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With new plans, Colorado River states draw battle lines over who should bear the brunt of future water cuts

Seven Western states are starting to plot a future for how much water they’ll draw from the dwindling Colorado River in a warmer, drier world.

The river is the lifeblood for the West – providing drinking water for tens of millions, irrigating crops, and powering homes and industry with hydroelectric dams.

After water levels at the nation’s two largest reservoirs – lakes Powell and Mead – dropped precipitously in 2021 and 2022, the states got a huge reprieve during the record winter snowpack in 2022. Farmers, tribes and cities are also using less water, bolstered both by wetter conditions and federal cash for water cutbacks.

This has bought states more time to figure out how to divvy up the river after 2026, when the current operating guidelines expire.

To that end, the four upper basin river states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming submitted their proposal for how future cuts should be divvied up among the seven states to the federal government on Tuesday, and the three lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada submitted their plan on Wednesday.

One thing is clear from the competing plans: The two groups of states do not agree so far on who should bear the brunt of future cuts if water levels drop in the Colorado River basin.

It’s a pressing problem as the river shrinks; scientists estimate Colorado River flows have decreased by about 20% compared to the early 20th century. A 2023 UCLA study found rising temperatures from climate change had sucked more than 10 trillion gallons of water out of the river basin in just the last two decades alone – a volume about the size of Lake Mead itself.

“We must plan for the river we have – not the river we dream for,” Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission, said in a statement.

A general overall aerial view of Lake Mead along the Nevada and Arizona border near Boulder, City Nevada, on February 16, 2024. - Kirby Lee/Getty Images/File
A general overall aerial view of Lake Mead along the Nevada and Arizona border near Boulder, City Nevada, on February 16, 2024. - Kirby Lee/Getty Images/File

Both plans envision maximum water cuts of nearly 4 million acre-feet per year under a worst-case scenario where water levels crater across the basin. But the crux of the disagreement between the two groups hinges on whether all seven states should be expected to contribute cuts.

The upper basin proposal puts mandatory cuts on the three lower basin states if Lake Mead falls to a certain threshold, while offering the four upper basin states would also undertake voluntary reductions. It does not, however, provide specific water cut commitments for those voluntary reductions.

The four-state plan “seeks to acknowledge the upper basin’s realities, including hydrologic shortages, protect upper basin interests, and contribute towards future sustainability of the entire basin,” Estevan Lopez, New Mexico’s commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the lower basin plan proposes monitoring water levels in seven different reservoirs across the upper and lower basins, including the Flaming Gorge Reservoir and lakes Havasu and Mohave, in addition to Mead and Powell, to determine when cuts would be necessary.

If water levels across the seven reservoirs were to drop below 69%, the lower basin plan has California, Arizona and Nevada taking the brunt of cuts. If, however, water levels across the system were to drop below 38%, the lower basin plan would spread cuts ranging between 1.5 million to 3.9 million acre-feet across all seven states, plus the country of Mexico – which also uses river water.

“That is where we think the entire basin needs to be on deck and contributing,” said John Entsminger, the general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “Literally every water user across seven states and two countries needs to be part of the solution if we’re in that operating regime.”

It’s been more than 20 years since water levels were high enough to prevent water cuts under the proposed stipulations of the lower basin plan. Water levels at reservoirs across the Colorado basin started to fall in the mid-2000s and have never fully recovered.

Arizona’s top water official Tom Buschatzke told reporters Wednesday the upper basin plan “basically puts the entire burden of protecting the river system” on California, Arizona and Nevada.

“They take no reductions under any circumstances, as I understand the proposal,” Buschatzke said. “What I need to see out of the upper basin is a proposal in which they help contribute to the protection of the river system in a way that has certainty.”

The Colorado River flows south from Hoover Dam and Lake Mead as viewed from a commercial flight on September 1, 2023, near Boulder City, Nevada. - George Rose/Getty Images/File
The Colorado River flows south from Hoover Dam and Lake Mead as viewed from a commercial flight on September 1, 2023, near Boulder City, Nevada. - George Rose/Getty Images/File

The federal government and its Bureau of Reclamation – the agency responsible for managing the West’s complex system of reservoirs, rivers and dams – has legal authority over the lower basin but not the upper basin under the current law of the river. But California’s top Colorado River negotiator JB Hamby said that reality shouldn’t give upper basin states an out from sharing in future reductions.

“Arguing legal interpretations until we’re blue in the face doesn’t do anything to proactively respond to climate change,” Hamby told reporters. “I think there’s two different ways that this whole problem has been approached; one has been PR and lawyering, the other has been collaboration and compromise.”

The current negotiation is a continuation of several years of tense talks between the seven states. States scrambled to figure out how to dole out short-term cuts as Mead and Powell levels plummeted suddenly in 2021 and 2022 – a product of overuse colliding with a climate change-fueled megadrought across the West.

California – the river’s largest water user – found itself isolated during that fight, as the six other states banded together. Ultimately, the lower basin states forged a landmark short-term deal.

New battle lines are being drawn, but some states urged everyone to come back to the negotiating table to hash out a compromise all seven states could agree on, and the federal government will eventually approve.

“I know the sexy headline is going to be four versus three states on the brink, but we are at one step in this process,” Entsminger said, noting the final decision isn’t due until the end of 2026.

“While there is a very large gap between the upper basin and the lower basin proposal, I believe it is incumbent upon the seven governor’s representatives to get back to the table in the spirit of shared sacrifice and bridge that gap.”

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