A dry dilemma: Reclamation publishes two water allocation options for Colorado River

The proposal offers two paths which either allocates based on the priority of water rights or cuts evenly across the three lower basin states.

The Department of Interior, Washington, D.C., released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement April 11 with the intention of supplementing the 2007 Interim Guidelines for Colorado River Basin management and “to modify guidelines for operation of Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam to address historic drought, historically low reservoirs and low runoff conditions.” 

The document outlines two options for reducing demand on the river and ensuring that the Bureau of Reclamation “has the tools to protect continued water deliveries and hydropower production for the 40 million Americans who rely on the Colorado River.” 

The first outlined option would allocate water based on the priority of water rights. The second would cut allocations evenly across the three lower basin states, including California, Arizona and Nevada, under shortage conditions. The proposal would reduce those totals across these states by as much as 13% over what they had already agreed to through a model released by six states in January. 

“Drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have been two decades in the making,” says Camille Calimlim Touton, Bureau of Reclamation commissioner. “To meet this moment, we must continue to work together, through a commitment to protecting the river, leading with science and a shared understanding that unprecedented conditions require new solutions. The draft released today is the product of ongoing engagement with the Basin states and water commissioners, the 30 Basin Tribes, water managers, farmers and irrigators, municipalities and other stakeholders. We look forward to continued work with our partners in this critical moment.” 

Its impacts on the irrigation industry are also important, says Nathan Bowen, Irrigation Association advocacy director. 

“This proposal has wide-ranging implications for the irrigation industry in both the ag and landscape sectors,” says Bowen. “It further highlights the import of our industry’s efforts to elevate the impact and value of irrigation with external stakeholders and continue our efforts to ensure maximum efficiencies in terms of water use.” 

Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau says that the administration’s proposal is a productive step toward shoring up reliable water and energy for those who rely on the Colorado River Basin.  

“The Colorado River Basin provides water for more than 40 million Americans. It fuels hydropower resources in eight states, supports agriculture and agricultural communities across the West, and is a crucial resource for 30 Tribal Nations. Failure is not an option,” says Beaudreau. “Recognizing the severity of the worsening drought, the Biden-Harris administration is bringing every tool and every resource to bear through the president’s Investing in America agenda to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System now and into the future.” 

The proposal comes on the heels of negotiations between the January agreement among Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, to cut back on Colorado River water use while California released its own plan. 

Despite the contention at the time, JB Hamby, Colorado River Board of California chairman and California’s Colorado River commissioner, says that the state is committed to finding a policy that works for all seven Colorado River Basin states and that the SEIS will be reviewed by key stakeholders as a part of the effort to reach that end. 

“California remains committed to developing a seven-state consensus that will protect the Colorado River system for the duration of the current guidelines,” says Hamby. “California looks forward to closely coordinating and collaborating with our partners in the other Basin States, Basin Tribes and Reclamation to review the draft SEIS in full.” 

The Bureau of Reclamation will accept public comment on the SEIS through May 30, 2023. Instructions on how to comment can be found in the Federal Register, which will be published on April 14, 2023. The agency will also host virtual public forums. 

Read more about the Colorado River. 

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