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Federal Water Deadline Didn’t Mean Much, Leaves States in Limbo

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Gary Wockner, of Save the Colorado, says up to 25 percent of all water in the Colorado River may be curtailed for use to comply with federal cuts looming on the horizon.

A deadline for westerns states to cut 2–4-million-acre feet of water from their Colorado River allocations has come and gone.

Fear that the federal government would step in and force cuts proved unfounded when the Department of the Interior announced modest, already planned-for, cuts and studies.

This didn’t surprise Gary Wockner of Save The Colorado – a river advocacy group based in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Wockner told KAWC the federal plans don’t do much at all.

"There's no new ground here that has not been covered,” he said. “There are no cuts that are unexpected. There's nothing significant that happened with the federal government’s so-called plan.”

Of the impacted states, Arizona will face the largest cuts -- about 592,000 acre feet. That is about 21 percent of the state's yearly allotment of river water.

To put that into perspective, one acre foot is about 326,000 gallons -- or enough water to cover one acre of land about the size of a football field, one foot deep, according to watereducation.org.

One-acre-foot typically meets the annual indoor and outdoor needs of 1 to 2 average households. That is about enough water supply 1.8. million households a year in Arizona.

“Well, it is quite a bit of water,” Wockner said. “Again, however, it was already expected to happen.”

When the Bureau of Reclamation “issued its edict 60 days ago, and said ‘you have 60 days to come up with a a brand-new plan to cut even more water,’ two to 4,000,000 acre feet of water, [Arizona]was already expecting to get it. They didn't propose any additional cuts to comply with the Bureau of Reclamation’s demand.”

The federal government currently is calling for basin wide conservation. Wockner contends the call for such cuts vague and refers to undefined potential "administrative actions", "studies" and "initiatives."

This vagary may give state and local governments a chance to ignore the issue entirely.

"The states had to come up with a plan [but] didn't do it,” Wockner said. “They basically got in a big fight with each other. So the federal government came back and they don't have a plan. They didn't say, OK, you have to cut this, this, this and this with a bunch of numbers on it. They just issued this vague set of concepts.”

This leaves states in a state of limbo, Wockner continued.

“We're in kind of a crazy zone here, where no one has any sense of security. No one really knows what they're supposed to do, or not supposed to do. So, what are you going to do now?”

The issue is compounded by falling into an election year, Wockner said.

“There is nothing that happens in an election year that that people want to happen. And so, it could be the can gets kicked down the road. After the election, then maybe the feds will weigh in a little stronger.”

Given the 23-year ongoing historic drought, and low runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin, downstream releases from Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams – which created Lakes Powell and Mead – will be reduced in 2023.

In the Lower Basin, the reductions represent the second year of additional shortage declarations, demonstrating the severity of the drought and critically low reservoir conditions.

Wockner is worried future mandates to cut water usage will heavily impact farmlands.

"Let's just be Frank. Two to 4,000,000 acre feet is a massive amount of water. It's a quarter of the entire river. You're talking about drying up ... 2 to 4 million acres of farms throughout the Southwest United States. I mean, that's the really the only conceivable way... that is about as big as a political football as you could ever throw on the field. Especially, you know 90 days before an election.”

Wockner said he is “not optimistic we're going to see much here in the next few months. But, you know, anything could happen.”

Corrected: August 24, 2022 at 9:34 AM MST
Story corrected error in Mr. Wockner's estimate of acreage that could be impacted by water cuts. Sentence changed to
"Let's just be Frank. Two to 4,000,000 acre feet is a massive amount of water. It's a quarter of the entire river. You're talking about drying up ... 2 to 4 million acres of farms throughout the Southwest United States."
Posted audio is unaffected.
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