California is the only candidate in the Colorado River to cut the proposal

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Six western states that rely on water from the Colorado River have agreed to a model to dramatically reduce water use in the basin, months after the federal government called for action and an initial deadline passed.

California – with the largest distribution of water from the river – is the lone reserve. Officials said the state will publish its own plan.

The Colorado River and its tributaries flow through seven states and into Mexico, serving 40 million people and a $5 billion annual agricultural industry. Some of the nation’s largest cities, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver and Las Vegas, two Mexican states, Native American tribes and others depend on the river, which has been hit hard by drought, demand and overuse.

States missed a mid-August deadline to heed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s call to propose ways to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water. They regrouped to reach a consensus by the end of January to fold into a larger proposal that Reclamation is working on.

Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming sent a letter Monday to Reclamation, which operates the main dams in the river system, to outline an alternative that builds on existing guidelines, deepens water cuts and factors in the water being lost by evaporation and transport.

Those states are proposing raising the levels that would trigger a drawdown in Lakes Mead and Lake Powell, which are barometers of the river’s health. Rather, the model creates a protective buffer for the two tanks—the largest built in the United States. It also seeks to correct water accounting and ensure that any water the Lower Basin intentionally stores in Lake Mead is available for future use.

Modeling would result in about 2 million acre-feet of cuts in the lower basin, with smaller reductions in the upper basin. Mexico and California are in the equation, but neither has signed Monday’s letter.

John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said all states have negotiated in good faith.

“I don’t think the lack of unanimity at one step in this process is a failure,” he said late Monday. “I think all seven states are still committed to working together.”

Last October, California released a proposal to cut 400,000 acre feet. One acre-foot is enough water to supply two to three US households for one year.

JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said California will present a model for reducing water in the basin that is practical, based on voluntary action and consistent with the law governing the river and the hierarchy of water rights.

“California remains focused on practical solutions that can be implemented now to protect storage water volumes without sparking conflict and litigation,” he said in a statement Monday.

Nothing will happen immediately with the consensus reached between the six countries. The lack of consensus, however, risked the federal government only deciding how to ultimately impose cuts.

By not registering, California does not avoid this risk.

Debates on how to cut water use by roughly a third have been contentious. The upper basin states of Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah said the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada should do the heavy lifting. This conversation in the Lower Basin focused on what was legal and what was fair.

The six states that signed Monday’s proposal acknowledged that the ideas they laid out could be excluded from final plans to operate the river’s large dams. Negotiations are ongoing, they noted, adding that what they have proposed does not override existing rights that states and others have over the Colorado River.

“There are a lot of steps, commitments that need to be made at the federal, state and local level,” said Nevada’s Entsminger.

Monday’s proposal includes accounting for water lost to evaporation and leaking infrastructure as the river flows through the region’s dams and waterways. Federal officials estimate that more than 10 percent of the river’s flow evaporates, runs off or spills, but Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico have never accounted this water loss.

The six states argued that the lower basin states should share those losses — essentially subtracting those amounts from their allotments — once Lake Mead’s elevation drops below 1,145 feet (349 meters). This Monday the tank was well below him.

Reclamation will review the six-state agreement as part of a larger proposal to overhaul the way Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams, giant power producers on the Colorado River, operate. The reservoirs behind the dams — Lake Powell and Lake Mead — have reached historic lows amid more than two decades of drought and climate change.

Reclamation plans to submit a draft of that proposal by early March, with the goal of finalizing it by mid-August, when the agency typically announces next year’s water availability. Reclamation has said it will do what is necessary to ensure the dams can continue to produce hydroelectricity and supply water.

These annual announcements for August have led to mandatory cuts in the past two years for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico in the lower river basin. So far, California has been spared cuts because it has some of the oldest and most secure water rights, especially in the Imperial Valley, where much of the country’s winter vegetables are grown, along with the Yuma region of Arizona.

Without California’s involvement, the six-state proposal can only go so far to address the river’s hydrological realities. Water managers in the Lower Basin say the scale of conservation Reclamation is seeking can’t be achieved without California, tribes and farmers who draw directly from the Colorado River.

It’s also unclear how much Mexico will ultimately contribute to the savings. In the best water years, Mexico receives its full allotment of 1.5 million acre feet under a 1944 treaty with the United States.


Naishadham reported from Washington, D.C. Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronine in Sacramento, Calif. contributed to this report.


The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental politics. AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environment coverage, visit

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