Six of the seven U.S. states that depend on the Colorado River released a framework Monday outlining a possible strategy for federal water regulators tasked with making unprecedented cuts to an overexploited watershed that serves about 40 million supplied to people in the Southwest.
The states released the plan, which was outlined in a letter to the US Department of the Interior, a day ahead of a federal deadline to negotiate a consensus-based framework for the cut. Years of drought, compounded by climate change, have exposed structural imbalances in Colorado River use, as there are often more legal rights to water use than water is available.
What happens next is an open question. The plan shows a united front among six states over how some of the cuts should be shared, but it also reflects the unresolved tensions that have shaped seven states’ negotiations over short-term cuts that began last summer.
In particular, the plan failed to garner support from California, which is believed to be critical to significant cuts as it is the state with the largest division of the river and primary legal claims to water use. And it’s unclear how federal officials will view a plan that omits a key state.
John Entsminger, who heads the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in a statement Monday that while the goal remains a seven-state deal, the six-state plan is a “positive step forward.”
So does Governor Joe Lombardo released a statement called the six-state plan a “major step forward.”
The plan builds on a framework that Nevada outlined earlier this year. The consensus-based approach would oblige states to account for water losses through evaporation and leaking infrastructure, resulting in significant cuts in overall consumption. Combined, annual water losses account for about half of the water use that federal officials plan to cut as a short-term measure to stabilize the river’s major reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — until a longer-term deal can be negotiated.
California negotiators said any plan to make major cuts should adhere to a key tenet of Western water law — that those who have developed their water rights come first in times of water scarcity. They have argued that all cuts should be handled under this system, a step that would require potentially steeper cuts by younger users, particularly in Arizona.
California has argued that proposing to reduce evaporative losses in proportion to water use would be an unfair way of shifting the burden of the cuts onto some of the Colorado River’s oldest users, including the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest single river user.
“If you have a junior right, do it,” Tina Shields, an agricultural district official, recently told Associated Press. “They are trying to share the issue with other users.”
In the coming weeks, federal water agencies will review the plan and may include portions of it in an environmental review process to assess short-term cuts in annual water use. The federal government is expected to announce a regulatory measure later this year.