States that use water from the Colorado River are caught in a standoff about how to share shrinking supplies, and their statements about recent negotiations send mixed messages. California officials say they were not consulted as other states in the region drew up a letter to the federal government with what they called a “consensus-based” set of recommendations for water conservation. Leaders in states that drafted the letter disagree with that characterization.
The reality of what happened during negotiations may lie somewhere in between, as comments from state leaders hint at possible differences between their definitions of what counts as “consultation.” The squabble is a microcosm of larger tensions between states that use water from the Colorado River. The basis for water sharing comes from a century-old legal document. States are attempting to craft deals for major water cutbacks that would be implemented voluntarily to avoid potential litigation. State leaders are reluctant to make sweeping sacrifices that could harm their own water users, and instead tend to opt for smaller, incremental agreements designed to stave off the worst effects of shrinking reservoirs.
Water managers say they will make more substantial, permanent water cutbacks before 2026, the year they expect to replace an expiring set of river guidelines. Until then, the threat of litigation and federal intervention looms over discussions.
The most recent high-profile instance of those discussions played out in Denver in late January. Multiple state leaders say California played a significant role during meetings where they wrote comments on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. California’s Colorado River Commissioner
JB Hamby disagrees and called the process “horribly broken.”
“It was not an effective process where everyone was on the same page, involved meaningfully and in good faith part of a process to achieve an actual consensus-based solution,” Hamby said.
What were states negotiating?
The Environmental Impact Statement is one way for the federal government to tweak the amount of water released from the nation’s largest reservoirs on the Colorado River over the next two years, and the process to draft it includes a public comment period.
In the days before a self-imposed deadline, a group of six states – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada – released an agreement, pitching Reclamation on a way to save about 1.5 million acre-feet of water that relied on a new method to account for evaporation and other losses.
This marked a rare instance of agreement between states in the Colorado River’s Upper Basin and Lower Basin, which are typically at odds over how to share water. Users near the river’s end in California and Mexico would bear the greatest burden under that plan.
California released its own plan shortly afterwards. That state – the only Colorado River state which didn’t sign the other letter – suggested the adoption of a water-saving strategy it first outlined last October. Under that plan, the state would voluntarily cut back on its water use from the Colorado River by 400,000 acre-feet – about 9% of its total annual use – each year until 2026.
The competing plans -- the six-state proposal and the California proposal -- represented an impasse in crafting a basin-wide approach in dealing with the current crisis. Neither submitted plan is binding, but both could help shape federal efforts to make painful cuts to water allocations. What do states say happened?
As the dust settled in the days and weeks after both plans were submitted, California leaders said they were not consulted on the six-state plan, known as the Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative. “Unfortunately, California was not able to provide input on the six-state proposal and detail our state’s specific concerns,” California’s Hamby wrote in a statement released shortly after the six-state letter was made public.
In an opinion piece published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, both Democrats, echoed that sentiment.
“In response to federal requests for a regional plan to curb water use and protect our dwindling water supply, the six other Western states that rely on the Colorado River for survival chose to go it alone and submit their own plan without consulting California officials — avoiding tough choices within their own states,” Feinstein and Padilla wrote.
Representatives from multiple other states involved in negotiations describe the talks differently. Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources and the state’s main Colorado River negotiator, said California officials had an opportunity to weigh in.
“(Hamby) was in Denver on January 27, that Friday, along with a multitude of California representatives from the water users – Coachella, Palo Verde, Imperial, Metropolitan, etc., and we had a very robust discussion among all of the states, including all of those California representatives, about our proposal,” Buschatzke said.
Those other water users include some of the largest in the Colorado River Basin, and their water shares have fallen under growing scrutiny during debates about how to cut back on use in the region. “We actually tried to negotiate something that could have been a seven-state proposal,” Buschatzke said. “I thought we had very robust conversations with the California representatives in regards to what our proposal entailed.”
While Arizona and Upper Basin states don’t often agree when it comes to Colorado River issues, they agree that California was consulted on the six-state letter to Reclamation.
“California was at the negotiating table with the other six states until the bitter end in the hope that a seven-state consensus alternative could be achieved,” wrote Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah in an emailed response to questions from KUNC. “In fact, the six states presented California representatives with their draft CBMA (Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative) before many of their own advisors had an opportunity to review the final draft.” Colorado’s top water policy agency concurred with Utah and Arizona.
“California was in the room every step of the way,” wrote Chris Arend, a spokesman representing the Colorado Water Conservation Board in an emailed response to questions from KUNC. “Every effort was made to reach a seven-state consensus and the door remains open if California is interested in continuing the discussion."
What does ‘consultation’ mean?
In response to emailed questions from KUNC, the Feinstein and Padilla offices released a joint statement doubling down on their earlier position. ' “California was not consulted or asked to provide any input into the development of the six-state consensus-based modeling alternative.’ California was first able to review the CBMA provided by the six states when they submitted it to Reclamation on January 30th,” Tess Whittlesey, communications director for Alex Padilla, wrote via email.
Hamby, California’s Colorado River negotiator, said California was not sufficiently included in the lead-up to discussions about a multi-state agreement that took place on January 30.
“In order to have the best outcome in a collaborative process,” he said, “Everyone – all the key stakeholders and states – have to be meaningfully consulted. You know it when you see it, and if someone feels like they're having something shoved down their throat and they don't know what's going on and they have unanswered questions, meaningful consultation has likely not been provided.” Hamby said states are now heading in a “better direction” and talking to one another in a “meaningful way” as the need for water reductions continues.
How could this dust-up affect ongoing negotiations over the river’s future?
The rift comes as states try to ramp up messaging about water use along the Colorado River. The region’s supply-demand imbalance, driven by climate change and states’ inability to agree on cutbacks to water use, has drifted increasingly into the public eye.
Elected officials and bureaucrats alike are trying to garner public support as debates over the river’s future pit state against state and cities against agriculture. State water managers often talk about the need for collaboration, but a series of attempts to make collective sacrifices have not manifested into substantial cutbacks.
The effects of stalled discussions play out most prominently in the nation’s largest reservoirs. Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which store water from the Colorado River, have reached historic lows, and are forecasted to drop even further. If levels continue to dip, major dams could lose the ability to generate hydropower for millions of people.
The Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement is the federal government’s attempt to avoid that fate since states have thus far proven unable to substantively boost the reservoirs through their own efforts. More federal action may follow, as Reclamation looks to protect the dams it owns and operates. This year’s discussions also allow states to position themselves ahead of 2026 negotiations and get a sense of their counterparts’ intentions. Many states fear lawsuits between each other and the federal government if they are unable to reach some consensus before then.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.
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