Arizona poised for deep cuts to Colorado River water usage under draft regulations

By: - April 15, 2023 8:43 am

Water flows from the bypass tubes of Glen Canyon Dam at a rate of approximately 32,000 cubic feet per second Nov. 21, 2004 in Page, Arizona. Photo by Jeff Topping | Getty Images

As the ongoing drought continues to impact the water supply from the Colorado River Basin, Arizona, California, and Nevada may face some new water regulations introduced by the Department of Interior in their draft of the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), and Arizona stands to face deep cuts in water usage.

“Drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have been two decades in the making,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said. “To meet this moment, we must continue to work together through a commitment to protecting the river, leading with science and a shared understanding that unprecedented conditions require new solutions.”

The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation issued the SEIS on April 11. It introduces operating guidelines to address the low run-off conditions and water shortages impacting the Colorado River Basin. 

“The Colorado River Basin provides water for more than 40 million Americans,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. “It fuels hydropower resources in eight states, supports agriculture and agricultural communities across the West, and is a crucial resource for 30 Tribal Nations. Failure is not an option.”


The Colorado River Basin also supplies water to nearly 5.5 million acres of agricultural lands, hydroelectric renewable power, recreational opportunities, habitat for ecological resources, and other benefits across the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.

Through the SEIS draft, the Bureau of Reclamation proposes revising the 2007 Interim Guidelines for the operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams beginning in 2024. The revision addresses the potential for continued low-runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin. 

With no plan, Arizona is the only state to experience water cutbacks, with California and Nevada seeing no impacts. Arizona would see a 178,000-acre-foot water cut. That would result in an estimated $116 million loss in agriculture production, a $108 million loss in income and more than 1,600 jobs lost.

Arizona’s losses become more dire under the alternative action plans proposed in the draft: The state would see a maximum 741,000 acre-foot water cut, resulting in more than $264 million in lost agriculture production, a $452 million loss in income, and more than 7,000 job losses.

The potential impacts of low runoff conditions in the winter of 2022–2023 and the remainder of the interim period pose unacceptable risks to the routine operations of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams, the Bureau of Reclamation stated. Therefore, modified operating guidelines needed to be developed.

The draft SEIS includes proposed alternatives to revise the December 2007 Record of Decision associated with the Colorado River Interim Guidelines. The 2007 Interim Guidelines provide operating criteria for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. 

The SEIS process was initiated in October 2022 and involved months of intensive discussions and collaborative work with the Basin states and water commissioners, the 30 Basin tribes, water managers, farmers and irrigators, municipalities and other stakeholders.

“We look forward to continued work with our partners in this critical moment,” Touton said.

Gov. Katie Hobbs responded to the draft of the SEIS, stating that Arizona will continue its collaborative efforts with the Basin States, Colorado River Basin Tribes, and Mexico to find solutions that protect water reservoirs and stabilize the system.

But, Hobbs said any outcomes that decimate the water supply of population centers or that force the Basin into a courtroom are unacceptable. 

“We will continue to double down on our efforts to find a consensus path forward,” Hobb said, noting that Arizona water users will continue to pursue conservation projects that leave water in Lake Mead and protect the Colorado River system.

“We cannot lose sight of the urgent need to protect and preserve our water resources for future generations,” Hobbs said. “As we review the Draft SEIS further and continue to work with our partners throughout the region, we will remain focused on equitable, durable solutions to ensure the long-term health of the Colorado River system.”

The draft SEIS analyzes alternative measures to address potential shortages in the event that they may be required to protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, public health, and safety from 2024 through 2026.

It also ensures the Bureau of Reclamation has the tools to protect continued water deliveries and hydropower production for the 40 million Americans who rely on the Colorado River.

The draft SEIS analyzes three alternatives that reflect input from the Colorado River Basin states, cooperating agencies, tribal nations, and other interested parties. The alternatives introduced are known as No Actions Alternative, Action Alternative 1, and Action Alternative 2. 

According to the Department of Interior, some provisions are designed to provide greater certainty to water users about the timing and volumes of potential water delivery reductions for the Lower Basin States and additional operating flexibility to conserve and store water in the system.

The SEIS is open for public comment until May 30, and the Bureau of Reclamation is hosting four virtual public meetings to discuss the SEIS draft. Additional information on providing public comment and attending public meetings can be found on the Reclamation’s website.

According to the Department of Interior, the final SEIS will be available with a Record of Decision in Summer 2023. This document will inform the August 2023 decisions that will affect 2024 operations for Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams.


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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues.