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Future water cuts are expected to hit the Colorado River. Here's how Arizona is responding

A recent Department of the Interior statement signals feds will take action if basin states' plans to cut water aren't sufficient.

ARIZONA, USA — Editor's note: The above video aired during a previous broadcast.

Arizona cities, businesses and farms are gearing up for a significant cut to Colorado River water taking effect in 2023.

Along with a 21% river water cut coming 2023, the Department of the Interior (DOI) is expected to soon demand basin states cut between two to four million acre-feet of water. The Bureau of Reclamation said these cuts would be "challenging, but necessary." For clarification, Arizona is currently allotted 2.8 million acre-feet of the river's water.

The Arizona Reconsultation Committee, a group of water officials that make decisions on how Arizona manages Colorado River water, met Friday to discuss the state's response after DOI signaled it would soon take action if basin states' plans to cut water aren't sufficient.

Here are three things you should know about the meeting:

1) Arizona officials preparing for possible legal action over evaporation

"We believe the [Colorado River] Basin is headed towards litigation," Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said at the meeting.

There are numerous federal water restrictions that could bring up legal challenges from states. But, officials expect the most possible litigation to be focused on a problem pool owners are very familiar with: water lost to evaporation.

Like a pool, but on a massive scale, water reservoirs such as Lake Mead and Lake Powell lose significant amounts of water to evaporation every year.

The "upper basin" states of the Colorado River -- Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming -- have historically been taxed for water lost to evaporation in federally-run reservoirs due to the terms set in the Upper Basin Compact. Arizona, California and Nevada, known as the "lower basin" states, haven't been required to do the same because accounting for evaporation wasn't required in the Arizona v. California Supreme Court case of 1963.

RELATED: Sen. Kelly asks feds to halt Salton Sea project funding until California gives up more Colorado River water

Arizona's water officials expect this to change soon and be a large part of the proposed two to four million acre-feet federal cut. The move would significantly tighten lower basin states' water budgets, but not before a legal battle.

"There will be challenges with trying to collaboratively work forward if, at the same time, we're in a courtroom fighting with each other," Buschatzke said. "There are high bars to reach if we end up in a legal fight over this." 

2) Still 'extreme uncertainty' over Colorado River's future

Officials are finding it hard to prepare Arizona for any incoming water cuts since federal officials have yet to clarify the vague two to four million acre-feet cut they announced back in June.

Federal officials said basin states had until August to come up with a conservation plan for the cut. If states didn't come up with a plan, federal officials would make one for them.

The August deadline came and went, but the feds have yet to announce any administrative actions. They've only suggested voluntary conservation measures so far, water officials said.

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The administrative actions may be nearing after a DOI letter was released last week outlining its "significant action to protect the Colorado River System." In it, the department said it is preparing to revise how Lake Mead and Lake Powell are operated.

However, until states get a better idea of what exactly these cuts will look like, officials said they can only do so much.

"We don't even know yet if [federal officials] are going to impose mandatory reductions, how they're going to impose them, on what basis they're going to impose them, what volumes they might impose," Buschatzke said.

"There's extreme uncertainty and, from my view, the uncertainty is still increasing. Until there's clarity on that, entities can't assess how they're being impacted."

3) Numerous Arizona conservation projects being considered

In spite of the uncertainty, multiple long-term conservation projects are being considered throughout Arizona, including:

  • Removal of lawn grass in cities
  • Lining dirt canals with cement
  • Re-regulating in-state reservoirs
  • Interconnecting CAP and SRP canals
  • Aquatic ecosystem restoration
  • Increasing crop watering efficiency

The projects look to be geared towards helping keep the Colorado River water we already have or helping Arizona wean off relying on the river as one of the state's major water sources.

But, Buschatzke remained firm in his stance that there was no way the state would agree to a 100% cut in its river water allocation.

"We are not walking out of this with any voluntary agreement that's going to end up with CAP being cut to zero," Buschatzke said. "It's never going to happen."

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