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A 'new century' of water policy for Arizona, the Colorado River to be discussed at nation's biggest water conference

The Colorado River Water Users Association conference has showcased historic and current readings of the river, but this year's event seems to focus on the future.

LAS VEGAS — Seven states control the Southwest's lifeblood. It will be those same seven states that decide the lifeblood's future.

Representatives from Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming will converge in Las Vegas on Wednesday for the annual Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA) conference, where officials and experts will work for three days to shape the next century of river policy.

The conference has numerous topics on the agenda, but there are only a few that Arizonans should keep their ear out for. Over the past few months, Arizona water officials have signaled which massively important topics they expect to be brought up.

12News will be covering the conference live each day. Here are the three updates we'll be watching out for.

Coming legal action over water evaporation

Legal challenges will become more frequent as water abundance drys up, according to Arizona officials.

A recent meeting of the Arizona Reconsultation Committee pointed towards the next battle for the river being fought between numerous states in courtrooms.

"We believe the [Colorado River] Basin is headed towards litigation," Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said at the meeting. "There will be challenges with trying to collaboratively work forward if, at the same time, we're in a courtroom fighting with each other."

Water reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell lose significant amounts of water to evaporation every year, just like a backyard pool does daily during Phoenix's summers.

"Upper basin" states of the river have historically been taxed for water lost to evaporation in federally-run reservoirs due to the terms set in the Upper Basin Compact. The "lower basin" states haven't been required to do the same because evaporation wasn't mentioned in the Arizona v. California Supreme Court case of 1963.

The push for a more equitable river may be pushed by upper basin states as water levels dwindle, a push that may be brought up by numerous states at the CRWUA conference.

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

Arizona cities may have to stop storing water underground

Phoenix, Tucson and other cities across Arizona have been seen as world leaders in water banking, or the process of storing the state's excess in its river water allotment in underground aquifers.

Officials estimate that, over the past 26 years, the state has banked around 13 million acre-feet of water.

Other basin states have taken notice of the practice, and Arizona officials expect them to act on recently made "recommendations" to let Arizona's canals run dry and have the state rely on that stored groundwater, said Arizona Department of Water Resources's Deputy Director Clint Chandler at a Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce meeting in September.

READ MORE: Despite 'advice' from other states, Arizona won't let its canals run dry, officials say

The sentiment was recently shared by another one of Arizona's top water officials at a Phoenix town hall symposium on the water crisis.

"I think [Arizona] cities in the immediate future are going to have to stop storing water," said President of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Terry Goddard. 

"[Arizona cities] can get water off the Colorado River for their immediate needs, but the other basin states literally are in anguish about the fact that cities like Tucson, Phoenix and others are taking more water than they're using and putting it underground... To continue to do that is a poke in the eye to other folks who need water from the river."

READ MORE: A 'big project' won't solve Arizona's water woes, experts say. But there's still hope

Adjusting what each of the basin states is allocated from the river will most likely come up during the conference, especially with a possible announcement from federal officials on further mandated water cuts.

Further cuts from the Bureau of Reclamation?

The announcement every state is weary of hearing would come from the Bureau of Reclamation, and it would severely restrict the amount of water each state would be able to use yearly.

Arizona is already preparing for a 21% cut to its Colorado River water allotment starting next month, but an ultimatum set by the bureau in June would mandate even more cuts.

RELATED: No more winter vegetables? Upcoming Yuma water cuts to threaten entire US food system, experts say

The bureau previously told the basin states to figure out how to cut two to four million acre-feet of water in 2023 on top of the other cuts. If the states couldn't come to a compromise on how to do this, the bureau would force restrictions on them. 

Discussions between the basin states have not resulted in agreements, and the deadline set by the bureau has come and gone.

Numerous Arizona water officials previously told 12News they expected the further cuts to be announced by the bureau sometime during the conference.

But, that looks less likely after the bureau recently held presentations on the state of the river. The bureau said it would be accepting public comments on potential river action through Dec. 20, which is after the CRWUA conference concludes.

Given the gravity of the event and the number of stakeholders present, the conference is still a potential top venue for the announcement to be made.

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