SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Competing priorities, outsized demands and the federal government's retreat from a threatened deadline stymied a deal last summer on how to drastically reduce water use from the parched Colorado River, emails obtained by The Associated Press show.
The documents span the June-to-August window the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gave states to reach consensus on water cuts for a system that supplies 40 million people annually — or have the federal government force them. They largely include communication among water officials in Arizona and California, the major users in the river's Lower Basin.
Reclamation wanted the seven U.S. states that rely on the river to decide how to cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water — or up to roughly one-third — on top of already anticipated reductions. The emails, obtained through a public records request, depict a desire to reach a consensus but persistent disagreement over how much each state could or should give.
As the deadline approached without meaningful progress, one water manager warned: "We're all headed to a very dark place."
"The challenges we had this summer were significant challenges, they truly were," Chris Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, said in an interview about the early negotiations. "I don't know that anybody was to blame, I genuinely don't. There were an awful lot of different interpretations of what was being asked and what we were trying to do."
Scientists say the megadrought gripping the southwestern U.S. is the worst in 1,200 years, putting a deep strain on the Colorado River as key reservoirs dip to historically low levels. If states don't begin taking less out of the river, the major reservoirs threaten to fall so low they can't produce hydropower or supply any water at all to farms that grow crops for the rest of the nation and cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
The future of the river seemed so precarious last summer that some water managers felt attempting to reach a voluntary deal was futile — only mandated cuts would stave off crisis.
"We are out of time and out of any cushion to allow for a voluntary plan," Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told a Bureau of Reclamation official in a July 18 email.
As 2023 begins, fresh incentives make the states more likely to give up water. The federal government has put up $4 billion for drought relief, and Colorado River users have submitted proposals to get some of that money through actions like leaving fields unplanted. Some cities are ripping up thirsty decorative grass, and tribes and major water agencies have left some water in key reservoirs — either voluntarily or by mandate.
Reclamation also has agreed to spend $250 million mitigating hazards at a drying California lake bed, a condition of the state's water users agreeing to cut their use by 400,000 acre feet in a proposal released in October.
The Interior Department is still evaluating proposals for a slice of the $4 billion and can't say how much savings it will generate, Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said in an interview.
The states are again trying to reach a grand bargain — with a deadline of Tuesday — so that Reclamation can factor it into a larger plan to modify operations at Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam, behemoth power producers on the Colorado River. Failure to do so would set up the possibility of the federal government imposing cuts — a move that could invite litigation.
Figuring out who absorbs additional water cuts has been contentious, with allegations of drought profiteering, reneging on commitments, too many negotiators in the room and an unsteady hand from the federal government, the emails and follow-up interviews showed.