The Interior Department signaled Friday it may take action in the next two years to reduce downstream water releases from the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams to address the ongoing Colorado River drought.
In the announcement, the department offered three options for the public to comment on between now and Dec. 20. The range of options include one in which the Bureau of Reclamation takes unilateral action on the allocation of water in the river, which serves seven states and parts of Mexico.
The water in the river is governed by a century-old compact which has not since been updated to reflect current water levels, meaning it currently allocates more water than is actually present. The Interior Department had warned the states it could step in if they could not reach an agreement over the summer, but talks came to nothing.
The other two options outlined in the Interior announcement include taking no action and leaving it to state, tribal and local policymakers to devise an alternative. The Bureau will release a draft proposal next spring based on feedback.
As a drought in the region enters its third decade, locals and federal officials are increasingly concerned about a potential scenario where two massive reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell, drop to “dead pool” level, at which point they will be too low to provide water and hydropower.
“The Interior Department continues to pursue a collaborative and consensus-based approach to addressing the drought crisis afflicting the West. At the same time, we are committed to taking prompt and decisive action necessary to protect the Colorado River System and all those who depend on it,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. “Revising the current interim operating guidelines for Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams represents one of many critical Departmental efforts underway to better protect the System in light of rapidly changing conditions in the Basin.”
The announcement comes months after the department announced cuts to the annual allocation for Arizona and Nevada from the river, including 21 percent of Arizona’s water allocation.