SALT LAKE CITY — Banks along parts of the Colorado River where water once flowed are now just caked mud and rocks as climate change makes the western US hotter and drier.
More than two decades of drought have failed to stop the region from discharging more water than flows through it, depleting key reservoirs to levels that now endanger water supplies and hydropower production.
Cities and ranches in seven U.S. states are bracing for budget cuts this week, as officials stare at a deadline to propose unprecedented reductions in their water use, in what is expected to be the most sweeping week for Colorado River policy in years.
In June, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation told states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — how to use at least 15% less water next year, or whether restrictions will be imposed. The agency is also expected to publish hydrological projections that will lead to additional cuts that have already been agreed.
Tensions over the extent of the cuts and how to distribute them fairly have increased, with states pointing the finger and stubbornly holding on to their water rights despite the looming crisis.
Representatives from the seven states met in Denver last week for last-minute closed-door negotiations. Those talks have yet to lead to concrete proposals, but party officials say the most likely targets for austerity are farmers in Arizona and California. Agricultural districts in those states are asking to be generously paid to carry that burden.
However, the proposals under discussion do not meet what the Bureau of Reclamation has demanded and as negotiations stall, state officials say they hope for more time to negotiate details.
“Despite the obvious urgency of the situation, the past sixty-two days have yielded exactly nothing in terms of meaningful collective action to help avert the looming crisis,” John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, wrote in a letter Monday. . He called the agricultural district demanding “drought gains.”
The Colorado River flows from the Rocky Mountains to the arid deserts of the Southwest. It is the primary water supply for 40 million people. About 70% of the water goes to irrigation, sustaining a $15 billion a year agricultural industry that supplies 90% of the United States’ winter vegetables.
The water from the river is distributed between Mexico and the seven American states under a series of agreements dating back a century, at a time when there was more flow.
But climate change has changed the river’s hydrology, causing less snow melt and higher temperatures and more evaporation. Because the river provided less water, the states agreed to cuts to the levels of reservoirs that store the water.
Last year, federal officials declared a water shortage for the first time, leading to cuts to the river’s share in Nevada, Arizona and Mexico to prevent the two largest reservoirs—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—from sinking low enough to allow hydropower production. threaten and stop water flowing through their dams.
The proposals for additional spending cuts due this week have sparked disagreements between the states in the upper basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — and the states in the lower basin — Arizona, California and Nevada — about how the spread pain.
The lower basin states use the most water and have taken the most cuts to date. The states in the upper basin have not used their full allocation in the past, but want to keep the water rights to plan for population growth.
Gene Shawcroft, the chairman of the Colorado River Authority in Utah, believes that the lower watershed states should take on the most cuts because they use the most water and their full allocation.
He said his job was to protect Utah’s allotment for growth projected for decades to come: “The direction we’ve taken as water suppliers is to make sure we have water for the future.”
In a letter last month, representatives of states in the upper basin proposed a five-point plan to conserve water, but argued that most of the cuts should come from the lower basin. The plan was not tied to numbers.
“The focus is on getting the tools in place and working with water users to get as much as possible rather than projecting a water count,” Chuck Cullom, the executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, told The Associated Press. .
However, that position is unsatisfactory for many in lower catchment areas already facing austerity measures.
“It will come to a head, especially if the states in the upper basin continue their bargaining power and say, ‘We’re not cutting back,'” said Bruce Babbitt, who served as Secretary of the Interior from 2003-2011.
The states in the lower basin have yet to announce their plans to contribute, but officials said last week that the states’ preliminary proposal under discussion fell slightly short of the federal government’s request for 2 to 4 million acre feet.
An acre-foot of water is enough to serve 2-3 households per year.
Bill Hasencamp, the Colorado River resource manager in Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, said all districts in the state that draw from the river had agreed to contribute water or money to the plan, pending approval. by their respective administrations. Water districts, especially the Imperial Irrigation District, are adamant that any voluntary cuts should not curtail their high-priority water rights.
Southern California’s cities are likely to bring in money that can fund fallow farmland in places like Imperial County, and water managers are considering leaving water they’ve stored in Lake Mead as part of their contribution.
Arizona is likely to be hit hard by cuts. The state has taken on many of the cuts in recent years. With its growing population and robust agricultural industry, it has less wiggle room than its neighbors to tackle more, said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Some Native American tribes in Arizona have also contributed to supporting Lake Mead in the past and could play an outrageous role in any new proposal.
Irrigators around Yuma, Arizona, have proposed taking 925,000 acre-feet less Colorado River water by 2023 and leaving it in Lake Mead if they get paid $1.4 billion or $1,500 per acre-foot. The cost is well above the going rate, but irrigators defended their proposal as reasonable given the cost of growing crops and bringing them to market.
Wade Noble, the coordinator of a coalition representing Yuma’s water rights holders, said it was the only proposal submitted publicly that includes actual cuts, rather than theoretical cuts to what users are allocated on paper.
Some of the compensation for conservation funds could come from $4 billion in drought financing included in the Inflation Reduction Act under consideration in Washington, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema told the AP.
Sinema acknowledged that paying farmers to save is not a long-term solution: “However, in the short term, to meet our daily needs and from year to year, we ensure that we will provide financial incentives for non-use. help us get through it,” she said.
Babbitt agreed that money in the legislation will not “miraculously solve the problem” and said that prices for water should be reasonable to prevent gouging, as it will benefit most water users.
“It’s impossible that these cuts can all be paid for at a premium price for years to come,” he said.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. Associated Press reporter Kathleen Ronayne contributed from Sacramento, California.
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