Arizona, California, and Nevada could lose up to a quarter of water deliveries combined next year if conditions are bad.

Side canyons and sand bars emerge in a shrinking Lake Powell. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue – April 11, 2023

Following a brief but intense period of consultation and analysis, the Biden administration unveiled a pair of short-term options to sustain water levels in key Colorado River reservoirs in the next three years.

Framed by the salt-encrusted canyon walls above Lake Mead, officials from the Interior Department joined colleagues from state and tribal agencies to release a draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) that describes how operating procedures at lakes Powell and Mead might be altered to preserve water. The alterations could reduce water deliveries to the lower basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada by as much as a quarter combined next year and even more in 2025 and 2026.

The big question: how will those cuts be distributed among the states? One option is based on historical priority. The other gives each state the same percentage of the cuts.

Managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the two massive reservoirs are the largest water-storage facilities on a river that provides up to 40 million people with a portion of their drinking water and 5.5 million acres of farmland with irrigation. Yet after more than two decades of below-average precipitation they are closer to empty than full. Combined, water fills just a quarter of their storage space.

The draft SEIS is a stop-gap response. Tommy Beaudreau, the Interior deputy secretary, said that the options in the draft document allow the Bureau of Reclamation to respond to declining river flows. The hope, he said, is for ample precipitation so that drastic cuts are not immediately necessary. But the agency is willing to take action to keep the reservoirs from falling below critical levels — 950 feet at Mead, 3,500 feet at Powell — that would endanger power generation and the ability to release water downstream.

“We’re going to protect those minimum critical levels at both Powell and Mead in order to accomplish that,” Beaudreau said.

To that end, the draft SEIS provides two “bookend” options, in which the burden of supply cuts falls on different users.

One option is to apply cuts according to “priority.” This is the water rights system that privileges those who claimed water first. California, with its senior rights, is largely spared in this scenario.

The second option would distribute the cuts proportionally to all users in the three lower basin states. In this scenario if water use must be cut by 10 percent in the lower basin, each state — Arizona, California, and Nevada — would see its allocation reduced by 10 percent. California, in this case, takes a bigger share of cuts than in the first option.

A third option required of all such analyses is “no action,” meaning keeping the status quo.

The volume of cuts would be the same in the two options. For 2024, that means a maximum of just over 2 million acre-feet. About half of these cuts — 1.1 million acre-feet — are part of existing conservation agreements and would happen regardless. The draft SEIS envisions an additional 983,000 acre-feet of cuts next year if reservoirs are low. But that high-end number only applies if Mead is below 1,040 feet. Cuts are smaller at higher reservoir levels.

In the first option — the one guided by the priority system — all of the additional cuts beyond 1.1 million acre-feet are borne by Arizona and Nevada. In the second option, with shared pain, each state takes the same percent cut. How does that look in practice? In 2024 under the first option, Arizona would take 83 percent of the total shortage cuts. Under the second option, just over half.

In 2025 and 2026, cuts would get progressively more severe as reservoirs drop, topping out at a 4 million acre-foot cut if Mead is below 950 feet. Again, 1.1 million acre-feet of cuts are part of existing agreements and will happen regardless.

The seven basin states could not agree to a unified plan before the draft SEIS was published. Six states submitted a plan and California, the lone holdout, submitted its own. Farmers in California’s Imperial Irrigation District have some of the most secure rights on the river and would be protected under a plan that applies cuts according to priority.

Arizona has junior priority for its Central Arizona Project canal, which delivers Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson. Arizona officials have said they will not accept a solution that dries up the canal in favor of senior users. The state is “seeking an equitable outcome,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

The seven states remain in negotiations, officials said. What they want is agreement, not litigation. Lawsuits could mire the basin in court while reservoirs drop.

The draft SEIS is just a precursor to longer-term changes. Current rules for operating the reservoirs expire at the end of 2026. A new set of rules is being negotiated in parallel with the interim, three-year changes proposed in the draft SEIS.

A number of other options were considered for the draft SEIS — filling Lake Mead first, decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam, accounting for evaporation and seepage, importing water — but they were deemed insufficient for detailed analysis. That’s because they either did not meet the objective of continuing to operate both dams or they lacked enough data. The draft also does not consider additional cuts for Mexico, which also uses Colorado River water.

Once the draft SEIS is published in the Federal Register on Friday, a 45-day public comment period begins. Federal officials will refine their options and then select their preferred one. They expect a final SEIS this summer and a record of decision before August so that the document can inform management decisions next year.

Turn of Fortune

The draft SEIS is being published amid a remarkable winter. The Colorado River basin — and the western states as a whole — are benefitting from a notable turn of hydrologic fortune. As SEIS consultations began last fall, the mood was grim. Reservoirs were on a downward plunge and the odds favored another subpar winter.

Federal officials were set to release 7 million acre-feet from Lake Powell this year and were prepared to throttle back releases if conditions warranted. There were fears of a “doomsday scenario” in which as little as 5 million acre-feet would be released. But then winter hit. And it snowed, and snowed, and rained, and snowed.

Today, the year’s outlook is much improved. Spring and summer runoff into Lake Powell is projected to be three times higher than last year and the highest since 2011. The reservoir could rise more than 20 feet in the next 12 months, and releases will be at least 7.8 million acre-feet, which will help Lake Mead.

Water managers view the turn of fortune with cautious appreciation. They know that one above average year does not markedly alter the basin’s path toward a drier future.

“We’ve had other good precipitation years during this 23-year drought,” Beaudreau said. “And yet the downward trajectory of the system has worsened. We cannot kick the can on finding solutions.”

The proposed changes to reservoir operations in the draft SEIS are one of many actions federal, state, and tribal officials have taken in recent years to prevent Mead and Powell from falling unacceptably low. They have released water from reservoirs higher in the watershed, redoubled conservation efforts, paid water users not to take water, and reduced releases from Powell.

Buschatzke of the Arizona Department of Water Resources said that those measures have prevented the reservoirs from crashing. But the approach was too piecemeal. The draft SEIS is an opportunity for substantial change.

“We need to have an outcome in which the cuts are big enough that we don’t have to do these emergency operations every few months,” Buschatzke said. “Because it’s an impossibility to keep that up from a staffing perspective. And I think we lose the confidence of the public, if they don’t see us taking major steps, creating an outcome in which we are stabilizing the system for a long time out into the future.”