and conflict.”

She said the Bureau of Reclamation will develop a “detailed workplan” outlining steps that can be taken to protect the system. Those include potentially tapping its authority to define what constitutes a beneficial use of water in the thirsty Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada, and incorporating evaporation into the amount of water parties are entitled to.

But each of those moves would require an administrative process to make, and comes with its own set of legal and political landmines.

Instead, the tangible actions Interior is beginning now relate to preparing to operate the reservoirs at critically low levels. That includes investigating whether Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell needs to be reengineered to allow larger quantities of water to be released when water levels fall below the hydropower turbines.

There are some water delivery cuts: Hydrologic projections released by Interior Tuesday show water levels at Lake Mead dropping further and, under the terms of a 2019 drought plan signed by the states, put the Lower Basin in a “Tier 2” shortage. That locks in additional water delivery cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico beyond the first-ever delivery cuts that were instituted last year. But those cuts were already included in Interior’s planning and amount to just a fraction of what water managers say is needed now.

The reactions: While major players on the river expressed appreciation for the extra time to reach an agreement, they also underscored the unresolved issues that have stymied a deal so far.

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

“It is unacceptable for Arizona to continue to carry a disproportionate burden for reductions for the benefit of others who have not contributed,” Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke said in a statement.

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

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which, like many urban users, holds lower-priority rights to water, argued that users need to prepare to cut their consumption over the long-term, not just for one year, as some farmers are seeking.

“As these discussions continue, we urgently call on everyone who relies on Colorado River water, including communities across Southern California, to prepare for reduced supplies from this source, permanently,” Adel Hagekhalil, the district’s general manager, said in a statement. “This is not simply a drought that will end, allowing reservoir levels to recover on their own – this is a drying of the Colorado River Basin.”

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