Key Colorado River conservation deadline arrives, with no consensus on the horizon

Monday marked a key cutoff time by which Colorado River states had been tasked with proposing a consensus-based plant for long-term water conservation in the overtaxed system.

But with the arrival of that deadline, set by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, no such agreement was on the table. Instead, the river system’s two main contingents — the Upper and Lower basins — submitted their own competing plans.

The proposals pertained to an upcoming update of the rules — known as the 2007 Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages — that govern where, when and how much the seven basin states must conserve water from the 1,450-mile river.

While those rules only apply to the domestic parties, the Colorado River serves as the lifeblood for about 40 million people in the U.S. and Mexico, and the two countries are currently renegotiating international conservation commitments at the same time.

The history of the Colorado River system’s water consumption is complex, with a century-old agreement allocating parties with more water than is reasonably available today.

That 1922 compact allotted 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually to each of the two U.S. basins, while a 1944 treaty then granted another 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico. For reference, suburban U.S. households tend to use about an acre-foot each year.

As the rules governing the river have come up for renegotiation, matters have grown increasingly complicated on the domestic front, where the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — have starkly different perspectives from their Lower Basin peers — Arizona, California and Nevada.

Their differences revolve around a few key points of contention, including the Upper Basin’s assertion that future plans should reflect real-time hydrology and acknowledge that water supplies for its states depend on annual snowpack conditions.

The Lower Basin, on the other hand, withdraws its water from the Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs, while holding some of the most senior “water rights” — the historical relic of a first-come, first-serve priority-based system.

The two contingents sent separate submissions on Wednesday to the Bureau of Reclamation, which is overseeing the update of the guidelines via the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). As part of the NEPA process, the agency must analyze proposed alternatives within an environmental impact statement (EIS).

The bureau had warned the parties that if they did not file a consensus-backed alternative by Monday, federal officials could proceed independently, with the intention of publishing an EIS by December.

The seven states were previously able to reach an agreement on short-term measures to sustain the system until 2026 after a year of disagreements, which the bureau announced it would support last Tuesday.

As far as last week’s long-term submissions are concerned, one of the key differences between the basins’ competing plans involves precisely which reservoirs in the system would contribute to basin-wide storage availability calculations.

The Lower Basin proposed the inclusion of not only Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the largest reservoirs and the only ones involved in the 2007 guidelines — but also five other smaller units in storage assessments. Three of those five reservoirs are located in the Upper Basin.

Altogether, the seven reservoirs could provide more than 58 million-acre feet of possible system storage, according to the Lower Basin plan.

While the Upper Basin offered to consider new storage initiatives in some of these reservoirs, it did so as part of possible “parallel activities” and not through the official NEPA process.

Another point of tension between the opposing parties relates to the release of water from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. The former, an Upper Basin storage facility, delivers water via the Glen Canyon Dam into Lake Mead, the reservoir from which Lower Basin states make their withdrawals.

Lower Basin officials proposed that releases from Lake Powell to Lake Mead should be based on their combined volumes, with the amount discharged declining at lower content levels.

But Upper Basin parties called for determining releases for each reservoir separately, with the amount discharged or withheld from each evolving with individual water levels and accounting for supply-demand imbalances.

Although the two basins are currently at an impasse and have failed to meet a federally-mandated cutoff, it is still possible that they could come to a consensus — and that the Bureau of Reclamation could accept it, despite the missed deadline.

Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director for the Audubon Society, emphasized how the states also initially had no consensus when formulating the short-term conservation plans that the Bureau of Reclamation approved last week.

“I am disheartened that there’s not a seven-state proposal going into this, but I don’t believe this is the last chance we have to get there,” Pitt told The Hill in an interview prior to filings.

“I do believe that there’s time — but there’s not infinite time,” she added.

On a press call a day before the separate submissions, Interior Department action Deputy Secretary Laura Daniel-Davis stressed that the agency is “not expecting every single issue to be smoothed out between the Upper and Lower basin tomorrow.”

“We’ll continue to work with all parties throughout the spring and summer, to achieve as much consensus as possible,” she said. “We’re undertaking this process because failure is not an option.”

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.