The Van Trump Report

We All Need to Keep an Eye on How The Government Handles “Colorado River” Water Rights

As water in the Colorado River continues to shrink, the US Federal government is getting ready to impose reductions in water supplies to states for the first time. Officials earlier this month laid the groundwork for what could be substantial cuts in an effort to protect the minimum “responsible” water levels. This comes as states in the Colorado River Basin have failed to come up with a basin-wide agreement on how to share water cutbacks. Even though the Colorado River might not directly impact your farming operation, we still need to pay close attention as the rulings and changes might be the groundwork for future Federal government water regulations. 

The Colorado River is one of the principal rivers in the Southwestern United States and in northern Mexico. It runs 1,450 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California, draining parts of seven U.S. states and two Mexican states. The river system is one of the most heavily developed in the world, with fifteen dams on the main stem of the Colorado and hundreds more on tributaries.

The Upper Colorado River Basin, defined by the river network above Lee’s Ferry in northern Arizona, is comprised of 4 states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The Lower Colorado Basin includes Arizona, southern Nevada, and southern California. This part of the river is a crucial water supply for Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Southern California. Critically, it makes the vast agricultural production in the desert Southwest possible, irrigating some 5.5 million acres.

Due to decades of overuse and compounded by a 23-year “megadrought” in the West, Colorado River flows have fallen to historic lows. The situation looks to improve, at least temporarily, thanks to tassive amounts of snow that fell this winter and spring across the Rockies and other ranges that feed the river. The snowpack for the Upper Colorado River Basin is currently 162% of the region’s 30-year average, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. The latest prediction from the National Weather Service’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center shows that the river will swell to 177% of its average volume as the snow melts during the critical April to July thaw period.

Unfortunately, all that snow melt will not be enough to restore the river system’s most important reservoirs – Lake Mead and Lake Powell. On April 3, Lake Mead’s water level was at 1,045.91 feet above sea level but expected to fall to around 1,018 feet by the end of 2024. At 950 feet elevation, Hoover Dam would lose the ability to generate hydropower. If the reservoir drops below 895 feet, it will be at “dead pool” level, meaning water from the dam would not be able to flow downstream. As of April 15, the water elevation at Lake Powell was at 3,522 feet above sea level, about 22% of its full capacity.    

The Colorado River basin states have been working on a drought contingency plan for years. The Bureau of Reclamation last summer called on states to come up with a plan to cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water use along the river to prevent the system from crashing. After states failed to come to a consensus on how to share these cuts, the federal government began to explore its own options.

The Biden administration earlier this month released a draft federal plan, called a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), that proposed three options. One of the solutions proposes equal cuts for three states in the lower Colorado River basin: California, Arizona and Nevada. Another would mandate reductions in water use in Arizona, California, and Nevada based on the current structure for water rights, which would largely protect California as one of the most senior users. Not surprisingly, Arizona and Nevada prefer the first option. The third option is to take no action and risk pushing the reservoirs to dead pool levels.

All of these options threaten agriculture in the region. Colorado River supplies irrigate crucial farming regions, including the Imperial Valley, Coachella Valley, and Yuma, Arizona. Farmers in these areas grow as much as 90% of the country’s leafy vegetables during winter.

California receives the most Colorado River of all the states, with an annual entitlement of 4.4 million acre-feet. About 2.5 million acre-feet of that goes to the Imperial Irrigation District. The Imperial Valley alone has 500,000 acres of farmland and would be at greatest threat from the even split proposal, while Arizona and Nevada might actually benefit.

A final decision on the Bureau of Reclamation’s proposal is expected in August, after a public comment period, and will affect the 2024 operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams. The draft proposal is available HERE. (Sources: Bureau of Reclamation, New York Times, Holtville Tribune)

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