As the Colorado River Shrinks, Washington Prepares to Spread the Pain

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WASHINGTON — The seven states that rely on water from the shrinking Colorado River are unlikely to agree to voluntarily make deep reductions in their water use, negotiators say, which would force the federal government to impose cuts for the first time in the water supply for 40 million Americans.

The Interior Department had asked the states to voluntarily come up with a plan by Jan. 31 to collectively cut the amount of water they draw from the Colorado. The demand for those cuts, on a scale without parallel in American history, was prompted by precipitous declines in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which provide water and electricity for Arizona, Nevada and Southern California. Drought, climate change and population growth have caused water levels in the lakes to plummet.

“Think of the Colorado River Basin as a slow-motion disaster,” said Kevin Moran, who directs state and federal water policy advocacy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re really at a moment of reckoning.”

Negotiators say the odds of a voluntary agreement appear slim. It would be the second time in six months that the Colorado River states, which also include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, have missed a deadline for consensus on cuts sought by the Biden administration to avoid a catastrophic failure of the river system.

Without a deal, the Interior Department, which manages flows on the river, must impose the cuts. That would break from the century-long tradition of states determining how to share the river’s water. And it would all but ensure that the administration’s increasingly urgent efforts to save the Colorado get caught up in lengthy legal challenges.

The crisis over the Colorado River is the latest example of how climate change is overwhelming the foundations of American life — not only physical infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, but also the legal underpinnings that have made those systems work.

A century’s worth of laws, which assign different priorities to Colorado River users based on how long they’ve used the water, is facing off against a competing philosophy that says, as the climate changes, water cuts should be apportioned based on what’s practical.

The outcome of that dispute will shape the future of the southwestern United States.

“We’re using more water than nature is going to provide,” said Eric Kuhn, who worked on previous water agreements as general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Someone is going to have to cut back very significantly.”

The rules that determine who gets water from the Colorado River, and how much, were always based, to a degree, on magical thinking.

In 1922, states along the river negotiated the Colorado River Compact, which apportioned the water among two groups of states. The so-called upper basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) would get 7.5 million acre-feet a year. The lower basin (Arizona, California and Nevada) got a total of 8.5 million acre-feet. A later treaty guaranteed Mexico, where the river reaches the sea, 1.5 million acre-feet.

(An acre-foot of water is enough water to cover an acre of land in a foot of water. That’s roughly as much water as two typical households use in a year.)

But the premise that the river’s flow would average 17.5 million acre-feet each year turned out to be faulty. Over the past century, the river’s actual flow has averaged less than 15 million acre-feet each year.

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For decades, that gap was obscured by the fact that some of the river’s users, including Arizona and some Native American tribes, lacked the canals and other infrastructure to employ their full allotment. But as that infrastructure increased, so did the demand on the river.

Then, the drought hit. From 2000 through 2022, the river’s annual flow averaged just over 12 million acre-feet; in each of the past three years, the total flow was less than 10 million.

The Bureau of Reclamation, an office within the Interior Department that manages the river system, has sought to offset that water loss by getting states to reduce their consumption. In 2003, it pushed California, which had been exceeding its annual allotment, the largest in the basin, to abide by that limit. In 2007, and again in 2019, the department negotiated still deeper reductions among the states.

It wasn’t enough. Last summer, the water level in Lake Mead sank to 1,040 feet above sea level, its lowest ever.

If the water level falls below 950 feet, the Hoover Dam will no longer be able to generate hydroelectric power. At 895 feet, no water would be able to pass the dam at all — a condition called “deadpool.”

In June, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, Camille C. Touton, gave the states 60 days to come up with a plan to reduce their use of Colorado River water by two to four million acre-feet — about 20 to 40 percent of the river’s entire flow.

Ms. Touton stressed that she preferred that the states develop a solution. But if they did not, she said, the bureau would act.

“It is in our authorities to act unilaterally to protect the system,” Ms. Touton told lawmakers. “And we will protect the system.”

The 60-day deadline came and went. The states produced no plan for the cuts the bureau demanded. And the bureau didn’t present a plan of its own.

A spokesman for Ms. Touton said she was unavailable to comment.

In November, the Biden administration tried again. The Bureau of Reclamation said it would analyze the environmental impact of large cuts in water use from the Colorado — the first step toward making those cuts, potentially this summer. To meet that timeline, the bureau asked states to submit a proposal by Jan. 31 that it could include in the study. If states fail to agree by then, the administration will be left to analyze and ultimately impose its own plan for rationing water. The government hasn’t said publicly what its plan would be.

The department’s latest request and new deadline, set for Jan. 31, has led to a new round of negotiations, and finger-pointing, among the states.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming argue they are unable to significantly reduce their share of water. Those states get their water primarily from stream flow, rather than from giant reservoirs like in the lower basin states. As the drought reduces that flow, the amount of water they use has already declined to about half their allotment, officials said.

“Clearly, the lion’s share of what needs to be done has to be done by the lower basin states,” said Estevan López, the negotiator for New Mexico who led the Bureau of Reclamation during the Obama administration.

Nor can much of the solution come from Nevada, which is allotted just 300,000 acre-feet from the Colorado. Even if the state’s water deliveries were stopped entirely, rendering Las Vegas effectively uninhabitable, the government would get barely closer to its goal.

And Nevada has already imposed some of the basin’s most aggressive water-conservation strategies, according to John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. The state has even outlawed some types of lawns.

“We’re using two-thirds of our allocation,” Mr. Entsminger said in an interview. “You can’t take blood from a stone.”

That leaves California and Arizona, which have rights to 4.4 million and 2.8 million acre-feet from the Colorado — typically the largest and third-largest allotments among the seven states. Negotiators from both sides seem convinced of one thing: The other state ought to come up with more cuts.

In California, the largest user of Colorado River water is the Imperial Irrigation District, which has rights to 3.1 million acre-feet — as much as Arizona and Nevada put together. That water lets farmers grow alfalfa, lettuce and broccoli on about 800 square miles of the Imperial Valley, in the southeast corner of California.

California has senior water rights to Arizona, which means that Arizona’s supply should be cut before California is forced to take reductions, according to JB Hamby, vice president of the Imperial Irrigation District and chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, which is negotiating for the state.

“We have sound legal footing,” Mr. Hamby said in an interview. He said that fast-growing Arizona should have been ready for the Colorado River drying up. “That’s kind of a responsibility on their part to plan for these risk factors.”

Tina Shields, Imperial’s water department manager, put the argument more bluntly. It would be hard to tell the California farmers who rely on the Colorado River to stop growing crops, she said, “so that other folks continue to build subdivisions.”

Still, Mr. Hamby conceded that significantly reducing the water supply for large urban populations in Arizona would be “a little tricky.” California has offered to cut its use of Colorado River water by as much as 400,000 acre-feet — up to one-fifth of the cuts that the Biden administration has sought.

If the administration wants to impose deeper cuts on California, he said, it’s welcome to try.

“Reclamation can do whatever Reclamation wants,” Mr. Hamby said. “The question is, will it withstand legal challenge?”

On the other side of the Colorado, Arizona officials acknowledge that the laws governing the river may not work in their favor. But they have arguments of their own.

Arizona’s status as a junior rights holder was cemented in 1968, when Congress agreed to pay for the Central Arizona Project, an aqueduct that carries water from the Colorado to Phoenix and Tucson, and the farms that surround them.

But the money came with a catch. In return for their support, California’s legislators insisted on a provision that their state’s water rights take priority over the aqueduct.

If Arizona could have foreseen that climate change would permanently reduce the river’s flow, it might never have agreed to that deal, said Tom Buschatzke, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources.

Because of its junior rights, Arizona has taken the brunt of recent rounds of voluntary cuts. The state’s position now, Mr. Buschatzke said, is that everyone should make a meaningful contribution, and that nobody should lose everything. “That’s an equitable outcome, even if it doesn’t necessarily strictly follow the law.”

There are other arguments in Arizona’s favor. About half of the water delivered through the Central Arizona Project goes to Native American tribes — including those in the Gila River Indian Community, which is entitled to 311,800 acre-feet per year.

The United States can’t cut off that water, said Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community. “That would be a rejection of the trust obligation that the federal government has for our water.”

In an interview this week, Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the Interior Department, said the federal government would consider “equity, and public health, and safety” as it weighs how to spread the reductions.

The department will compare California’s preference to base cuts on seniority of water rights with Arizona’s suggestion to cut allotments in ways meant to “meet the basic needs of communities in the lower basin,” Mr. Beaudreau said.

“We’re in a period of 23 years of sustained drought and overdraws on the system,” he added. “I’m not interested, under those circumstances, in assigning blame.”