What the fed’s new proposal for management of Colorado River reservoirs means

Lake Powell and Lake Mead remain historically low, but modeling shows risk of crisis levels has lessened over the next three years.


Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation released an updated proposal for the near-term management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Its revised draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) includes a proposal crafted by the Lower Colorado River Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — that commits to conserving 3 million acre-feet of water through the end of 2026.

The new plan comes after a period of relative optimism thanks to last winter’s record snow year, a wet summer in parts of the Rockies and increased water-conservation efforts across the region. But while federal officials and state leaders celebrated the new cuts and sunnier short-term water projections, environmental groups warned against minimizing the gravity of the crisis.

A home with a swimming pool abuts the desert on the edge of the Las Vegas valley on July 20, 2022, in Henderson, Nevada.
John Locher/AP Photo

“I fear that hoopla surrounding this document will distract from the challenges that lie ahead,” Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said in a press release. The Colorado River provides water to 40 million people across the Southwest, including 30 tribal nations, Mexico and major U.S. cities, such as Phoenix. But it has been suffering from extreme climate change-induced drought: The past two decades were one of the driest periods of the last 1,200 years. 

Here’s what you need to know about proposed plan and the state of the basin.

The new round of cuts falls on the Lower Basin states.  Last week’s news was a long time coming. In 2022, when the Colorado River’s major reservoirs hit record lows, the Interior Department decided to draft an update — the latest of several — to the 2007 guidelines that determine management of Powell and Mead through 2026. Back in April, the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that manages federal water infrastructure, released a draft of this short-term plan. In May, the Lower Basin states released their own proposal for a new plan and requested that federal officials consider it as an alternative.

Then, in June, the basin finally received good news: Hydrology models showed a better outlook for the next three years than the models from September 2022, on which the original document was based.

So, last week, the Bureau of Reclamation identified the Lower Basin’s proposal as its preferred option. This is not a final decision, but the press release suggests that federal officials will likely go with the Lower Basin states’ plan.

“This is a victory for collaboration as an approach rather than conflict, which is where we started,” said JB Hamby, chair of the Colorado River Board of California, according to the Associated Press.

A 45-day public comment period will now follow. After that, Reclamation will release a final SEIS and then a Record of Decision.

The proposed plan relies on lots of federal dollars. The Lower Basin states have agreed to cut 3 million acre-feet of water, but 2.3 million acre-feet of it will be compensated for by federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Remaining conservation efforts will be voluntary or enacted by state or local governments. The IRA set aside $4.6 billion to address drought across the West, with priority given to the Colorado River Basin. In a press release, the Biden administration emphasized its investments in the Colorado River Basin. In addition to IRA funds, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also set aside $8.3 billion over five years for water projects.

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

According to the proposed plan, California will make the largest cuts, followed by Arizona and then Nevada. These commitments would come on top of the already agreed-upon water-use reductions in the 2007 Interim Guidelines and 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, which outline benchmarks for different levels of conservation depending on Lake Mead’s elevation. When those are taken into account, Arizona faces the largest overall reduction in water use.

Management of Glen Canyon and Hoover dams will largely remain the same under the proposed plan, unless the reservoirs reach critical elevation levels — below 3,490 feet for Lake Powell and below 1,000 feet for Lake Mead. At those levels, the water drops below the dam turbines that produce enough hydroelectricity to power over 2 million homes.

Short-term planning may be over. Long-term planning is ramping up.  At the end of 2026, the 2007 Interim Guidelines that govern withdrawals from the river, as well as whatever version of the short-term plan is ultimately chosen, will expire, and a new set of rules will need to be hammered out.

In June, Bureau of Reclamation officials initiated a 60-day public scoping period on the future management of Lakes Powell and Mead. In October, they published the Scoping Report, which includes a summary of public comments, as well as the outline of the updated management strategies for the reservoirs. Reclamation anticipates that the draft EIS will be published by the end of 2024, a final EIS in late 2025 and a Record of Decision in early 2026.

The Colorado River flows through the Grand Canyon on the Hualapai Tribe’s land in northwestern Arizona.
John Locher/AP Photo

Tribes have been systematically excluded from Colorado River planning over the past century. Many tribal governments across the Colorado River Basin submitted letters during the scoping process and emphasized the importance of consultation leading up to the 2026 deadline. “We can be part of the solution,” said Amelia Flores, chairwoman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. “But to be part of the solution, the consultation process must be both continuing and meaningful.”

Environmental groups question Reclamation’s optimism. The June 2023 models suggest that neither reservoir would drop to crisis levels anytime soon. At Lake Powell, that risk fell from 57% to 8%, while the risk for Lake Mead dropped from 52% to 4%. But environmental groups worry that this short-term modeling minimizes the long-term drought. The reservoirs are still dangerously low: On Monday, Lake Powell, which has a total capacity of 26 million acre-feet, stored just 8.7 million acre-feet of water. From 2020-2022, the combined storage of Lake Powell and Lake Mead dropped to 25% of full.

“Reclamation might have modeling that shows all is well for the next few years and the states are touting their reduced use, but the good 2023 water year and the deluge of money belie the mere fact that the Colorado River will look much different 30 years from now than it does today,” John Weisheit, conservation director for Living Rivers-Colorado Riverkeeper, said in a press release. “Let’s not lose sight of what we have already lost and what we will continue to lose.”

Brooke Larsen is the Virginia Spencer Davis Fellow for HCN, covering rural communities, agriculture and conservation. She reports from Salt Lake City, Utah. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. Follow her on Instagram @jbrookelarsen or Twitter @JBrookeLarsen.

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