Feds start the clock on a plan that could deepen cuts on drought-stricken Colorado River

By Brandon Loomi ||Arizona Republic

Federal water officials will work on a plan that could lead to major new cuts in Colorado River water deliveries next year in response to deepening drought.

The Interior Department and its dam managers at the Bureau of Reclamation said Friday they will complete an environmental review of options for keeping water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, both of which in recent years have sped toward the point of losing hydropower production or even failing to flow through their respective dams.

Reclamation already has reduced supplies to Arizona and Nevada based on operating guidelines approved in 2007. Those rules for shortage management have proved insufficient to halt plunging storage levels. They expire in 2026 and must be replaced by then, but the government’s announcement makes clear that emergency action is needed even sooner.

“We are taking immediate steps now to revise the operating guidelines to protect the Colorado River System and stabilize rapidly declining reservoir elevations,” Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in a written statement.

Touton had pushed the seven states that share the river to work out a deal for splitting new cutbacks earlier this year, and gave them until August to present plans. They failed to meet that deadline, but initially faced no immediate consequence. Friday’s announcement raises the prospect that the government will impose cuts of its own design if they don’t reach a consensus soon.

“It looks to me like the bureau is providing a carrot and a stick,” or an ultimatum, said Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy. Essentially, the states are on notice that Interior Secretary Debra Haaland will likely act unilaterally on further cuts if the states don’t enact a plan for next year.

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