On the Colorado River, the feds carry a big stick. Will the states get hit?
The seven Colorado River basin states have until mid-August to come up with a plan to drastically cut their water use. Federal officials say the cuts are necessary to keep the river’s giant reservoirs from declining to levels where water cannot be released through their dams and hydropower production ceases. If state leaders fail to devise a plan, they could face a federal crackdown.
But while federal intervention is a key feature of Colorado River governance and management, to cajole stubborn water users into negotiating — it’s rarely tested. That leaves users along the river from Colorado to California to wonder just how serious the federal government is when it threatens unilateral actions.
The federal government’s charge to users to conserve two to four million acre-feet of water came from Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton, who sat before a Senate committee in June. She gave the states 60 days to respond with a plan.
Later that same week, the Interior Department’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, Tanya Trujillo, spoke to a gathering of water leaders in Boulder, Colorado, and gave more detail on the river’s supply-demand imbalance and what her department planned to do about it.
Without an unprecedented conservation among the states, the river is rapidly approaching a catastrophe, Trujillo said. Two to four million acre-feet is a staggering amount of water conservation. Even at the low end of that range, two million acre-feet is about the same amount the entire state of Colorado uses from the river in a year. That’s more than six times what the state of Nevada uses.
“We're going to likely be in a situation of doing things we've never done before,” Trujillo said over a remote video connection to the Boulder conference attendees.
Trujillo later asked what the mood of the room was like. “It’s glum,” responded moderator John Fleck of the University of New Mexico.
If the states don’t meet this summer’s deadline and make firm commitments to conserve, Trujillo made it clear — the federal government is prepared to step in. Trujillo said she has instructed her staff to prepare lists of potential actions her department could take if the states do not meet their deadline. Reclamation staff declined to provide more detail of what is on those lists, and declined interview requests for this story.
“At Interior, we have an obligation to protect the physical infrastructure that we own and operate so that we can ensure it will continue to operate,” Trujillo said.
That infrastructure includes the Colorado River’s two massive reservoirs — Lakes Mead and Powell. Combined, the two reservoirs are part of a river system that provides drinking water to 40 million people in seven western states — California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada and Wyoming.
Warming temperatures due to climate change and persistent demand for water have sent the two reservoirs to record lows. Both are in jeopardy of dropping to levels where hydropower shuts off and water can’t move through their dams.
But even as the crisis worsens, it is unclear who ultimately holds the reins: the federal government or the states. Federal pressure has brought together nearly every modern agreement to manage scarcity on the river that’s reeling from 22 years of below-average flows. The 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement, the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans all coalesced under the threat of federal intervention. For all of those deals, the threats never turned into action.
As the August 15 deadline approaches, some river experts doubt the states’ ability to finish a deal.
“I think that’s a heavy lift,” said Terry Fulp, who ran Lower Colorado River operations for the Bureau of Reclamation for eight years.
This current moment fits into a longstanding tension between the federal government and the states, Fulp said. When a crisis takes hold on the river, federal officials use the threat of intervention to keep the conversations moving. But Fulp said this time may be different.
“It'll be a big surprise for me if, by August, the partners come in with a plan,” he said.
If the states miss the deadline, the federal actions would vary across the watershed, he said. Legally, the Colorado River is split in two. In the river’s Lower Basin states of Nevada, California and Arizona, the federal government plays an outsized role, with a hand firmly planted on the river’s largest spigot, the outlets at Hoover Dam.
“I think Reclamation right off the bat could change [water] releases,” Fulp said. “We've done it in the past.”
That would mean slashing the amount of water that flows downstream from the nation’s biggest reservoir, Lake Mead. Powers granted in the 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act and in the Supreme Court decision Arizona v. California designates the Interior Department Secretary as the Lower Basin’s “water master,” which gives that position broad authority to negotiate contracts and regulate water releases from Hoover Dam.
If the federal government began tightening releases downstream, users in California and Arizona would then be forced to find new water supplies or impose draconian restrictions.
“There is a recognition that the situation is even worse than anticipated on the river,” said J.B. Hamby, a director for the Imperial Irrigation District. The group of southern California farmers holds the rights to large volumes of water, making them the river’s single largest user. Their high volume of use often places the often combative district at the center of heated Colorado River debates.
The seriousness of the coming shortages, and the accompanying federal threats, has softened some of the district’s rhetoric in recent weeks.
“It's in our collective interest to live with a little bit less in order to avoid having nothing,” Hamby said.
Specific volumes of conservation are still in negotiation, Hamby said. California holds a more senior position on the river, making its uses more protected than neighboring Arizona. The more junior users next door, like the Central Arizona Project, still need to take the brunt of the cutbacks, he said.
The district is also concerned over what additional conservation could mean for the shrinking Salton Sea, fed by the region’s agricultural runoff. The lake’s retreat exposes toxic beaches. Wind storms whip the loose sand into the air and into the lungs of Imperial Valley residents, causing high rates of asthma.
In the river’s Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, the federal government’s powers are less clear, said Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River District, a water agency on Colorado’s Western Slope.
“I don't think anybody knows specifically what any sort of single point of authority that the [Interior] Secretary can say, ‘This gives me the authority to regulate or impose shortages in the Upper Basin states,’” Fleming said.
Rather than commit to specific volumes of water to conserve, the Upper Basin states are proposing a multi-part plan to deal with declining river levels. In a letter to Reclamation commissioner Touton, Upper Colorado River Commission director, Chuck Cullom, said the states were willing to work on a plan to release additional water from reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell, consider a proposed demand management plan, and continue to seek reauthorization and funding for the System Conservation Pilot Program, first authorized in 2014. The program paid farmers to restrict their water use and sent their unused water downstream.
Upper Basin state leaders argue that climate change is already restricting their uses, drying up rivers and creeks that users draw from directly. They also say they’re waiting to hear plans from the Lower Basin before taking any additional action.
Even if the federal government’s ability to mandate water use restrictions in the Upper Basin does exist, Fleming said, it is completely untested. The whole watershed could soon find itself in uncharted legal territory, and that kind of uncertainty gives way to lawsuits, he said.
“Whether it's in the Lower Basin or the Upper Basin if the Secretary shuts off the valve, I think they know there's going to be litigation that follows,” Fleming said.
The pressure on water managers to come up with solutions is mounting. National, regional and local media have increased their coverage of western water issues, said Elizabeth Koebele, a political science professor at the University of Nevada Reno.
“The public eye is really on the river right now,” Koebele said. “That might force some changes in a way that we haven't had kind of the political will to force in the past.”
If water officials can get beyond the current crisis, Koebele said, this moment of reckoning could open the door to other more innovative ways to manage water in the West. But whether the political will exists to fundamentally reorder the region’s relationship to water is still an open question.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC, and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.