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Biden administration looks to cut water allotments from Colorado River in migration hotspots

Homeowners in the Southwest will to cut back on water usage or risk losing their water and power supplies

From retirees moving to warmer weather in Florida to Californians relocating to Burlington, Vermont to escape wild fire threats, climate frequently plays into homebuyers’ decisions about where they want to live. But for those who recently relocated to pandemic housing market hotspots like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Denver, things might be getting a bit more complicated.

On Tuesday, the Interior Department, which manages the flow of the Colorado River, released a draft analysis outlining three plans to divvy up the supply cuts needed to keep the river flowing among the states who rely on the river for water.

For over two decades states that rely on water from the Colorado River, which include the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico, and the lower basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California, have been dealing with the compounding issues of overuse of river water and a drought exacerbated by climate change. Currently, the river supplies drinking water to 40 million Americans, as well as two states in Mexico and irrigates 5.5 million agricultural acres.

In addition, the electricity generated by dams on Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the river’s two main reservoirs, powers millions of homes and businesses across the region.

However, river flow is currently down by roughly one-third, based on historical averages and water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which sank to its lowest level ever last summer, are so low that water may soon fail to turn the turbines that generate electricity. Experts are also concerned water levels may even fall so low that water is unable to reach the intake valves that control its flow out of the reservoirs, which would essential stop the river from flowing

The first plan proposed by the Interior Department is to do nothing, which most feel is bound to lead to disaster in the near future. The second involves making reductions to water supply based on which states have the most senior water rights. And the third plan would result in water being evenly distributed among Arizona, California and Nevada. As the three lower basin state are the only ones to rely on water from Lake Mead and not the river itself, they are the only three states the federal government can impose water cuts on.

Under the second plan, as the largest and oldest Colorado River water user, California would mostly be spared any impact, however Nevada and Arizona, which both saw massive influxes of homebuyers at the height of the pandemic housing boom, would face large cuts . Most notably, the aqueduct that carries drinking water to Phoenix and Tucson would be reduced to nearly zero.

If water cuts are evenly distributed among the three state, each state would be facing up to a 13% reduction in water deliveries. While this would be a much better situation for Arizona’s fast-growing metro areas, it would hurt Southern California’s agricultural region.

Since after World War I, when Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California came together to negotiate, the flow and usage of the water in the Colorado River has been governed by the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

The compact states that the upper-basin states must leave 75 million acre-feet in the river over each decade or an average of 7.5 million acre-feet per year, based on measurements where the river enters northern Arizona at Lee’s Ferry. In addition, lower basin states can “call” for more water during dry times and, thanks to a 1944 international treaty, 1.5 million acre-feet must remain in the river for Mexico.

At the time of the compact’s negotiation, the annual flow of the 1,450 mile long river was estimated to be 15 million acre-feet, but it was later discovered that the river’s annual average flow is closer to 12.5 million acre-feet. 

As the population of upper-basin cities like Denver and Salt Lake City has increased, and the impact of climate change has become more evident, growing the population in a way that is sustainable for the environment has become top of mind for many in the region.

“Water is a hot topic here and we are trying to make sure there is enough for everybody,” Emily Jones, a Fort Collins, Colorado-based The Group Real Estate agent told RealTrends last June. “In fact, there was a community here that recently put a kibosh on new taps for a short period of time, so builders weren’t able to acquire taps to keep building, but fortunately we are through that now.”

In addition to measures like tap moratoriums, organizations such as Northern Water, which supplies water for much of the Fort Collins area, are educating consumers on what they can do to curb their water usage.

“People are already being much more efficient by installing efficient toilets, washing machines and dishwashers, but the next big area we are trying to find some efficacy gains in people’s landscaping,” Jeff Stahla, Northern Water’s public information officer, said last June. “We are not running out of water. We are just running out of enough water to do everything that everyone wants to do all at the same time.”

This is not the first time government officials have looked into re-negotiating the river’s water supply. In June of 2022, federal officials, including U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Toutonannounced that the seven Colorado River basin states must conserve an additional 2-to-4 million acre-feet of water just to protect critical reservoir levels in 2023, however the states failed to strike a deal and the federal government took no action.

The states were again asked to formulate a plan last fall, which resulted in six of the states proposing a plan where the bulk of the cuts come from California, and California releasing its own plan that suggested that the majority of the cuts come from Arizona.

The third attempt might be the charm. With its analysis this week, the federal government has made it clear that it is willing to take action to solve this problem.

In addition, officials from Arizona and Nevada appear to be amicable to the proposed cuts.

At a news conference announcing the results of the assessment, Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s lead negotiator in the Colorado River, and John Entsminger, the lead negotiator for Nevada, both said they were generally in favor of an equitable approach to reductions.

But, California may still prove to be a roadblock. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, one of the largest users of Colorado River water, has made it clear it is not thrilled with the plans and cuts proposed by the federal government.

“The alternatives released today by Reclamation underscore the need for the Basin states to work together to develop collaborative solutions to protect the Colorado River and its infrastructure,” Adel Hagekjalil, the general manger of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said in a statement. “Based on our initial assessment of the draft SEIS, neither of the action alternatives presented today is ideal. Both include significant supply cuts that would hurt Metropolitan and our partners across the Basin. There is a better way to manage the river.”

A final analysis, which may include other options yet to be explored, is expected to be released this summer, but in a statement to the New York Times, Tommy Beaudreau, the deputy secretary for the Interior Department, said that he would prefer the states that rely on the Colorado River to reach an agreement among themselves instead of the federal government getting involved and imposing reductions.