Colorado River ‘cuts’

States in the Colorado River Basin have missed another federal deadline to make significant cuts to water usage

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The seven Colorado River Basin states missed a Jan. 31 federal deadline to come up with a plan to reduce their use of the Colorado River. Six of the states came up with a proposal, but California did not join.

The near-consensus isn’t enough — California has rights to 4.4 million acre-feet, the most in the basin. 

According to the Associated Press, the six states’ plan would result in 2 million acre-feet of cuts in the Lower Basin (Arizona, California, Nevada), with smaller cuts in the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming). California has yet to release a plan, but developed a proposal last October to cut 400,000 acre-feet. 

The request from the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river, asked states to voluntarily cut usage by 2 to 4 million acre-feet in response to the ongoing drought and historically low water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell reservoirs. An acre-foot is roughly as much water as two households use in a year. 

Because California’s water rights are considered “senior” to Arizona’s, the Golden State interprets the law to mean Arizona should cut its supply before California. Officials in Arizona say cuts should be shared. The Upper Basin states have said the Lower Basin states should receive the most cuts. 

Now, without agreement, the federal government could be responsible for enforcing cuts. 

Water management has been a point of focus for President Biden, with $8.3 million allocated to address water and drought challenges through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The allocation includes $300 million to implement the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan. 

This is the second federal deadline the Colorado River Basin states have missed, the first being in August 2022. 

Lake Powell and Lake Meade, the country’s largest reservoirs, are nearly 75% empty. As levels continue to decrease, stakeholders raise concern about “dead pool” levels as soon as 2025. 

“We are in a crisis,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told the Los Angeles Times. “Both lakes could be two years away from either dead pool or so close to dead pool that the flow out of those dams is going to be a horribly small number. And it just keeps getting worse.”

Dead pool levels mean the dam can no longer release water downstream. 

Gary Wockner, co-founder of Colorado-based Save the Colorado, says our state isn’t stepping up to the plate.

“Colorado is all over the board,” he says. “They’re not committing to any consequential cuts at all. And they’re not just proposing more dams, they are actually building more dams to take more water out of Colorado.”

One of those projects is Denver Water’s expansion of Gross Reservoir, west of Boulder. The expansion will more than double the reservoir’s capacity. Additionally, Northern Water is building a new reservoir, Chimney Hollow, near Berthoud. Northern Water says the reservoir will supply 30,000 acre-feet of water. 

Proponents say these expansions will help meet future water demand for the expanding population in the Front Range.

But Wockner is focused on environmental outcomes, which means opposing new dam expansions that draw from the Colorado River supply. 

“The State of Colorado wants to stop every drop of water they think they legally own at the state line rather than running it downstream,” he says. 

The Bureau of Reclamation is set to release a proposal on how to operate the Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs and their adjacent dams (Glen Canyon and Hoover) in March, with the goal of finalizing it by mid-August. 

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