A new push to shore up the Colorado River

Releases from Hoover Dam may be reduced, shrinking the amount of water flowing to Arizona, California. By Ian James – enewspaper

With the nation’s two largest reservoirs continuing to decline, federal officials announced plans Friday to revise their current rules for dealing with Colorado River shortages and pursue a new agreement to achieve larger reductions in water use throughout the Southwest.

Colorado River

The Biden administration announcement represents a renewed push to scale back water use along a river that has shrunk significantly in the face of a 23-year megadrought worsened by global warming.


With water levels dropping at Lake Powell, the Interior Department said operators of Glen Canyon Dam may need to release less water, which would affect flows in the Grand Canyon and accelerate the decline of Lake Mead. In order to protect public health and safety and the integrity of the system, the department said releases from Hoover Dam may also need to be reduced — which would shrink the amounts of water flowing to California, Arizona and Mexico.

Federal officials in June called for the seven states that rely on the Colorado River to come up with plans to drastically reduce annual water diversions by about 15% to 25% regionwide. But negotiations among the states grew tense and acrimonious and didn’t produce a deal.

The Interior Department has the authority to step in and unilaterally impose larger cuts. But federal officials appear to be pushing for a consensus on shrinking the water take from the river rather than dictating reductions in ways that could further inflame tensions or lead to legal fights. This approach increases the pressure on the states to come up with a deal in the coming months or face federal intervention.

Hoover Dam

“The Interior Department continues to pursue a collaborative and consensus-based approach to addressing the drought crisis afflicting the West,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a news release. “At the same time, we are committed to taking prompt and decisive action necessary to protect the Colorado River System and all those who depend on it.”

Water from the Colorado River is used by about 40 million people, flowing to cities, farmlands and tribal nations from the Rocky Mountains to Southern California. The river has long been overallocated. So much water is diverted that the river’s delta in Mexico largely dried up decades ago.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the river’s two largest reservoirs, now sit nearly three-fourths empty. Declining water levels are putting the dams’ ability to generate hydropower at risk.

Without major cuts in water use, the latest projections show growing risks of the reservoirs approaching “dead pool” levels, where water would no longer pass downstream.

The current system for dealing with shortages was established in operating rules dating to 2007, and a 2019 deal laid out a series of additional cutbacks as Lake Mead’s level declines.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation said it will publish a notice to prepare a “supplemental environmental impact statement,” which will include alternatives for revising the 2007 rules. Those rules, called the interim guidelines, are set to expire after 2026, and negotiations on the next round of shortage-sharing rules have yet to begin.

The Interior Department said in this “expedited” review process, officials will consider revising the current rules to “provide additional alternatives and measures needed to address the likelihood of continued low-runoff conditions.”

The Bureau of Reclamation plans to analyze options including what it calls a consensus-based “framework” agreement that would build on water reductions that the states and tribes have previously agreed to.

Another alternative would be for the Interior secretary to exercise federal authority to change reservoir operations. The Interior Department said this alternative would also “consider how the secretary’s authority could complement a consensus-based alternative that may not sufficiently mitigate current and projected risks.”

The department said the review will also consider the “no action” option of staying with the current rules and agreements. The agency will accept public input through Dec. 20.

Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said these steps are necessary “to protect the Colorado River System and stabilize rapidly declining reservoir storage elevations.”

Touton said these measures will better protect reservoir levels and water supplies while long-term plans are developed to address “the climate-driven realities facing the Colorado River Basin.”


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