Biden Administration Ignores Painful Decisions on Colorado River Cuts

In an interview, Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau told POLITICO that the department’s current approach isn’t aimed at equipping the department to act unilaterally if necessary, but also to provide states with “indicators” as they negotiate.

“I really think there is unity in the basin to pursue and strive for a consensus approach to maintaining the system,” he said.

The Colorado River is in the midst of a 23-year drought that has seen flows shrink by 20 percent, and hotter, drier conditions fueled by climate change are expected to further reduce supplies in coming years as the planet continues to warm. But thirsty farms and cities in California and Arizona continue to use water at a greater rate than the river flows, leaving two major reservoirs in Lake Mead and Lake Powell now only a quarter full. While a strong snowfall this winter is preventing a crisis now, Beaudreau argued that the federal government should be ready to act if dry conditions push the system to the brink of crisis again in the next few years.

Last fall, Federal projections showed Water levels at Glen Canyon Dam at the top of Grand Canyon National Park could drop too low by the end of the year, shutting down hydroelectric generation central to the stability of the Western Grid and threatening the ability to generate downstream water supplies to Nevada, Arizona and California.

At the time, the Biden administration called on states to develop a plan to cut consumption by a third of the river’s flows, and began an environmental review process to raise its legal authority to act unilaterally if states were hostile. . A new draft version of the Department of the Interior’s environmental analysis released on Tuesday presented several options that could be taken to overcome the crisis.

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But instead of providing a clear blueprint for what Interior should do, the department analyzed variants of two competing plans presented by states and a scenario where no reductions are made and reservoir levels decline rapidly. .

One action option, similar to the approach advocated by California, would be to impose water cuts using a century-old legal framework governing the river, which completely cuts off new water users before veteran users — mostly farmers and ranchers — see anything. reductions.

Another option echoes the spirit of a proposal supported by Arizona and the five other states that share the river, spreading the cuts more evenly among all water users. But by taxing users on water that evaporates from reservoirs and drains from canals, the Interior’s proposal would use its statutory powers to protect human health and safety and ensure that it is put to “beneficial use.” ” and act in an emergency.

John Fleck, a Colorado River expert at the University of New Mexico, said the Department’s approach could give both sides leverage in negotiations by avoiding choosing sides.

“It leaves room for constructive negotiations, and now that we have a good snowfall, we have the potential for those constructive negotiations to happen,” he said.

The current process is part of a short-term effort to avert a crisis in the river over the next few years, while states begin negotiating a long-term set of rules to manage the river by 2026.

Key players in Colorado River water negotiations are eager to work on a state-led agreement to resolve near-term supply disputes on Tuesday.

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“California is committed to building a seven-state consensus that will protect the Colorado River system for the duration of the current guidelines,” said JP Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California and serving on the board of the Imperial Irrigation District. It has the largest single ownership of the river.

The Biden administration is also trying to get as many voluntary cuts as possible, using new funding from the bipartisan Infrastructure Act and Deinflation Act. Last week, Interior officials blasted the region, announcing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investments in defense contracts and infrastructure upgrades.

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