U.S. Interior Department announces measures to protect the Colorado River Basin

14 Apr 2023 by The Water Diplomat

Colorado 'bath rings'

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the Department of Interior has drafted a set of three different options to preserve the water in the Colorado River Basin, which has been suffering from the impacts of drought since 2020.  The water levels in the river’s main reservoirs in the river – Lake Powell and Lake Mead - have recently fallen to critically low levels.  At the beginning of December 2022, the river's various water storage systems were only 28% full, triggering emergency water sharing measures between the United States and Mexico. The Bureau of Reclamation had also given the seven basin states until the end of January to discuss a new joint agreement of water reductions, after a similar deadline set in August 2022 had passed. Six of the seven states submitted a proposal, but California, which uses the largest proportion of the Colorado’s water, submitted a separate proposal.

The current options being presented by the Department of the Interior relate to a revision of the short- and medium-term operating guidelines for the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams as well as the allocations to the different states in the basin. This step from Federal government comes after months of negotiations between the basin states, which remain largely unresolved.

In its response the Bureau of Reclamation presents three scenarios: a do-nothing scenario, a scenario in which states are allocated water rights based on the seniority of their rights, and a scenario in which each state must cut its water use by 13% beyond cutbacks in demand that have already been agreed to.  The current analysis by the Biden administration still retains three policy options and steers clear of imposing cutbacks unilaterally, but the release of its environmental analysis of the river and the proposed options do place significant extra pressure on the states in the basin to come to a negotiated agreement.