SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The banks along parts of the Colorado River where water once flowed are now nothing but hardened mud and rock, as climate change makes the western United States hotter and drier.
More than two decades of drought have done little to deter the region from diverting more water than it flows through, depleting key reservoirs to levels that now compromise water supplies and hydropower generation .
Cities and farms in seven US states are bracing for cuts this week as officials set a deadline to deliver unprecedented cuts to their water use, setting up what is expected to be the biggest week for Colorado River politics for years.
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In June, the United States Bureau of Reclamation asked states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – to determine how to use at least 15% less water next year, or impose restrictions on them. The office is also expected to publish hydrological projections that will trigger additional reductions already agreed.
“The challenges we face today are unlike anything we have seen in our history,” Office Commissioner Camille Touton said during a US Senate hearing.
Tensions over the size of the cuts and how to distribute them fairly have flared, with states pointing fingers and stubbornly clinging to their water rights despite the looming crisis.
“It’s no fun sitting around a table figuring out who’s going to sacrifice and how much,” said Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River resource manager at the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies water to the major part of southern California.
Representatives from all seven states gathered in Denver last week for last-minute, closed-door negotiations. Officials who participated in the talks said the cuts’ most likely targets are farmers in Arizona and California. The agricultural districts of these states ask to be paid generously to bear this burden.
But the tentative agreements fall short of what the Bureau of Reclamation has demanded, and state officials say they hope for more time to negotiate details.
The Colorado River pours from the Rocky Mountains into the arid deserts of the southwest. It is the main water supply for 40 million people. About 70% of its water is for irrigation, supporting a $15 billion-a-year agricultural industry that supplies 90% of the United States‘ winter vegetables.
Water from the river is divided between Mexico and the seven US states under a series of agreements that date back a century to a time when more flowed.
But climate change has transformed the hydrology of the river, reducing snowmelt and causing warmer temperatures and greater evaporation. With the river producing less water, states agreed to cuts tied to the level of reservoirs that store its water.
Last year, federal officials declared a water shortage for the first time, triggering cuts to the river in Nevada, Arizona and Mexico to help prevent the two largest reservoirs – Lake Powell and Lake Mead – to fall low enough to threaten hydroelectric generation and stop water from flowing through their dams.
Proposals for additional cuts expected this week have inflamed disagreement between the upper basin states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – and the lower basin states – Arizona, California and Nevada – over how to spread the pain.
The lower basin states use most of the water and have borne the most cuts so far. Upper basin states have historically not used all of their allocations, but want to retain water use rights to plan for population growth.
Gene Shawcroft, chairman of Utah’s Colorado River Authority, believes lower basin states should take most of the cuts because they use most of the water and their full allocations.
He said it was his job to protect Utah’s allocation for projected growth for decades to come: “The direction we’ve been given as water providers is to make sure we have water for the future.”
In a letter last month, state officials from the upper basin proposed a five-point conservation plan they said would save water, but argued that most cutting should come from the lower basin. The plan did not commit to any figures.
“The goal is to put the tools in place and work with water users to get as much as possible rather than projecting a water number,” said Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission. , to the Associated Press.
This position, however, is unsatisfactory for many states in the lower basin already facing cuts.
“It’s going to come to a head, particularly if the upper basin states maintain their negotiating position, saying, ‘We’re not making any cuts,'” said Bruce Babbitt, who served as Home Secretary from 2003 to 2011.
Lower basin states have yet to release their contribution plans, but officials said last week that the states’ draft proposal being discussed fell slightly short of the federal government’s request to cut from 2 to 4 million acre-feet.
One acre-foot of water is enough to serve 2-3 households per year.
Hasencamp, the Metropolitan Water District’s Colorado River resource manager, said all districts in California that draw from the river have agreed to contribute water or money to the plan, pending approval from their respective boards. The water districts, particularly the Imperial Irrigation District, have been adamant that any voluntary reductions must not restrict their high priority water rights.
Southern California cities will likely provide cash that could fund fallow farmland in places like Imperial County and water managers plan to leave the water they have stored in Lake Mead as part of their contribution.
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Arizona will likely be hit hard by the cuts. In recent years, the state has taken on many of the cuts. With its growing population and robust agricultural industry, it has less leeway than its neighbors to take on more, said Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke. Some Native American tribes in Arizona have also helped support Lake Mead in the past and could play an outsized role in any new proposal.
Irrigators around Yuma, Arizona have proposed taking 925,000 acre-feet less water from the Colorado River in 2023 and leaving it in Lake Mead if paid $1.4 billion, or 1 $500 per acre-foot. The cost is well above the going rate, but irrigators defended their proposal as fair given the cost of growing the crops and bringing them to market.
Wade Noble, the coordinator of a coalition that represents Yuma water rights holders, said it was the only proposal presented publicly that included real cuts, rather than theoretical cuts to what users are allocated on paper.
Some of the conservation offset funds could come from $4 billion in drought funding included in the Cut Inflation Act being considered in Washington, the U.S. senator told the AP. Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema.
Sinema recognized that paying farmers to conserve is not a long-term solution: incentives for non-use will help us get through it,” she said.
Babbitt agreed that money in the legislation will “not miraculously solve the problem” and said water prices must be reasonable to avoid abuse because most water users will be affected.
“There’s no way these reductions can all be paid for at a high price for years and years,” he said.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. Associated Press reporter Kathleen Ronayne contributed from Sacramento, Calif.