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Colorado River water Q&A: ASU experts say White House proposal tries to push states to consensus

Aerial shot of canals in Yuma.

Canals in Yuma redirect water from the Colorado River to municipalities across the Southwest. Photo by Tim Roberts/Shutterstock

April 12, 2023

As the seven Colorado River Basin states continue to negotiate water claims and usage, more than 40 million Americans continue to draw from the already overextended primary water source in a worsening drought. The Biden administration this week took steps to better protect resources dependent on the river that could greatly impact major U.S. cities, including Phoenix.

The Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement draft, released April 11 by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, has put forth that measures are required to protect Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam operations. These measures would be implemented in 2024 through 2026, after which the current operating guidelines expire.

Arizona State University water experts Sarah Porter and Dave White said the draft may encourage state officials to continue water negotiations with renewed energy and come to a new, state-led solution. As director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy within the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, Porter helps lead research, analysis and work to build consensus on sound water stewardship for Arizona and the West. White is the director of ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation and associate vice president of research advancement, ASU Knowledge Enterprise and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory. 

The draft analyzes three “Action Alternatives” that reflect input from the Basin states, cooperating agencies, tribes and other interested parties. The first option (No Action Alternative) is to take no action, which has monumental consequences. The second option (Action Alternative 1) is to make reductions based on legal priority, meaning that cuts would fall first on the newest rights holders, which would position many Arizona and California farmers favorably compared with central Arizona cities. The third option (Action Alternative 2) is to evenly distribute additional reductions across all water users, shifting a larger share of the cuts to California water users who have substantially greater allocations.  

The final draft of the statement is anticipated to be available with a Record of Decision this summer. This document will inform the August 2023 decisions that will affect 2024 operations for Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams.

White and Porter both serve on the Strategy Team for the Arizona Water Innovation Initiative, a multiyear initiative funded by the Arizona Governor’s Office and the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust and led by ASU. The initiative focuses on implementing solutions and developing new economies that provide for Arizona’s secure water future. They discuss more about the draft below.

Question: What are your initial thoughts on the draft proposal from the Department of the Interior?

Sarah Porter: Historically, the assumed method of making cuts has been to cut based on priority, and the fact that this Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement offers an alternative approach says a lot. The existence of Action Alternative 2, which proposes reductions that are distributed in the same percentage across all Lower Basin water users under shortage conditions, signals to water users that there is potential to make cuts that aren't based on priority.

I take that as a message to higher-priority water users to think about the fact that the federal government might make cuts outside of priority, and to consider your options in that light. Right now those high-priority water users have, for the most part, been unwilling to take cuts voluntarily. Some have expressed a willingness to consider taking cuts for compensation, but the compensation available is much less than they have requested. So, this new analysis should be a signal to them — maybe they should lower their price or offer to take voluntary cuts.

Dave White: I think one of the main takeaways from the announcement from the Department of the Interior is that the federal government, through the Department of the Interior and through the Bureau of Reclamation, is attempting to change the status quo of the negotiations between the states. The Bureau of Reclamation has additional authority under the declaration of a shortage on the Colorado River, and they have yet to enforce that authority since the time of the declaration. This draft shows us a plan of what it would look like if they decided to enforce their authority. 

The other key message in this draft is that the federal government is willing to adapt and modify the existing rules around the allocation decisions. Under current priority, there is a concern that Arizona would lose everything before California loses anything. This draft shows that the federal government is open to a solution that does not follow precedent, including an option where states share in the reduction in some other formulaic way. 

Q: In situations where cuts are necessary, we’ve historically seen cuts made in accordance with the priority of water rights. Action Alternative 2, however, acts against precedent. Does the existence of this new alternative imply that the water crisis is more dire than we previously thought?

Porter: I wouldn’t say that is true. Where we are this year with the Colorado River is that we've had a really good year of snowpack, so we're not actually in a position that is quite so dire. Just last summer, we were really looking at projections showing our reservoirs hitting deadpool, the level where no water can be delivered off a reservoir, within two or three years. Things have gotten a little bit better, but it isn't enough to solve our problems. It is, however, enough to give us more negotiation time. 

My take is that the federal government really wants water users in the seven states — mostly Arizona and California —  to continue to negotiate and reach a consensus agreement that would be implemented instead of one of these federal action alternatives. Also, whether the federal government has the authority to act unilaterally here is not a settled matter of law. By evaluating an alternative that is not based on priority, the federal government has signaled a degree of confidence in the argument that it does indeed have the legal authority to take action that is not supported by consensus. 

Q: Why is it important to push state officials to continue having conversations about water in years like this one, when we have seen positive water outcomes from this year’s snowpack?

White: There are many in the policy community who are concerned that the current winter precipitation will give this impression that the reservoir system is under less stress and that the overall system is under less stress. That is not the case. Long-term drought and the climate-change impacts are leading to a more arid region. Those are changing the dynamics between the amount of precipitation that's generated and the actual runoff. Due to climate change, the soil is drier. The air temperature is higher. So, you're not seeing the same production of water from the same amount of snowpack. 

I’ve seen it repeatedly in the past where a “good water year” takes the political and policy pressure off the system to enact more significant reforms. It’s important to consider that we've had a 22-year-long drought, the 22 driest years in the last 1,200 years. We would need something like 22 years of this type of snowpack to recharge the groundwater aquifers, fill the reservoirs and replenish the soils and the vegetation. One year is not going to change the overall dynamics. And that doesn't even get into the fact that even a little bit of extra snowpack is not changing the fact that we're already using more water than there is in the system. Collaboration is needed between the states to create a better solution, and that’s what I think this draft is calling for. 

Porter: Fundamentally, these negotiations are very hard because they’re about reducing water supplies and that has many economic, cultural and environmental ramifications. As a Basin, we need to encourage our state officials to take steps to get us out of this danger zone we’ve been in so that we can have the certainty and clarity we need to plan for future supplies and to invest in transitioning away from our current levels of dependence on the Colorado River. 

Q: How do you think the states will react to this push to work together? 

White: The Arizona Department of Water Resources director has signaled that he feels that there's intervention necessary to change the negotiation dynamics. This draft serves as a green light to change those dynamics. The question I have is how that green light will translate into actual action from state leaders. We’ll see in the coming weeks if it will have the intended effect of bringing people to the table and negotiating a solution among the states, rather than following a solution imposed by the federal government. 

Porter: From the state officials and water managers we’ve heard from about this announcement, it sounds as though they do want to come together to make an agreement, and they may not be too far apart on a compromise. The draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement is an important step in the process because it lays out in a stark way an approach based on priority, which senior water rights holders have been arguing for, and an approach based on other considerations, such as ensuring that cities have enough water for public health and safety, which cities have been arguing for. The message that the federal government is open to both approaches should help motivate water rights holders to come to a consensus. 

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