Associated Press Exclusive: Emails Reveal Tensions in Colorado River Talks

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Conflicting priorities, outsized demands, and the federal government’s backtracking on a threatening deadline thwarted a deal last summer on how to dramatically reduce water use from the parched Colorado River.Emails obtained by The Associated Press appear.

The documents span the June-August period that the US Bureau of Reclamation gave states to come to a consensus on cutting off water to a system that saves 40 million people annually — or having the federal government force them to. It largely includes communications between the water officials of Arizona and California, the major users in the river’s lower basin.

Reclamation wanted the seven US states that depend on the river to decide how to cut 2 million to 4 million acres of water — or up to roughly a third — on top of the already projected cuts.. The emails, obtained through a public records request, depict a desire for consensus but ongoing disagreement over how much each country can or should provide.

As the deadline approaches with no tangible progress, one water manager warned, “We’re all headed for a very dark place.”

“The challenges we faced this summer were big, they really were,” Chris Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Council in California, said in an interview about the early negotiations. “I don’t know anyone was to blame, I really don’t. There were an awful lot of different interpretations of what was put forward and what we were trying to do.”

Scientists say the massive drought gripping the southwestern United States is the worst in 1,200 years, putting deep stress on the Colorado River. Major reservoirs are at historically low levels. If states don’t start taking less of the river, the major reservoirs threaten to become so low that they can’t produce hydroelectric power or supply any water at all to the farms that grow crops for the rest of the nation and cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

The river’s future looked so precarious last summer that some water managers felt trying to reach a voluntary agreement was futile — only mandatory cuts would avert the crisis.

“We’re running out of time and no cushion to allow for a voluntary plan,” Tom Bushatzky, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told a Bureau of Reclamation official in an email July 18.

As 2023 begins, new incentives make states more likely to give up on water. The federal government has set aside $4 billion for drought relief, and Colorado River users have made proposals to get some of that money through actions such as leaving fields uncultivated. Some cities tear up thirsty ornamental grassand tribes and major water agencies Some water was left in the main tanks – either voluntarily or by mandate.

Reclamation also agreed to spend $250 million to mitigate the risks In California’s dry lakebed, a case in which the state’s water users agreed to reduce their use by 400,000 acres In a proposal released in Oct.

The Home Office is still evaluating proposals for a tranche of $4 billion Deputy Secretary of State Tommy Boudreau said in an interview that he could not say how much savings he would make.

States are once again trying to reach a grand bargain — with a deadline Tuesday — that reclamation can include in a larger plan to modify operations at the Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam, the two giant energy producers. On the Colorado River. Failure to do so would create the possibility for the federal government to force the cuts—a move that could invite litigation.

And follow-up emails and interviews have shown that who is sucking up the extra water cut is contentious, with allegations of drought profiteering, backing out on commitments, too many negotiators in the room, and the unsteady hand of the federal government.

California He says he is a partner willing to sacrifice, but other countries see him as a reluctant participant who clings to the water-priority system where he ranks near the top. Arizona and Nevada have long felt unfairly compelled to bear the brunt of the cuts because of a long-developed water rights system, an angry frustration that reared its head during the talks.

Reclamation Commissioner Camille Totton’s call for a massive water cut in congressional testimony on June 14 was a public bombshell of sorts. A week ago, with a heads up from the federal government, lower basin states collectively, along with Mexico, talked about cutting up to 2 million acres during a meeting in Salt Lake City, emails and interviews show.

And emails showed that as weeks went by and proposals exchanged, lower basin states barely made it to half that amount, and commitment was nowhere near firm. Adding to the difficulty is not knowing what Mexico also has a share of the rivermay contribute.

In a series of exchanges through July, Arizona and California proposed multiple ways to achieve the cuts, based on existing agreements. Tied to Lake Mead levels, considering water lost to evaporation or inefficient infrastructure, and heavily protecting the priority system, though it was clear that negotiators were becoming weary.

The States shared disdain for the farmers’ suggestion Nearby Yuma and Southern California pay $1,500 per acre for the water they save. Cook replied by suggesting to the farmers that they make him work at a third of the price, higher but closer to going rates.

In late July, Harris, of California, emailed a proposal to the Bureau of Reclamation outlining scenarios within 1 million feet in cuts, saying it was necessary for negotiators to be able to “declare some level of victory.”

“Other than that,” he wrote, “I really think we’re at a dead end, and we’re all headed for a very dark place.”

But in the end, Arizona and Nevada never felt California was willing to give enough.

“It was pointless, it wasn’t enough. We weren’t sure California would come up with some of it,” Cook said in an interview.

By then, Reclamation had privately notified states — but not publicly admitted — that they had moved back the supposed mid-August deadline, the officials involved in the talks said. Biodro, the deputy home secretary, said in an interview that the deadline was never intended to create an ultimatum between reaching an agreement and forced cuts.

But state officials said that when it became clear the federal government would not act unilaterally, it created a “chill effect” that removed urgency from the talks because water users with the highest-priority water rights were no longer at risk of harsh cuts, as in the case of Arizona. Buschatzke said in an interview.

“Without that gavel,” he said, “there was a different tone to the negotiations.”

Biodro said the Department of the Interior’s priority today remains ensuring that the Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam contain enough water to sustain hydroelectric power, and the department will do whatever is necessary to ensure that.

The upper basin states of New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado — which have historically not used their full supplies — are looking to the lower basin states for a lot of the work.

Reclamation is now focused on assessing the latest round of comments from countries on how to save the river. Nevada wants to account for water lost to evaporation and transfer in its water allocations — a move that could mean the largest cuts in California — and some Arizona water managers agree to do so, according to comment letters obtained by the AP.

But disagreements remain over how to determine the level of fair and legal cuts. California’s goal remains to protect its status while other states and tribes want more consideration given to ancient water rights — such as whether users can access other water sources, and the effects of cuts on disadvantaged communities and food security.

reclamation goal It is to get a draft of proposed cuts by early March, and then make a final decision before mid-August, when the reclamation company regularly announces how much — or how little — river water is available for next year.


Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter: @employee. Associated Press writer Michael Phyllis in St. Louis contributed.

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