On Monday, Colorado and five other Colorado River compact states reached a plan (which they called “an alternative framework”) to cut usage of the river, to preserve flows that don’t just water the West – but provide hydroelectric power for more than 40 million people). But one state isn’t on board — California.
As reported earlier by Ark Valley Voice, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gave the seven states which rely on the Colorado River Basin for water until January 31 to come up with a plan to reduce their water usage of the river, or the federal government would do it for them.
“California’s decision not to join this consensus is deeply disappointing,” said Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet in a statement. “We are facing the most serious drought in 1,200 years. California must step forward and be part of the solution. For too long, the other six states, and particularly the Upper Basin, have carried the burden of this historic drought. I urge Interior Secretary Haaland to recognize the leadership of these six states and enact their consensus proposal.”
On Friday, amid negotiations, Bennet addressed the Colorado Water Congress about the urgent work ahead to secure the future of the Colorado River Basin. Bennet urged the seven states to make difficult decisions and come to an agreement.
California, one of the states with the most to lose if water levels at lakes Mead and Powell fall below levels required to produce electric power, has outright rejected the plan. The last-minute proposal from six of the seven states outlined the possible water cuts they agreed to make to prevent the reservoirs from falling below levels where they can no longer produce electricity. But California, which also happens to be the single largest user of water from the Colorado River, refused the proposal.
According to a report by the LA Times, “The six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — called their proposal a ‘consensus-based modeling alternative’ that could serve as a framework for negotiating a solution. They submitted it one day ahead of an end-of-January deadline that federal water officials had set for the states to present a consensus proposal.”
California appears to have rejected it because much of the proposed water cuts involve tracking evaporation and other water losses in the river’s lower basin. This change means that California would be accountable for larger reductions than the state says it will accept.
The proposal, hammered out at last week’s Water Congress in Denver, is an attempt by the states’ water officials to self-regulate. Given the impasse, the federal government may need to step in.
Lakes Mead and Powell are the nation’s two largest reservoirs and as of this month, they stand about three-quarters empty. While the upper basin states have been meeting their water obligations and delivering Colorado River water into the reservoirs, the lower basin states, California in particular, has been using water from the two reservoirs at faster rates than they can be filled.
In July, 2021, three Colorado River Basin reservoirs were partially drained to keep Lake Powell producing hydropower. According to the Colorado Water conservation board Director Becky Mitchell, the six-state proposal recommends accounting for more than 1.5 million acre-feet of water losses and calls for implementing “additional voluntary conservation measures across the four Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico.
The depletion of the Colorado River has been called “a slow-moving natural disaster — one that threatens the livelihoods of 40 million people across seven basin states. “While many of the states have worked together to reach an agreement that works for everyone, California refuses to do its part,” said Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Arizona). “We cannot wait any longer.”
“The Colorado River is running out of water, and if we don’t act soon, we could lose much of the American West as we know it,” said Bennet. “Six of the seven states in the Colorado River Basin— Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, and Nevada—did exactly what we needed. We forged a common vision that will protect the Colorado River and the 40 million people, and more than 30 Tribes, who rely on it.
The West is in the 23rd year of prolonged drought; in fact, the western U.S. hasn’t been this dry in 1,200 years. Water usage and water use reductions are measured in “acre-feet”. An acre-foot is enough water to supply two to three U.S. households for a year.
Featured image: A nook of Lake Powell that used to be underwater shows the reservoir depletion. It is fed by the Colorado River. Image U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.