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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Three Colorado River states propose new water cuts

A large gray dam wall is wedged between red rock cliffs with a view of Lake Powell in the distance.
Ted Wood
/
The Water Desk
As water levels in Lake Powell keep dropping, some say they could fall too low to pass through Glen Canyon Dam at sufficient levels. Activists are calling for changes to the dam's plumbing to keep enough water flowing to the states that depend on it downstream.

Leaders from three states along the shrinking Colorado River say they are ready to start taking less water from it. In a proposal announced Monday, users and policymakers in California, Arizona and Nevada committed to reducing their take of the river until the end of 2026, when an existing set of management rules expire.

The states have proposedcommitments to conserve 3 million acre-feet of water over the span of three years, significantly less than the amount federal officials and scientists said were necessary to stabilize the Colorado River system.

At least $1.2 billion in funds from the Inflation Reduction Act will be used to incentivize conservation among the region’s farmers, cities and tribal nations.

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said this new proposal doesn’t fix the river’s supply and demand imbalance, and hard decisions and conversations will continue.

“But hopefully we’re going to discuss those issues now with a stabilized Colorado River system,” Buschatzke said. “Unlike last summer when we were trying to discuss really tough issues with uncertainty about whether the system would crash into the mud.”

Wet winter weather this year eased pressure on state leaders to negotiate deeper cutbacks. Lake Powell, the river’s second-largest reservoir, is expected to rise at least 50 feet in elevation by mid-summer.

“This is a short-term deal to build stability and to prepare us for 2026,” Brenda Burman, general manager of the Central Arizona Project that delivers Colorado River water to farmers, cities and tribes throughout the state, said.

Last summer the situation on the Colorado River was much more dire. Its biggest reservoirs were threatening to dip low enough that they would lose the ability to generate hydroelectric power. In a Senate committee hearing in June 2022, Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told lawmakers the agency’s models indicated the river’s users needed to conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet per year to keep the river’s reservoirs from reaching critically low levels.

Federal officials began a process to make changes to the river’s current managing guidelines and put forth two options for how to enforce cutbacks among the state’s Lower Basin states -- California, Arizona and Nevada.

In response, state leaders returned to the negotiation table to craft their own alternative that federal officials would accept. Previous agreements, like the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans and the 2021 500-Plus plan, were billed as necessary measures to get the basin’s users through to 2026. Those agreements proved to be inadequate in imagining just how low the Colorado River’s reservoirs could drop.

“We’ve now led ourselves here, to this last and final juncture here, with the Lower Basin Plan that under our modeling shows guarantee of protection from those critical elevations,” said J.B. Hamby, chair of California’s Colorado River Board. “So what this really does is provide a bridge to the next set of guidelines, and allows us the space and the stability to not put out dumpster fires.”

The proposal now requires federal review before it is finalized. Lower Basin states plan to begin to implement their conservation commitments prior to a final decision from the federal government, Hamby said.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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