May 25, 2023 | Blog

Short-Term Agreement Reached On The Lower Colorado River

Short-Term Agreement Reached on the Lower Colorado River

Image Credit: Ted Wood/The Water Desk.

The Lower Basin States (Arizona, California, and Nevada) and the Biden Administration have announced a potential short-term deal on the Colorado River. The Lower Basin states coalesced around a plan to voluntarily conserve a major portion of their river water in exchange for more than $1 billion in federal funds.

“For over a century, Reclamation has led with solutions grounded in partnership and collaboration. The agreement today continues in this tradition,”said Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton on May 22. “I am proud of the Reclamation team’s work and thank our partners across the basin and the Basin states representatives for reaching this moment. This is an important step forward towards our shared goal of forging a sustainable path for the basin that millions of people call home.”

In the days leading up to Monday’s announcement, the hope was that the Department of Interior (DOI) would extend the May 30 comment deadline on the alternatives the federal government has laid out in that process in its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS). The Lower Basin states have resisted submitting formal comments, for fear that these comments could be used by the states to stake out legal positions on matters of water rights priority and federal authority that might push them further from a deal, as reported by the Washington Post last week.

That hope was fulfilled last weekend, when Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs, California Governor Gavin Newsom, and Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo announced that the Colorado River Lower Basin States have developed a plan to conserve 3 million acre-feet over the next three years to protect the Colorado River system.

“We are pleased and encouraged by this successful collaboration,” the governors wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

The Lower Basin Plan has been submitted to Reclamation with all Seven Colorado River Basin States supporting its evaluation as an action alternative within the Draft SEIS. More information and perspective can be found in these three documents:

1.     Letter from 7 Basin States to Reclamation Commissioner Touton;
2.     Letter from Lower Basin States to Commissioner Touton; and
3.     Press release from State of Arizona and Central Arizona Project.

The Imperial Irrigation District (IID) statement on the proposed plan can be found here.

The Lower Basin Plan proposes to conserve 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water through 2026, with at least 1.5 million acre-feet of that total being conserved by the end of calendar year 2024. This proposed near-term action alternative is expected to outperform the alternatives proposed in the existing Draft SEIS.

“California and our partners in Arizona and Nevada have developed a plan that results in better protection for the Colorado River system than other action alternatives identified in the current Draft SEIS released last month by Reclamation,” said JB Hamby, Chairman of the Colorado River Board of California and IID Board Vice President. “The Lower Basin Plan will generate unprecedented volumes of conservation that will build elevation in Lake Mead, make strategic use of the improved hydrology, and build upon partnerships within and among states, urban water agencies, agricultural irrigation districts, and Basin Tribes who rely upon and share the Colorado River.”

In addition to IID, The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Palo Verde Irrigation District, the Coachella Valley Water District, the Fort Yuma Quechan tribe, and the Bard Water District are anticipated to assist in meeting California’s conservation volumes and utilize IRA funding.

Arizona and Nevada water users have committed to conserve the balance of the 3 million acre-feet of voluntary conservation, in addition to their existing shortage reduction volumes and contributions under the 2007 Interim Guidelines and 2019 Drought Contingency Plan.

“This proposal protects the system in the short term so we can dedicate our energy and resources to a longer-term solution” said Central Arizona Project General Manager Brenda Burman. “New guidelines for operating the river system will be due by the end of 2026. There’s a lot to do and it’s time to focus.”

In light of the Lower Basin states’ conservation proposal, DOI on Monday announced that it is temporarily withdrawing the draft SEIS so that it can fully analyze the effects of the proposal under the National Environmental Policy Act. Reclamation will then publish an updated draft SEIS for public comment with the consensus-based proposal as an action alternative.

Accordingly, the original May 30, 2023, deadline for the submission of comments on the draft SEIS is no longer in effect. DOI plans to finalize the SEIS process later this year.

“Reclamation’s SEIS process succeeded in facilitating this agreement, and we will carry forward the consensus proposal by analyzing it under the SEIS,” said Interior Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau.

Early next month, DOI will formally advance the process for the development of new operating guidelines replacing the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead at the end of 2026. In the coming weeks, Reclamation will publish the Notice of Intent for the Environmental Impact Statement related to the post-2026 guidelines.

The Family Farm Alliance board of directors in February 2022 formally adopted a policy brief intended to provide guidance to negotiators of the post-2026 guidelines. Alliance Executive Director Dan Keppen presented another Colorado River policy paper, “Impacts on Agriculture: Feeding America with Less Water” at the CLE International Law of the Colorado River Conference in Scottsdale (ARIZONA) last week.

“To ensure balanced solutions are achieved, agricultural producers throughout the Colorado River Basin must have a place at the table,” said Mr. Keppen to the CLE audience. “The full value of irrigation to our nation must be accurately and fairly considered.”

We will continue to keep you informed on this and other developments impacting Western irrigated agriculture.
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