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'We built a house of cards:' Deal or not, Colorado River states stare down major cuts

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg

Good morning, and welcome to Indy Environment.

First, some personal news. The newsletter is going to an every other week as I start research on a book project about water in the Great Basin. This schedule will also allow me to focus on some in-depth projects and stories. 

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at [email protected].

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Major Colorado River cuts must be made, one way or another. The only looming questions are when and on what terms, with negotiators scheduled to resume interstate meetings this week.

The Colorado River remains in an unfolding and worsening crisis. Demand far exceeds supply. Long-term drought, worsened by climate change, has meant less water refilling the river’s large reservoirs as water users have continued to overtap them. Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas, is the grim evidence, where, at 27 percent full, old boats have washed ashore in what can feel like an apocalyptic scene. The math is unavoidable: Without cuts, the reservoir will keep dropping.

For months, federal officials prepared the public to expect an announcement on large-scale cuts to Colorado River use by mid-August. But that target date came and went last week without any new action being taken or the seven states within the Colorado River basin agreeing to a consensus-based plan for water reductions in 2023.  Or as the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s John Entsminger wrote in a letter, “the last sixty-two days [of interstate negotiations] produced exactly nothing in terms of meaningful action to help forestall the looming crisis.”

Yes, some cuts went into effect for Nevada, Arizona and Mexico. Yet it’s important to note that these cuts were already planned for, accounted for and agreed to in several deals struck over the past 15 years. The cuts are not negligible; Arizona will have its apportionment reduced by 21 percent, and Nevada’s apportionment will be trimmed by 8 percent. Still, the cuts are not nearly enough to stop the rapid decline of reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

In June, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water systems across the West, gave the states what appeared to be an ultimatum. Agency officials said the seven states must find a unified way to make significant reductions in use by mid-August or risk the federal government stepping in. All states and all sectors were instructed to participate. So it came as a surprise to many when, by mid-August, with no agreement in hand, federal water officials did not announce any unilateral cutbacks. And now the question is: What’s next?

The reality is that, even with the original deadline passing, there is reason for the states to cut more — and act this year. Without action, Lake Mead will continue to drop, risking a major (and in some places, the only) water supply for users downstream in Arizona, California and Mexico. Only Nevada, with its “third straw,” can take water from Lake Mead if the reservoir drops below what is known as “dead pool,” a threshold at which water cannot pass through Hoover Dam. If the large-scale cuts are deferred any longer, it means more uncertainty for all water users.

In an interview, Bill Hasencamp, who manages Colorado River water for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest municipal water purveyor in the country, said that the absence of a short-term plan, combined with continued dry years, “is not a good world at all.”

“The worst case is we have two really dry years,” he said. “And then we have to have cuts that are unplanned [and] unpredictable. We fall into litigation [and] our water supply is uncertain.”

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, echoed this sentiment during a press conference last week: “If we don’t act in 2023 and Mother Nature does not bail us out — which none of us are counting on because that’s a hope, not a plan — what we might have to do in 2024 is going to even be exponentially greater and more difficult to do.”

Water shortages do not always happen overnight, but they can compound quickly.

The seven states in the Colorado River Basin are set to meet this week. Although all seven states are expected to be at the meeting, the focus is likely to zero in on reaching a deal among the three states that comprise the Lower Colorado River Basin: Arizona, California and Nevada. 

The Lower Basin relies on Lake Mead as a storage reservoir. Together, the Lower Basin states (mainly Arizona and California) use more water than the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. As a result, water users are looking to the Lower Basin states (again, mainly Arizona and California) to bear most of the cuts — and negotiate a deal. 

Entsminger recognized this in his letter, writing that “the bulk of the responsibility to cut use falls upon water users downstream of Hoover Dam, because that is where the bulk of water is used.”

This, however, is where talks broke down over the summer. Negotiators in the Lower Basin are  working against a backdrop of historical conflicts, legal claims, unanswered questions about the federal government’s authority — or what it is willing to do — and shifting realities about what the river looks like as the climate changes. One shortage plan, offered by Arizona and Nevada, was rejected. Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, suggested last week that California and the federal government “were not comfortable moving forward on that basis.” 

California, as a whole, has the largest allocation of Colorado River water — yet it has not taken cuts (under current agreements, cuts will likely go into effect for California next year). California has “senior” rights to Colorado River water relative to the Central Arizona Project, a canal that runs through the state. That means, at the most extreme, California does not have to take a cut before the entire 336-mile canal runs dry, an outcome that would trigger a major national crisis.

But California wants a deal to reflect its priority, as was clear in a statement the Colorado River Board of California gave to the Arizona Daily Star, saying the Arizona and Nevada plan “was not respectful or in line with the existing priority system.” At the same time, Arizona, which already made significant cuts, has said it will not agree to a plan that puts all of the onus on the state. California bears risk with the system crashing, Arizona officials argue, and must cut back more.

As for the magnitude of the cuts, it’s difficult to get a clear answer. The interstate negotiations occur in closed-door sessions, and the proposed cutbacks can fluctuate throughout the talks.

Generally, it comes down to this: How much does Arizona give up? How much does California give up? And that calculus is being considered as negotiators prepare for even tougher talks about how the river should be managed after 2026. No one wants to forgo too much. Then there is the question of compensation. If agricultural users consume most of the water and are going to be asked to bear the brunt of the cuts, how much should agricultural districts be compensated to conserve water? This was another major sticking point in the talks among the states earlier in the summer, with some asking for large amounts of funding.

Or as Entsminger stated in his letter, “the unreasonable expectations of water users, including the prices and drought profiteering proposals, only further divide common goals and interests.”

JB Hamby, a board member of the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California, said it is important that any plan recognizes the senior rights held by California and agricultural districts, in particular. But he said California’s Colorado River users are willing to compromise by bringing water or funding to the table. Hamby said he recognizes the risk facing California if a deal is not negotiated, given the fact that the Colorado River is the district’s only water supply.

Not meeting the mid-August timeline, he argued, “shouldn’t be viewed as a failure,” noting that past agreements took multiple years to complete. He added that “there’s a lot of moving parts.”

But time is running out quickly to put a plan in place by 2023. Water users in the three states, especially Arizona and California, are planning their water orders for the following year. This is where federal action could come into play. Although the federal government did not take unilateral action last week, officials did not foreclose a possibility of required cuts in the coming weeks. In fact, the federal government hinted at a few ways it could take action. One option would be to account for evaporation losses from reservoirs, including Lake Mead. 

In an Instagram Live this week, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said the federal agency “is ready to act to protect the system with or without our partners.” Touton added that, for now, the agency is still looking for a consensus-based plan.

Pat Mulroy, the former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said a real threat of federal action might motivate the states, but the threat has to be more than rhetoric. 

“I think the federal government is going to have to rattle their sabers,” she said. “And I think the federal government putting an evaporation proposal on the table will start the sabers moving.”

As for the Upper Basin, Mulroy noted that the federal role is more limited. But she said “the only thing…I would do to give more credibility to the efforts of the Lower Basin is I would stop the St. George pipeline dead in its tracks,” referring to a Utah plan to divert water from Lake Powell.

These talks about short-term cuts are only the start of harder negotiations. Many unanswered questions remain about how the river’s century-old framework operates in times of severe shortage and in an environment that is aridifying faster than water users have adapted to it.

Mulroy likened some of the issues embedded in the system to a “house of cards.”

“And,” she added, “we stacked one bad idea on top of another bad idea.”

Workers at Cortez Hills Mine, a gold deposit discovered in 2002 in the Cortez Mountains in Crescent Valley, Nevada. (Nina Riggio/The Nevada Independent)

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

Last week, The Nevada Independent and High Country News published the second part of our investigation into business practices at Nevada Gold Mines. Our story focused on worker concerns about safety, and it was thoroughly reported over the past few months. In addition to talking with workers, we interviewed Barrick Gold CEO Mark Bristow, who acknowledged that the company’s Nevada division had the worst safety record out of all Barrick operations. We are continuing to report on this. If you have a story to share, we have an anonymous tip form.

Whether it’s lithium mining or solar fields, in so many ways, the Mountain West has found itself at the epicenter of a global energy transition away from fossil fuels and toward electrification. It is a complicated transition, more tricky than many make it out to be. But these nuances are not lost on The L.A. Times’ Sammy Roth, who published an excellent piece this week on a transmission line extending across the sagebrush sea. A lot of Nevada in this story.

A desert debut: Michael Heizer’s City in Lincoln County will open to visitors. More from Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times, with stunning visuals from Todd Heisler and Noah Throop.

“A rare deep olive and silver minnow found only on a private ranch in Nevada’s Fish Lake Valley may qualify as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services,” The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Jimmy Romo reported earlier this week. 

KTNV’s Darcy Spears reveals the top water users in the Las Vegas Valley. This quote from Las Vegas Valley Water District spokesperson Bronson Mack puts their exorbitant residential water use into perspective: “The vast majority of those residential highest water users are using more water in a single month than the average household uses in an entire year.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) held a press conference at the Las Vegas Valley Water District, asking federal officials to take a more active role in the Colorado River negotiations and disbursement of federal funds, The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Colton Lochhead reports.

Gov. Steve Sisolak appointed Entsminger, Mulroy and his climate advisor Kristen Averyt to a three-person committee on water. The Las Vegas Sun’s Bryan Horwath has the story.

Municipal water utilities are looking to more conservation, KUNC’s Alex Hager reports.


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