Bob Leal

LAS VEGAS (CN) — The Bureau of Reclamation on Tuesday outlined options aimed at helping to stabilize the ailing Colorado River system and the nation’s largest reservoirs, Lake Powell in Arizona and Lake Mead in Nevada.

The 23 years of drought in the region, brought on by climate change, have taken a serious toll on the water basin. In order to maintain the water levels needed to continue operations of the dams on the lakes, which supply electric and water deliveries to eight states, more water cuts across the Southwest are anticipated.

In its draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement issued Tuesday, the bureau analyzed two alternatives to how those cuts could happen: The cuts could be based upon the priority of states' water rights, or they could be made equally across all of the states in the basin.

“Drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have been two decades in the making. To meet this moment, we must continue to work together, through a commitment to protecting the river, leading with science and a shared understanding that unprecedented conditions require new solutions,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton in a statement.

The Colorado River is approximately 1,450 miles long, originating along the Continental Divide in Colorado and flows to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Most of the water in the basin is runoff from the snowpack.

“The Colorado River Basin provides water for more than 40 million Americans. It fuels hydropower resources in eight states, supports agriculture and agricultural communities across the West, and is a crucial resource for 30 Tribal Nations. Failure is not an option,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau.

Lake Mead is currently only 28% full, while Powell is only 23% full.

The bureau has called for a voluntary reduction of 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water. One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre of land about the size of a football field, one-foot deep.

“If it doesn’t come voluntarily, as a consensus alternative, we’re going to be prepared to take action. We have to,” said David Palumbo, deputy commissioner of operations for the bureau, in December at the Colorado River Water User Association’s annual conference in Las Vegas.

The bureau also tasked the basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah in the upper basin, and Nevada, California and Arizona in the lower basin — to come up with a consensus plan so conflict and litigation can be avoided.

Six of seven states signed off on a consensus-based modeling alternative in January. California, the largest consumer of Colorado River water, came up with its own plan. The Golden State claims it has the most senior water rights based on the “Law of the River,” which emanates from a 1922 compact.

The draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement analyzes three options to address continued water supply shortfalls in order to protect dam operations and public health and safety.

The first option analyzed in the report — the "No Action Alternative," — would continue operations of the water system using existing agreements that control operations of Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam. That option would see further declines in reservoir elevations, according to the bureau.

"Action Alternative 1" would make operational changes to both dams. It includes reduced releases from Glen Canyon Dam, as well as an analysis of the effects of additional Lower Colorado River Basin shortages based predominately on the priority of water rights. This option models progressively larger additional shortages as Lake Mead’s elevation declines, and larger additional shortages in 2025 and 2026, as compared with 2024.

"Action Alternative 2" is similar to the above action but instead of using priority of water rights, reductions would be distributed in the same percentage across all lower basin water users.

“While the release of the draft SEIS demonstrates the challenges ahead, it is just the next step in the process to find workable solutions to protect water supplies for 40 million Americans and more than a trillion dollars in economic activity,” John Entsminger, General Manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in a statement.

“While Southern Nevada has already reduced its consumption of Colorado River water by more than 30% as our community has grown by approximately 750,000 new residents, we remain committed to increasing water efficiency within our community," Entsminger added. "We also remain committed to working with the seven basin states to find a sustainable path forward to protect this river system for all who depend on it."

The draft statement is available for public comment for 45 days. The final SEIS is anticipated in the summer of 2023.

“We are encouraged that reclamation is acting to address the 23-year drought on the Colorado River Basin. One good water year is not enough to protect the system. More action is necessary,” the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project said in a joint statement.

“We’re hopeful the alternatives that are laid out in the draft Environmental Impact Statement can help us move toward a seven-state agreement and avoid conflict in the Colorado River basin,” the statement added. “We recognize the draft SEIS calls for short-term actions. Ultimately, we will need long-term solutions to protect Arizonans.”

Touton said the draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement released Tuesday was the result of collaboration between the basin states, water commissioners, the 30 Basin tribes, water managers, farmers and irrigators, municipalities and others.

“We look forward to continued work with our partners in this critical moment,” she said.