The Biden-Harris administration October 19 announced next steps in the formal process to develop future operating guidelines and strategies to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River system and strengthen water security in the West. The guidelines under development would be implemented in 2027, replacing the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are set to expire at the end of 2026.
Long-Term Planning Efforts to Protect the Colorado River System
The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation published the Proposed Federal Action and a Scoping Summary Report related to Colorado River Basin operations post-2026. The Scoping Report, which was supported by a 60-day public scoping period, will inform the post-2026 operating guidelines. This planning process is separate from ongoing efforts to protect the Colorado River Basin through the end of 2026.
These steps to protect the Colorado River Basin now and into the future will help increase water conservation, improve water efficiency, protect critical environmental resources, and prevent the Colorado River system’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. These actions provide pivotal resources to enhance the resilience of the West to drought and climate change, including to protect the short- and long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought, including by funding water conservation efforts across the Colorado River Basin.
“President Biden’s Investing in America agenda has deployed historic investments as we’ve worked collaboratively with states, Tribes and communities throughout the West to find consensus solutions in the face of climate change and sustained drought,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau. “As the Department works with those partners to stabilize the Colorado River in the short-term, we are also committed to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Basin for decades to come based on the best-available science and with robust input from stakeholders across the West.”
Colorado River Basin
The Colorado River Basin provides essential water supplies to approximately 40 million people and 30 Tribal Nations, nearly 5.5 million acres of agricultural lands, and habitat for ecological resources across parts of several Western states (including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and Mexico. But prolonged drought, driven by climate change and coupled with low runoff conditions in the last several years, resulted in historically low reservoir levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Consensus-approach to water conservation
The post-2026 planning process builds on the Biden-Harris administration’s ongoing efforts to protect the Colorado River Basin. Earlier this year, Administration leaders brought together stakeholders from across the Basin to build a consensus for water conservation efforts through the end of 2026, enabled by investments from the President’s Investing in America agenda. By the end of October, the Department will issue a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to revise the December 2007 Record of Decision, which will set interim guidelines through the end of 2026. The post-2026 process being advanced today will develop guidelines for when those interim guidelines would expire.
“The Colorado River Basin has come together over the past year to create a consensus path in the short term that now allows us to focus on the future. Today’s next steps for post-2026 planning helps continue the momentum between all stakeholders across the Basin on what the future operations of this critical system will look like,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “As the range of alternatives is developed, Reclamation is committed to a collaborative, inclusive and transparent process with our partners, stakeholders and the public.”
To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year:
- $281 million for 21 water recycling projects that are expected to increase annual water capacity by 127,000 acre-feet annually
- Up to $233 million in water conservation funding for the Gila River Indian Community, including $83 million for a water pipeline project and an additional $50 million from the Inflation Reduction Act through the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program, which will also provide similar investments in 2024 and 2025
- Over $73 million for infrastructure repairs on water delivery systems; $19.3 million in fiscal year 2022 and another $54 million announced in April 2023
- $71 million for 32 drought resiliency projects to expand access to water through groundwater storage, rainwater harvesting, aquifer recharge and water treatment
- $50 million over the next five years to improve key water infrastructure and enhance drought-related data collection across the Upper Colorado River Basin
- $20 million in new small surface and groundwater storage investments
- Eight new System Conservation Implementation Agreements in Arizona that will commit water entities in the Tucson and Phoenix metro areas to conserve up to 140,000-acre feet of water in Lake Mead in 2023, and up to 393,000-acre feet through 2025
Post-2026 planning process
The post-2026 process is a multi-year effort that will identify a range of alternatives and ultimately determine operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead and other water management actions, potentially for decades into the future. Using the best-available science, Reclamation will develop a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that will analyze how future operational guidelines and strategies can be sufficiently robust and adaptive to withstand a broad range of hydrological conditions and ultimately provide greater stability to water users and the public throughout the Colorado River Basin.
The completed draft EIS is anticipated by the end of 2024 and will include a public comment period. Reclamation anticipates a final EIS will be available in late 2025, followed by a Record of Decision in early 2026.
As part of Reclamation’s robust and transparent process to gather feedback, three virtual public webinars were held during the scoping period. Reclamation also engaged Basin stakeholders via stakeholder briefings; the formation of a new Federal-Tribes-States working group; two meetings of the Integrated Technical Education Workgroup; and individual communications.
While the post-2026 process will determine domestic operations, the Biden-Harris administration is committed to continued collaboration with the Republic of Mexico. It is anticipated that the International Boundary and Water Commission will facilitate consultations between the United States and Mexico, with the goal of continuing the Binational Cooperative Process under the 1944 Water Treaty.
Arizona, California and Nevada commit to record-setting conservation to protect the Colorado River
The Lower Colorado River Basin states – water users in Arizona, California and Nevada – are contributing record volumes of water to Lake Mead. By the end of 2023, cumulatively, the Lower Basin will have voluntarily conserved more than 1 million acre-feet – water that is being held back in Lake Mead for the benefit of the entire system over and above shortage reductions agreed to in 2007 and those of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. In 2023, consumptive use in the Lower Basin States is expected to be around 5.8 million acre-feet, the lowest consumptive use since 1984.
Read the full news release from California, Arizona and Nevada via the State of California California River Board website.
(Editor’s note: The San Diego County Water Authority supports a consensus-based approach for long-term solutions to water supply issues in the Colorado River Basin. The content of the USBR news release has been edited by WNN.)