Feds cut Colorado River allocation to Arizona and Nevada as talks break down

States along the Colorado River officially missed a federally imposed deadline to develop a new water-sharing agreement, and the federal government announced further water allocation cuts on Tuesday, including nearly 25% off in Arizona.

The Colorado River basin serves seven states – an upper basin of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and a lower basin of Arizona, California and Nevada – and its waters are spread over the basis of the terms of a century-old agreement from there. there was a lot more water in the river.

Meanwhile, the region is facing a 20-plus-year drought, the worst in centuries.

In June, the Department of the Interior gave states 60 days to agree on a new allocation plan for an additional 15% cut on top of expected federal cuts before the federal government intervenes. This period expired on Tuesday.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Federal Bureau of Reclamation officials announced reductions in the annual water allocation to Arizona and Nevada, as well as Mexico, which is also a party to the pact. . The bureau will withhold about 21% of Arizona’s annual water allocation next year, as well as 8% of Nevada’s.

California will not see its allocation affected, and no immediate changes are expected for the Upper Basin.

“Everything blew up” during negotiations last week, Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, told The Hill in an interview.

“You’ve had parties bringing a fair amount of water to the table. Others didn’t even want to be bothered coming to the table with something meaningful,” Roerink said. As a result, by Monday evening the states had failed to reach an agreement “because the nation’s largest reservoirs are running out quickly.”

In January, Lake Mead will be at the level required for a level 2 shortage, 1,050 feet below sea level, for the first time ever, according to federal officials.

Roerink called the breakdown a microcosm of poor relations between stakeholders on the river. The main players, whom he dubbed the “water buffaloes”, “bragged about their ability to collaborate, coordinate and negotiate in a civilized manner, but if the past week is any indicator, people aren’t singing ‘Kumbaya’ “they sharpen their knives,” he said.

Rather than negotiating toward a mutually beneficial deal, he said, the parties focused on reaching an arrangement that benefits them at the expense of others.

“What we’re seeing is a situation where people are talking about legislation, litigation, other tactics to try to get the best deal they think is for their respective constituencies,” he said. “But I think one way to describe what we’re seeing so far is that there are entities that think it’s a zero-sum game.”

John Entsminger, chief executive of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, specifically blamed what he called “drought profit.” in a Monday Letter to Federal Officials.

“Over the past 20 years, there have been several years where there were opportunities not to take all the water from the system, but we did it anyway,” said senior program manager Christopher Kuzdas. water to the Environmental Defense Fund. “So we continued to draw on our water supplies in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. And so these water supplies in these lakes, almost 60 million acre-feet of water, it’s our buffer that has allowed us to continue to use more water than actually provided by the river each year .

Now, however, water use has exceeded the cushion provided by Lakes Mead and Powell, Kuzdas said. To compound the problem, another abnormally dry winter in the Rocky Mountains could reduce snow runoff to the point that there isn’t enough storage in the two reservoirs to avoid “a major breakdown of the snow supply system.” water”.

Notably, an X-factor is present that was not there in June: billions of dollars in drought preparedness funds for the river from the Cut Inflation Act, the fiscal and climate package that President Biden Tuesday sign. The law includes $4 billion in funds to rent, buy or save water for the beleaguered basin.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton and other federal officials stressed in Tuesday’s phone call the flexibility the funds will provide, but also acknowledged the reality of the cuts.

“As serious as this situation is, there is cause for encouragement,” said Under Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau. “We are providing resources in the form of infrastructure investments to help with water supply, system improvements to support efficiency and support for users, including irrigators, because everyone needs to tighten the belt in this situation.”

Kuzdas called the Inflation Reduction Act funds “a really positive thing” in charting the way forward. However, he said, the affected area will still need to develop longer-term plans to adapt water use to the available water supply in a warmer world.

“Are we going to need a lot more funding to do this? Probably… But we’ve kind of started to go down the road where we’re looking for real sustainable solutions that involve less water use year on year as a model, probably permanently,” he said.

“I think the question then ultimately becomes, well, if money is the only way to solve all these problems, are we going to put ourselves in a position where year after year Uncle Sam opens his checkbook?” said Roerink.

—Updated 3:17 p.m.

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