Fri. Mar 31st, 2023


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Colorado River plan still isn’t enough, California isn’t on board

5 min read

Most states in the Colorado River Basin now agree on a starting point to save the drying river, but it’s not enough, experts say, and the plan is missing the biggest player in the West.

Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming published a strategy Monday evening to save water from the Colorado River, on which some 40 million people depend. The move drew applause from politicians, and condemnation from environmentalists. Others pointed fingers at California, the biggest water user in the basin, and expressed disappointment in its decision not to join the other states.

Water scientists and legal experts gave the strategy mixed reviews and federal officials held silent on the specifics. Nobody pushes back on the notion that the entire Colorado River Basin must find a way to use much less water in a matter of months or face disastrous consequences.

What began as a drought and then transformed into what’s called a megadrought is now even worse. Scientists call it aridification, which means the American West will remain drier than it was just a few decades ago.

“At this stage, we’re falling back to ancient and pre-modern water-management strategy, which is praying for rain,” Rhett Larson, a water law professor at Arizona State University, said.

In short, the six states agreed they must account for the water lost to evaporation or as it’s transported across thousands of miles of desert. They then said that lower-basin states of Arizona, California (which didn’t agree to the plan) and Nevada should accept additional cuts to their water use if the level at Lake Mead falls below certain elevations.

Evaporation and transfer loss is a meaningful starting point, Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, said. But the country’s two largest reservoirs, lakes Powell and Mead, are already at historic lows and waiting until they sink further to make cuts doesn’t make sense.

“Let’s cut the crap,” Udall said. “We don’t have elevation to give away right now.”

All told, the six-state plan doesn’t save the smallest amount of water required by the federal government. Evaporation, transfer loss and the tiered water cuts to the lower basin combine to save as much as 1.95 million acre-feet.

An acre-foot is a volumetric measurement, a year’s worth for two average families of four.

At a minimum, the states must save 2 million acre-feet a year, federal officials announced last summer, but now water experts are wondering whether the basin must save three times that much, more than Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming combined use in a single year.

The states blew past the first deadline for a plan in August and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation set another one for Tuesday.

Larson said the partial plan amounts to another missed deadline and expected more of the same.

“As long as they keep giving us these deadlines with no teeth, we’re just going to keep missing these deadlines,” he said.

The existing proposal isn’t enough to qualify as a long-term plan, but it might be enough for the basin to survive until it can agree on one, Udall said.

Federal officials’ reaction to the plan remains unclear. After the states published it Monday, a representative for U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton canceled a Tuesday morning interview with The Denver Post and directed questions to the U.S. Department of Interior, which offered no additional insight.

Ultimately, officials with reclamation and interior will have to decide how the basin can best conserve water, even if all seven states aren’t in agreement.

California doesn’t appear poised to join up with the others, either. JB Hamby, California’s Colorado River commissioner, said the current proposal might be illegal and that his state would instead offer its own plan, UPI reported.

Jennifer Gimbel, senior water policy scholar at Colorado State University, empathized with California and acknowledged that the state’s political structure makes it difficult to find a consensus on water cuts.

Not only does the state draw the most water from the Colorado River but its Imperial Irrigation District is the largest single water consumer in the basin and grows food for people across the world.

Forcing more water cuts on the Imperial Irrigation District is a tall order, Udall said, hypothesizing that perhaps it’s more politically convenient for the state to let federal officials force the changes.

“Politics in California kind of demand this,” Udall said. “Maybe it’s a lot better for them, politically, to have a bad guy impose (cuts) on them.”

Representatives from the Colorado River Board of California did not respond to a request for comment.

Federal officials aren’t likely to take immediate action either way; they need a few more months to finish an updated study on the river, which will yield recommendations for how best to share the water shortage throughout the basin. The plan published Monday from the six states will be taken into consideration while reclamation develops that plan.

Despite whatever shortcomings the existing strategy might have, Gimbel said she’s pleased six states found common ground instead of battling between the upper basin and the lower basin.

Negotiations will continue between all seven states and federal officials in the coming months, Gimbel said, acknowledging the complexities involved.

“This has been a very difficult path. A hard-negotiated and scientifically analyzed path,” Gimbel said.

Mark Squillace, a water law professor at the University of Colorado, was less complimentary.

“It’s all well and good to say that six of seven states agreed,” Squillace said. “But what they’ve agreed to is to dump most of the responsibility on the state that didn’t agree.”

Squillace said he doesn’t consider Monday’s announcement a serious proposal. Any realistic assessment, he said, must include major changes to the agriculture industry, the biggest water consumer in the West. In addition, upper-basin states should accept cuts to their water use as well to more equitably spread the pain, he said.

The path forward is narrow, Squillace said, and if the basin falters it risks a cascade of lawsuits over proposed water cuts, which would be expensive but also time-consuming and the region doesn’t have time to spare.

Larson once feared that legal entanglement but faced with such slow progress, he reversed course.

“We should sue each other,” he said. “At least a lawsuit is a structured way in which we talk to each other. It would force us to disclose information, force us to have conversations.”

As a backdrop to all these negotiations, Colorado is seeing, so far, above-average snowfall on its Western Slope, where the river’s headwaters sit.

But climate change means that hotter temperatures and drier soils sap much of that moisture. Even with large amounts of snow, less water is running off into the Colorado River.

The region is so parched that a single winter with above-average snowpack isn’t nearly enough to refill the river and its reservoirs, Udall said.

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