Competing priorities, overblown demands and the federal government’s backing out of a threatened deadline prevented a deal last summer on how to drastically reduce water use from the dry Colorado River, emails from The Associated Press show.
The documents span the June-August window that the US Bureau of Reclamation has given states to reach consensus on water cuts for a system that serves 40 million people annually — or the federal government must enforce them. They largely involve communications between water authorities in Arizona and California, the primary users of the river’s lower basin.
Reclamation wanted the seven U.S. states that depend on the river to decide how to cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water — or up to about a third — on top of the reductions already expected. The emails, obtained through a public files request, show a desire to reach consensus but ongoing disagreements over how much each state could or should give.
As the deadline approached with no significant progress, one water manager warned, “We’re all headed for a very dark place.”
“The challenges that we had this summer were big challenges, they really were,” Colorado River Board of California executive director Chris Harris said in an interview about the early negotiations. “I don’t know if anyone was to blame, I really don’t know. There were so many different interpretations of what was being asked and what we were trying to do.”
Scientists say the US Southwest’s mega-drought is its worst in 1,200 years, severely straining the Colorado River as key reservoirs sink to historically low levels. Unless states start drawing less from the river, the great reservoirs threaten to sink so low they can no longer produce hydroelectric power or even provide water to farms that grow crops for the rest of the nation and cities like Los Angeles . Las Vegas and Phoenix.
The river’s future seemed so precarious last summer that some water managers said trying to reach a voluntary agreement was futile – only mandatory cuts would avert the crisis.
“We have run out of time and cushion to facilitate a voluntary plan,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told a Bureau of Reclamation official in a July 18 email.
At the beginning of 2023, new incentives ensure that states are more likely to go without water. The federal government has earmarked $4 billion for drought relief, and Colorado River users have submitted proposals to receive some of that money through actions like field abandonment. Some cities are uprooting thirsty ornamental grass, and tribes and major water boards have left some water behind in key reservoirs — either by choice or by order.
Reclamation has also agreed to spend $250 million to mitigate hazards on a drying California lake bed, a condition that the state’s water users agree to reduce their use by 400,000 acre-feet in a proposal released in October.
The Home Office is still reviewing proposals for some of the $4 billion and can’t say how much savings it will bring, Assistant Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said in an interview.
States are again trying to score a big deal — with a deadline of Tuesday — so Reclamation can incorporate it into a larger plan to change operations at Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam, two giant power producers on the Colorado River. Otherwise, the federal government might make cuts — a move that could lead to litigation.
Finding out who is taking on additional water cuts has been contentious, with accusations of drought profiteers, failure to meet commitments, too many negotiators in the room and an unsteady hand from the federal government, the emails and follow-up interviews showed.
California says it’s a partner willing to make sacrifices, but other states see it as a reluctant participant clinging to a water priority system where it’s near the top. Arizona and Nevada have long felt they are unfairly forced to shoulder the brunt of the cuts because of a water rights system developed long ago, a simmering frustration that reared its head during talks.
Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton’s call for a massive water cut before Congress on June 14 was something of a public bombshell. A week earlier, following a federal government warning, lower basin states joined Mexico in talking about deforestation of up to 2 million acre-feet during a meeting in Salt Lake City, the emails and interviews showed.
But as the weeks passed and proposals were exchanged, lower basin states barely got half that amount, and the pledge was far from firm, the emails showed. To make matters worse, no one knew what Mexico, which also has a share of the river, could contribute.
In a series of exchanges through July, Arizona and California each proposed several ways to achieve cuts, building on existing agreements tied to Lake Mead levels, accounting for water loss through evaporation or inefficient infrastructure, and a priority system protect vigorously It was clear that the negotiators were getting tired.
States shared their contempt for a proposal by farmers near Yuma and southern California to pay $1,500 an acre-foot for water they conserved. Former general manager of the Central Arizona project, Ted Cooke, responded by suggesting farmers make it work at a third of the price, which was still higher but closer to current prices.
In late July, Harris emailed a proposal to the Bureau of Reclamation from California outlining scenarios in the region of 1 million acre-feet of cuts and said it was imperative that negotiators be able to “make a… to declare some degree of victory”.
“Otherwise,” he wrote, “I really think we’re at an impasse and we’re all headed for a very dark place.”
But ultimately, Arizona and Nevada never felt like California was willing to give enough.
“It was pointless, it wasn’t enough. We didn’t trust that California would get away with its part of it,” Cooke said in an interview.
By then, Reclamation privately told the states — but did not publicly admit — that it was backing down from the alleged mid-August deadline, officials involved in the talks said. Beaudreau, the deputy home secretary, said in an interview the deadline was never intended to create an ultimatum between reaching an agreement and forced cuts.
However, state officials said once it became clear the federal government would not act unilaterally, it created a “chilling effect” that removed the urgency of the talks, as water users with higher priority water rights are no longer threatened with harsh cuts, Arizona Buschatzke said in an interview.
“Without that hammer, the tone of the negotiation was different,” he said.
Today, the Home Office’s priority remains ensuring that Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam contain enough water to sustain hydroelectric power, and the Department will do whatever is necessary to ensure this, Beaudreau said.
Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado — which historically have not used up all of their supplies — are looking to Lower Basin states to do much of the work.
Reclamation is now focused on weighing the latest round of comments from states to save the river. Nevada wants to count water lost to evaporation and transport in its water allocation — a move that could mean California’s biggest cuts — and some Arizona water managers agree, commenting on letters seen by the AP show.
However, disputes remain over how to determine what level of cuts is fair and legal. California’s goal remains to protect its status, while other states and tribes want to consider more than just legacy water rights — such as whether users have access to alternate water sources, and the impact of cuts on disadvantaged communities and food security.
Reclamation’s goal is to have a draft of the proposed cuts by early March, then a final decision before mid-August, when Reclamation regularly announces how much — or how little — river water is available for the next year.