The seven states that depend on the Colorado River missed a federal deadline Tuesday to reach a regionwide consensus on how to sharply reduce water use, raising the likelihood of more friction as the West grapples with how to rely less on the shrinking river.
In a bid to sway the process after negotiations reached an impasse, six of the seven states offered a last-minute proposal outlining possible water cuts to help prevent reservoirs from falling to dangerously low levels, presenting a unified front while leaving out California, which uses the single largest share of the river.
The six states -- Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming -- called their proposal a "consensus-based modeling alternative" that could serve as a framework for negotiating a solution. They submitted the proposal to the Bureau of Reclamation, a subset of the Interior Department, ahead of the Tuesday deadline that federal water officials had set for the states to present a consensus proposal.
A large portion of the proposed water cuts involve accounting for evaporation and other water losses in the river's Lower Basin, a change that would translate into large reductions for California and that Californian water officials have opposed.
In announcing the proposal Monday, water officials acknowledged the plan was not an official agreement between the basin states. Instead, Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, called the proposal a key step in the "ongoing dialogue" among the seven states "as we continue to seek a collaborative solution to stabilize the Colorado River system."
John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said that "while our goal remains achieving a seven-state agreement, developing and submitting this consensus-based alternative is a positive step forward" as federal officials carry out an expedited review to revise the current rules for dealing with the water shortage.
Federal officials told the region's water managers at a mid-December conference that they will weigh immediate options to protect water levels in depleted reservoirs this year and that the region must be prepared for the river to permanently yield less water because of climate change.
Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the country's two largest reservoirs, are now about 75% empty. The river -- which feeds both reservoirs and supplies water to cities, tribal nations and farming areas from Wyoming to the U.S.-Mexico border -- has been pushed to a breaking point by chronic overuse, prolonged drought and global warming.
Nevada presented a proposal last month that, among various measures, included starting to account for the water lost to evaporation from reservoirs and along the river in the three Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.
But the latest talks in Denver last week ended with the states still at an impasse, said Bart Fisher, president of California's Palo Verde Irrigation District board.
"It's become combative and adversarial, rather than collaborative toward a consensus," Fisher said. "Nobody wants their own ox to be gored. And so it's become, everyone's backed into their respective corners, and focused on the largest target, which is California."
Fisher and other California officials said they were working on a separate proposal. California water managers and farmers have said those with lower-priority junior water rights, such as Arizona's cities, should be in line for larger cuts first.
Land-owning farmers in California's Imperial Valley, who hold senior water rights and use the single-largest share of the river's water, have said they are willing to cut back in exchange for compensation, but they argue the water-rights priority system should be upheld and respected.
"Other states are trying to advantage themselves by urging the federal government to disregard existing law and perform some reallocation of the river that would benefit themselves, as an alternative to collaborating toward a common consensus," Fisher said.
Federal officials in June called for the seven states to come up with regional plan to drastically reduce water diversions by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, a reduction of roughly 15% to 25%. But negotiations among the seven states grew tense and acrimonious, failing to produce a deal.
In October, the Biden administration announced plans to revise the current rules for dealing with water shortages and to pursue a new agreement to achieve larger reductions in water use.
Interior Department officials have said they will consider alternatives for reductions in their review and may need to significantly reduce the amount of water releases from Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona -- forming Lake Powell -- where water levels have been sinking closer to a point at which the dam could no longer generate power.
So far, four California water districts -- the Imperial Irrigation District, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Palo Verde Irrigation District and Coachella Valley Water District -- have proposed to reduce water use by up to 400,000 acre-feet per year. That would amount to about 9% of the state's total water allotment from the river through 2026.
But politicians and officials in other states have called for California water agencies to make larger water reductions.
Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., directed strong words at California while urging the Bureau of Reclamation to consider the six-state proposal.
"The depletion of the Colorado River is a slow-moving natural disaster -- one that threatens the livelihoods of 40 million people across seven basin states," Stanton said. "While many of the states have worked together to reach an agreement that works for everyone, California refuses to do its part."
Stanton urged the Bureau of Reclamation to act on the proposal and said: "We cannot wait any longer."
The proposal outlines reductions for Arizona, California and Nevada beyond reductions to which the three states previously agreed. The plan calls for accounting for more than 1.5 million acre-feet of water losses, primarily caused by evaporation, which would translate into the large reductions.
The proposal also calls for implementing various efforts in the four Upper Basin states -- Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico -- including "additional voluntary conservation measures."
This approach "appropriately distributes the burden" across the Colorado River Basin, said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Brenda Burman, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, said the region needs to move on a "path forward to lay the groundwork for finding durable long-term solutions."
"We have a lot more to do, and this is a critical next step," Burman said.