The federal government is in control of the Colorado River. Federal officials with the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation are pressuring the seven western states to preserve the remaining water level and prevent the lakes from becoming dead pools. The seven states have yet to reach a deal and have failed to make the necessary cuts, leading to upcoming legal showdowns and possibly a new compact.
The seven affected states must submit a plan to conserve billions of gallons of water by 2023. So far, the negotiations are not looking good. The states in the Lower Basin of the Colorado River – California, Arizona and Nevada, are struggling to come up with a fair plan for all. The states in the Upper Basin – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah, are also clashing over resource allocation, and are blaming the Lower Basin states for not doing their part.
The leaders over urban and agricultural water districts are having difficult discussions about water cuts that would impact millions of people in different living environments. Which districts take precedence? Whose tap water will be restricted first? Who will pay the higher prices? Will the agricultural districts have enough water to keep crops alive? Will people living in the city be able to bathe?
“There are a lot of different interests at loggerheads. And there’s a lot to overcome, and there’s a lot of animosity,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. “It’s going to be a mess,” he continued. “I don’t see how we ever get over some of what I believe are irreconcilable differences among the states.”
In a congressional hearing on June 14, 2022, the federal government called for urgent action to cut current water usage by 15 to 30 percent. The Commissioner at the Bureau of Reclamation, Calimlim Touton, announced an additional 2 to 4 million acre per feet reduction in water use by 2023. She warned the states that the federal government will “act unilaterally to protect the system” if an agreement is not made over the next sixty-day period. This will likely lead to federal intervention, lawsuits and court battles. If the states do not come up with a plan to cut water usage, and legal proceedings are not enforced, the federal government will literally have to move in with the military to defend the precious Lake Mead and Lake Powell, shutting off supplies to millions. Sixty days have passed since the congressional hearing, and the states have still failed to finalize their cuts.
States in the Upper Basin have pointed the finger at the states in the Lower Basin, because they traditionally use more of the water. The Imperial Irrigation District, which supplies water to farms in California’s Imperial Valley, controls the largest share of the water from the Colorado River.
The states in the Upper Basin believe the next cuts should come from the Lower Basin states, especially in California. Charles Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said that the four states in the Upper Basin have “limited” options available and cannot cut back any more, without compromising agriculture and livelihoods. He reports that the upper states “already suffer chronic shortages under current conditions.”
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