7 states unable to reach a deal as deadline passes for Colorado River water cuts proposal

At stake for Arizona is the potential for our state to face the strictest water cuts due to concessions made in 1968, before the central Arizona project.
Published: Jan. 31, 2023 at 9:12 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Tuesday was the deadline for seven states, including Arizona, to reach a deal on Colorado River water cuts. But the states are still at an impasse, meaning the federal government may have to step in.

Earlier this week, Arizona joined five other states on a proposal to cut 30% of their water, but California continues to object. Arizona water experts say it’s time for equal access to a diminishing water supply. “It would enable Arizona, Central Arizona in particular, to have some breathing room,” said Kathryn Sorensen, Research Director of ASU Kyl Center for Water Policy.

In a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, California described how states could conserve between one million and nearly two million acre feet of water through new cuts based on the elevation of Lake Mead, a key reservoir. Its plan did not account for water lost to evaporation and during transportation — a move sought by the other states that would mean big cuts for California.

California’s plan and the separate methods outlined by states Monday came in response to Reclamation asking them last year to detail how they would use between 15% and 30% less water. The federal agency operates the major dams in the river system.

As an ASU researcher and professor, Sorensen isn’t directly involved in the Colorado River water cuts and Arizona’s push for more even distribution of these cuts. She’s grateful for that. “I don’t envy those who are in those negotiations,” she said. “I know they’re working really, really hard.”

At stake for Arizona is the potential to face the strictest water cuts due to concessions made in 1968 before building the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which distributes water through canals to areas like Phoenix and Tucson. “We agreed as part of that legislation that those water deliveries would be cut first when there’s no longer enough water to go around,” Sorensen said.

Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke says Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming all agreed on substantial cuts. “It’s in total about three million acre feet,” he said. “Something that is very robust in the outcome of protecting the river in a much bigger way than the past incremental steps we’ve been taking.” But Buschatzke says it still wasn’t enough for California to agree to the proposal, prompting politicians like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to say, “It’s time for California to help solve the water crisis and be an equal partner.”

All seven states missed that deadline last August. Six of them regrouped and came to an agreement by the end of January. California was the the lone holdout to that agreement. Unlike the other states’ plan, California’s does not factor the roughly 1.5 million acre feet of Colorado River water lost to evaporation and transportation.

Instead, it proposes reducing water taken out of Lake Mead by one million acre feet, with 400,000 acre feet coming from its own users. The state previously outlined that level of cuts in October. Arizona would bear the brunt of bigger cuts — 560,000 acre feet — while Nevada would make up the rest. Those numbers are based on discussions from prior negotiations, California’s letter said.

In the meantime, Buschatzke says Arizona is running on borrowed time and needs to start imposing Colorado River water restrictions by this summer at the latest. “One way or the other, we’ve got to come to a conclusion this summer in time for implementation in 2024,” he said. “We’re out of time beyond that.”

In total, California’s plan could save between one million and two million acre-feet of water based on the elevation levels at Lake Mead, from which Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico draw their share of the river. The Arizona Department of Water Resources said it was still reviewing California’s proposal and didn’t have an immediate comment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.