US Outlines Options to Reduce Use of Colorado River

States, tribes have until May 30 to comment
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 12, 2023 12:40 AM CDT
US Proposes Options to Reduce Use of Colorado River
FILE - Water from the Colorado River diverted through the Central Arizona Project fills an irrigation canal on Aug. 18, 2022, in Maricopa, Ariz.   (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

The Biden administration released an environmental analysis Tuesday that outlined two ways that seven Western states and tribes reliant on the overtapped Colorado River could cut their use, but declined to publicly take a side on the best option, the AP reports. One option would be more beneficial to California and some tribes along the river that have high-priority rights to the river's water. The second option is likely to be more favorable to Nevada and Arizona, who share the river's Lower Basin with California and say it's time for an approach that more fairly spreads the pain of cuts. That approach would force cuts on a proportional basis, when water levels at key reservoirs along the river dip below a certain point.

The Interior Department defended its authority to make sure basic needs such as drinking water and hydropower generated from the river are met—even if it means setting aside the priority system. “At the end of the day, the Interior secretary has the authority and the responsibility to operate the system," Interior Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau told the Associated Press. He said those duties give the federal government the ability to make some decisions that defy the priority system. Last year the US Bureau of Reclamation called for the states to figure out how to cut their collective use of the river's water by about 2 to 4 million acre feet—or roughly 15% to 30% of their annual use—but an agreement has since been elusive.

The alternatives explore how the federal government could deal with water shortages at Lake Powell and Lake Mead through 2026. Lake Powell, located in Arizona, and Lake Mead, which sits behind Hoover Dam in Nevada, are the largest built reservoirs in the US and serve as barometers of the river's health. A multidecade drought in the West intensified by climate change, rising demand, and overuse has sent water levels at key reservoirs along the river to unprecedented lows. That's forced the federal government to cut some water allocations, and to offer up billions of dollars to pay farmers and cities to cut back. States, tribes and other water users have until May 30 to comment on the proposals before federal officials announce their formal decision. (Much more here.)

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