As the Colorado River crisis deepens, some officials say it’s time federal agencies dropped the hammer on water cuts

By Ella Nilsen, CNN

(CNN) — As the Colorado River system nears its decline, some Western water regulators, lawmakers and experts had expected federal officials to announce an ambitious plan Tuesday to reduce usage and save the river basin after stakeholders failed to meet a Monday deadline had complied to do it themselves.

At the very least, they expected federal officials to give stakeholders a new, strict deadline to come up with a plan to make cuts themselves.

But neither happened.

While the Home Office announced a Tier 2 water shortage on the river that will result in fresh cuts starting in January, those cuts had been agreed for more than a decade and water boards had already incorporated them into their operations.

Experts say a big plan for a big crisis is needed now, which is what US Bureau of Reclamation chief Camille Touton called for in June when she urged states and stakeholders in the Colorado River to limit its use by 15-2 to 4 million acre-feet per year – to stabilize the river.

Touton said at the time that if river stakeholders didn’t come up with a plan, the federal government would step in to protect the basin. But after her Monday deadline failed to produce a deal, Touton said on Tuesday the office would announce steps going forward – but didn’t say what exactly those steps would be. Mandatory cuts related to Tier 2 shortages will result in a 721,000 acre-feet reduction in river water use — a far cry from Touton’s desire to save up to 4 million acre-feet.

Touton said on Tuesday her agency had just “started the process” and gave no new deadlines that could be set for further drastic cuts.

The Complaints Bureau’s lack of a public deadline or action plan came as a surprise to advocacy groups and pundits who think it’s time for the FBI to drop the hammer.

“We received a very soft-worded, friendly letter Tuesday,” said Sarah Porter, the director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “Therefore we cannot answer these questions; apparently we didn’t have a serious deadline.

Senior Arizona water officials told CNN the federal government is still trying to “persuade” states to make their own plans to reduce water use, but in the meantime water is running out.

“The United States’ approach is to facilitate voluntary offers, to persuade states to do what states ultimately need to do, rather than pull out the stick,” said Ted Cooke, general manager of Central Arizona Project, a renewable water supply In the state.

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said that after a key missed deadline, time is running out for a rapidly failing river system. While it would be nice to come to a voluntary agreement instead of getting a mandatory agreement from the Fed, Arizona officials asked for a firm hand and a quick schedule.

“The short answer is yes,” Buschatzke said. “We need the government’s threat to act.”

An uncertain path

Administration officials said they did not want to impede state negotiations and wanted to focus on using federal money from climate and infrastructure bills to incentivize voluntary water cuts and make improvements to western water infrastructure.

“Today we start the process and more information on the actions we will take in this process will follow,” Touton said on Tuesday. “I would like to continue to highlight the need for partnerships in this area and the need for collaboration and seeking a consensus solution. Not just for next year, but for the future.”

During negotiations between June and Aug. 15, Arizona and Nevada presented a plan to reduce water use in the Lower Basin states and Mexico by 2 million acre-feet, Buschatzke and Cooke said at a Tuesday news conference. But that proposal was rejected by California officials and the US Bureau of Reclamation.

“The other two parties in the room weren’t comfortable moving forward,” Cooke said.

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California general manager Adel Hagekhalil confirmed in a statement that none of the proposals put forward during that time received sufficient support.

“Over the last two months we have discussed several different proposals — from Arizona, from California, from others involved in the discussions — but unfortunately none of them have received universal support from everyone,” Hagekhalil said. “Now is not the time to draw boundaries in the sand. We must continue to work on a common basis.”

A spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation did not comment on why it rejected the Arizona-Nevada plan.

Hagekhalil said his district was grateful for Touton’s “support in granting us a limited extension to meet the goal” of voluntary cuts.

“We also understand that if we are unsuccessful, the Bureau of Reclamation will implement its own approach to stabilizing Lake Mead and Lake Powell,” Hagekhalil said.

John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told CNN Monday that he felt other negotiating parties were failing to grasp the seriousness of the crisis.

“Honestly, I’m frustrated because the overwhelming feeling I’ve gotten from the negotiations is that there aren’t enough people who take this seriously enough and understand that it’s about adapting to less water in this river ‘ Entsminger said.

The federal legislature gets involved

As the Colorado River runs out of water and time, federal lawmakers also urged Reclamation Bureau officials to act more urgently.

Democratic Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona wrote a letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland on Tuesday morning, urging her to “outline the department’s options and judicial bodies” to implement its own mitigation measures when states cannot do it themselves.

He was joined on Tuesday by U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen of Nevada, who urged U.S. officials to “take additional federal action and action to ensure that all lower basin states are committed to conserving the entire basin.” contribute that is needed to address the severity of this crisis.”

Porter told CNN that the public finger-pointing from states is a dismal sign of progress in the negotiations.

It’s “all the things you say at the beginning of the negotiation,” not at the end, she said.

“Everybody’s in their corner right now,” Porter added. “Unfortunately, no bell rang for us today. Not having any concrete steps today at all – that’s worrying because it brings us closer to the truly catastrophic scenario of Dead Pool.”

The CNN Wire
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