Interior Department Announces Next Steps to Address Drought Crisis Gripping Colorado River Basin

Interior Department

SANTA FE, N.M. – As the worsening drought crisis continues to impact communities across the West, senior leaders from the Department of the Interior are outlining new and urgent actions to improve and protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton are attending the Colorado River Symposium in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this week to highlight steps the Department is taking and propose new actions to prevent the System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production.

“The prolonged drought afflicting the West is one of the most significant challenges facing our country. As a 35th generation New Mexican, I have seen firsthand how climate change is exacerbating the drought crisis and putting pressure on the communities who live across Western landscapes,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “We must work together to make the tough choices necessary to chart a sustainable future for the Colorado River System on which more than 40 million people depend. As we move forward, we will do so with key guiding principles, including collaboration, equity and transparency. I am committed to bringing every resource to bear to help manage the drought crisis and provide a sustainable water system for families, businesses and our vast and fragile ecosystems.”

The actions being discussed this week build on those announced in August 2022 as part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s release of the Colorado River Basin August 2022 24-Month Study, which sets the annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2023. Those previously announced actions specified that Lake Powell will operate in the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier in water year 2023 and Lake Mead will operate in its first-ever Level 2a Shortage Condition in calendar year 2023 requiring reduced allocations and water savings contributions for the Lower Basin States and Mexico.

The Department is focused on the need for continued collaboration and partnerships across the Upper and Lower Basins, with Tribes, and with the country of Mexico. The agency’s approach will continue to seek consensus support and will be based on a continued commitment to engage with diverse stakeholders to ensure all communities that rely on the Colorado River will provide contributions toward the solutions. The Department is also preparing for administrative actions necessary to ensure that the Colorado River System can sustainably deliver vital water supplies, power and other services.

Executing on Efforts Already Underway

During the Symposium, which brings leaders together from across the Basin, the Department leaders are outlining steps that Reclamation is taking to facilitate ongoing efforts to conserve water and protect the System. The severity of this moment requires action now as we chart a more sustainable, resilient and equitable future for the Basin.

Department efforts include:

  • Ensuring that the Lower Basin states continue to work on developing voluntary measures and agreements to conserve water and finalizing those agreements as soon as possible. They also highlighted the need for ongoing collaboration with the Upper Basin states to develop additional conservation agreements and operational adjustments.
  • Working with the Upper Basin states to support their five-point plan, including:
    • development of their demand management plans
    • reauthorization of System Conservation
    • investment in improved monitoring and reporting infrastructure
    • encouragement of strict water management and administration
    • and development of a 2023 Drought Response Operations plan
  • Making unprecedented investments in drought resilience and water management from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act and existing programs like WaterSMART as quickly and efficiently as possible.

As we move forward with implementing ongoing efforts, the Department will focus on the strategic investments needed to improve the efficiency of water delivery systems that result in conservation and, ultimately, in reduced demands on the Colorado River’s shrinking supplies.

Taking Action to Protect the System

Department leaders will continue to affirm that action must be taken now to reduce water consumption across the Basin in light of critically low water supplies and dire hydrological projections. As the agency moves forward, it will continue to do so by utilizing the best available science, data and technology.

These actions include:

  • Initiating an administrative process to address operational realities under the current 2007 Interim Guidelines while we continue to develop alternatives for sustainable and equitable operations under the new guidelines.
  • Moving forward with administrative actions needed to authorize a reduction of Glen Canyon Dam releases below seven million acre-feet per year, if needed, to protect critical infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam.
  • Preparing to manage elevations in Lake Powell by implementing emergency drought operations.
  • Preparing to take action to make additional reductions in 2023, as needed, through an administrative process to evaluate and adjust triggering elevations and/or increase reduction volumes identified in the 2007 Interim Guidelines Record of Decision.
  • Accelerating ongoing maintenance actions and studies of the bypass tubes at Glen Canyon Dam to analyze the feasibility of possible modifications to increase water delivery capacity during low reservoir levels.
  • Ensuring that water use determinations for the Lower Basin satisfy appropriate beneficial use standards during this time of historically low reservoirs, including taking into consideration fundamental human health and safety requirements.
  • Assessing how to account for and allocate system losses due to evaporation, seepage, and other losses.

Additionally, as the process for developing new guidelines for Colorado River System operations is underway, Department leaders emphasized the need to develop clear alternatives that can sustain the System and work to provide reliable, sustainable and equitable water and power supplies in the coming decades.

Implementing President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act

Department leaders outlined the framework under consideration for the funds as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $4 billion in funding specifically for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas experiencing similar levels of drought.

The Department will establish, among other funding mechanisms, a two-step process to solicit short-term conservation contributions and longer-term durable system efficiency projects.

Longer-term projects could include initiatives such as canal lining, re-regulating reservoirs, ornamental and non-functional turf removal, salinity projects and other infrastructure or “on the ground” activities. Projects could also be related to aquatic ecosystem restoration and impacts mitigation, crop water efficiency, rotational fallowing, and marginal land idling.

The Bureau of Reclamation will hold listening sessions on September 30, 2022, to hear directly from states, Tribes, water managers, farmers, irrigators and other stakeholders about implementation of this historic funding from the Inflation Reduction Act.

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