Feb 1, 2023 - Politics

Feds could take cues on water cuts from proposal

A water line shows how much water levels in Lake Mead have dropped.

Lake Mead's water level in June 2021. Photo: Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images

California was the lone holdout on a proposed framework that six of the seven Colorado River basin states submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on Monday; but the plan could still be influential as the feds determines how to apportion water cutbacks that everyone will take.

Driving the news: Tuesday was the deadline for the seven basin states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — to reach an agreement.

  • The bureau announced last year it wants to conserve an additional 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water due to the ongoing drought gripping the West.
  • If the states can't agree on cuts, the feds are expected to impose a solution.
  • The framework, known as the Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative (CBMA), would conserve just under 2 million acre-feet.

1 big deadline: The bureau needed the basin states' input for the environmental impact statement its crafting to show what effect any water plans will have on Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which store Colorado River water.

  • The bureau is expected to model three solutions: no action, a federally designed plan, and changes based on proposals from basin states.

Yes, but: The failure to reach consensus doesn't doesn't necessarily mean the six-state plan won't be influential.

  • "In the end it will be too difficult for the states to get to agreement and the federal government will act," Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU's Morrison Institute for Public policy, predicted to Axios Phoenix. "But those actions may very well be informed by the recommendations here in this letter."
  • While there isn't really time to craft a completely new agreement that the bureau could factor into its analysis, Porter thinks California and the other basin states could still forge an agreement to play a role in the resolution.
  • "There probably aren't that many different choices on how to address keeping Lake Mead and Lake Powell from crashing," she tells us. "But it all boils down to leaving water in the system that otherwise would come out."

Details: It's unclear how those cuts would be apportioned among recipients of water from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), the canal system that transports water from the Colorado River to the interior of the state.

  • Arizona lost 592,000 acre-feet of CAP water this year under the terms of a 2019 Drought Contingency Plan (DCP).

Of note: California's water rights legally take precedence over other Colorado River users, which could spark litigation if they're unhappy with any federally mandated resolution.

  • California would take more cuts than Arizona, Nevada and Mexico combined under the framework to compensate for evaporation and losses from transporting water.

State officials have long argued that evaporation and system losses should be apportioned based on the priority of water rights, according to the Arizona Daily Star.

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