The Department of the Interior announced Thursday it would begin a formal process to develop long-term operational guidelines for the diminishing Colorado River.
Once finalized, the new strategies will replace the Colorado River’s 2007 interim guidelines for lower catchment shortage and coordinated operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead that are scheduled to expire at the end of 2026.
As the development process officially begins, regulators will begin gathering feedback for the next set of guidelines, including new strategies that take into account the current and projected hydrology of the Colorado River system, according to the Department of the Interior. .
“As we look forward to the next few years across the basin, the new set of operational guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead will be developed collaboratively based on the best available science,” Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said in a statement.
The Interior Department’s announcement comes just weeks after the seven Colorado River Basin states resolved a year-long conflict over short-term water cuts.
In late May, the lower Colorado River basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — submitted a proposal to the Bureau of Reclamation in which they offered to retain about 13 percent of their total river allocation by the end of 2026. .
The cuts would serve as a temporary measure to help stabilize water levels at the basin’s largest storage reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, until new long-term operating guidelines go into effect.
The Bureau of Reclamation has yet to officially approve the plans. If so, more than three-quarters of the proposed cuts would be funded with about $1.2 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act. The rest would be voluntary pledges.
The Colorado River Basin, which serves approximately 40 million people, is divided into a lower and upper basin, comprising California, Arizona and Nevada, and Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, respectively.
A 1922 pact granted annual water allotments to each basin, while a 1944 treaty granted additional resources to Mexico. But these centuries-old gardens ended up outstripping the actual flow of the river, a situation exacerbated by the ongoing drought.
As it became increasingly apparent that there was not enough water to keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead stable, officials began discussing conservation measures for the lower basin in 2005.
They eventually signed the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortage, which were found to be insufficient and are set to expire in 2026.
“Developing new operational guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead is a hugely important task,” Bureau of Remediation Commissioner Camille Touton said in a statement.
Touton stressed that negotiations therefore “must start now to enable comprehensive, inclusive and science-based decision-making”.
“The Bureau of Reclamation is committed to ensuring that we have the tools and strategies in place to help lead the next era of the Colorado River Basin, especially in the face of continued drought conditions,” he added.
Central to Thursday’s announcement is a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement regarding post-2026 operational guidelines.
The notice asks members of the public to consider how the best available science should impact future operational guidelines, with the goal of strengthening the basin under a range of hydrological conditions. The public comment period is open until August 15.
Recalling the recent consensus on the short-term cut proposed by Lower Basin states, Beaudreau highlighted the Biden administration’s commitment to working with local partners “in the face of climate change and prolonged drought.”
“Those same partnerships are critical to our ongoing work to ensure the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River Basin well into the future,” he added.
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