Biden administration advances Colorado River conservation proposal

A consensus-based conservation strategy proposed by Colorado River states would likely ensure that the system’s reservoirs are stable over the next three years, according to the Department of the Interior.

If adopted, the plans, proposed by California, Arizona and New Mexico this past spring, would require the three states to conserve an additional 3 million acre-feet of water beyond their existing cutback commitments during that timeframe.

“Our partners in the seven Basin states have demonstrated leadership and unity of purpose in helping achieve the substantial water conservation necessary to sustain the Colorado River System through 2026,” Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the Interior Department, said in a statement.

By that year, all seven basin states must agree upon a long-term strategy for administering the Colorado River and ensuring that Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the system’s two storage reservoirs, have adequate resources.

The current rules — the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages — were supposed to apply until that point. But as reservoir levels plummeted, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in 2022 demanded that the states propose additional short-term conservation measures.

The states initially missed a mid-August 2022 deadline to present a unified plan and then agreed to a new target date of Jan. 31, 2023 — aware that the Bureau would present its own ideas if they again failed to meet that one.

What ended up materializing at the end of January were two offers: a joint proposal from six out of the seven states and a separate document from California.

Following up on its previous threat, the Bureau of Reclamation in March issued its own draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) that proposed alternatives for short-term consumption cutbacks.

Two months later, however, the Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — came up with their own, with the support of the Upper Basin, which includes Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico.

In that proposal, the three states agreed to the collective conservation of at least 3 million acre-feet of system water by the end of 2026.

For reference, a typical U.S. suburban household uses about one acre-foot of water annually, and each basin is allotted with 7.5 million acre-feet of water each year.

Of the total 3 million acre-feet conserved, 2.3 million acre-feet would be compensated with federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act.

Wednesday’s revision to the draft SEIS now both includes the Lower Basin states’ proposal as an action alternative, while also emphasizing recent improvements in regional hydrology.

The decision to include the consensus-based proposal as an action alternative occurred following a Bureau of Reclamation analysis showing that “the risk of reaching critical elevations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead has been reduced substantially,” per the agency.

The Bureau cited “record volumes of conservation” as well as recent hydrological improvements, while also noting that water levels in the two reservoirs do remain historically low.

“Today’s advancement protects the system in the near-term while we continue to develop long-term, sustainable plans to combat the climate-driven realities facing the Basin,” Touton said in a statement.

Members of the public now have 45 days to submit their comments on the revised draft SEIS, the Interior Department noted.

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