In 2007, the seven states that rely on the Colorado River for water reached an agreement on a plan to minimize the water shortages plaguing the basin. Drought had gripped the region since 1999 and could soon threaten Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the largest reservoirs in the nation.
Now, that future has come to pass and the states are again attempting to reach an agreement. The Colorado River faces a crisis brought on by more than 20 years of drought, decades of overallocation and the increasing challenge of climate change, and Lake Mead and Lake Powell, its largest reservoirs, have fallen so low that their ability to provide water and generate electricity in the Southwest is at risk. But reaching consensus on how to avoid that is proving to be more challenging than last time.
“The magnitude of the problem is so much bigger this time, and it’s also so much more immediate,” said Elizabeth Koebele, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Monday night, six states in the Colorado River Basin submitted a plan to the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency in charge of the damming and distribution of water in the West, laying out a potential way to protect the major reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead from reaching critically low levels, which could result in the loss of electricity for millions of Americans in the Southwest and largely block the river’s water from reaching Arizona, California and Nevada.
But California, the state that uses the greatest amount of water and has the strongest rights to the river, didn’t join the others that submitted the proposal to the federal agency. Instead, the state proposed its own plan with less drastic cuts. That means that for the second time in less than a year, the seven states that rely on Colorado River Water—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming—yet again failed to reach an agreement to cut back water usage.
“Unfortunately, despite numerous meetings and intensive good faith efforts, a seven-state consensus was not reached,” California wrote in its letter outlining its proposal.
In 2007, when the interim guidelines for shortages in the lower basin of the river were established, the Bureau of Reclamation pushed for the states to come up with a consensus agreement, Koebele said. They did that, which helped inform the guidelines. Without a consensus, she said, the current proposals don’t carry the same weight.
The issue then was seen as a short-term problem, said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, an organization focused on freshwater issues in Nevada and Utah. Now, he said, stakeholders realize the river has changed for the long run.
“Nobody wants to give up what they’ve got going for themselves in any part of the basin,” he said. “That’s why this is painful.”
The January 31 deadline, however, was not for states to come up with a final solution on how to deal with the ongoing drought along the Colorado River and the need to drastically scale back the amount of water the states use. Rather, the timing was set by the states themselves to provide a model for the Bureau of Reclamation to evaluate as a potential alternative to either no action being taken, or the federal agency deciding itself how to cut back water usage along the river over the next three years.
“There’s a little bit more wiggle room than we initially thought” for coming up with an agreement, Koebele said.
In November, Reclamation announced it would conduct a supplemental environmental review of the 2007 interim guidelines with an eye toward confronting the low water levels of the reservoirs in the future. The supplement would modify the operations of the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams to avoid reaching water levels so low they could interrupt power generation or cease supplying downstream users in the coming years. The states have been asked to come up with a plan to cut between 2 and 4 million acre feet from the amount they are currently using.