Senators to tour Colorado River as water negotiations reach critical juncture
By Ella Nilsen, CNN
A bipartisan delegation of Western senators and federal officials will tour key points along the Colorado River next week to see the nation’s depleted reservoirs and the basin’s vast water infrastructure.
The trip, which is being organized by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, comes amid tense state negotiations and looming federal action to address the fast-moving water crisis on the Colorado River. Water levels in the nation’s largest reservoirs Lakes Mead and Powell have dropped precipitously in recent years due to decades of overuse and hotter, drier weather driven by climate change.
As the river basin declines, Western states are in a standoff over how to further cut water use — water that is used to not only grow the country’s produce and raise cattle, but for municipal household use and industry.
Bennet will be joined by fellow Colorado Democrat Sen. John Hickenlooper, as well as Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Republican Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming. The four senators will travel from the Upper Colorado River Basin to the Lower Basin in Arizona and Nevada.
Deputy Secretary for the Interior Tommy Beaudreau and Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton — the nation’s top water official for the Colorado River — will also be on the trip, the details of which were shared first with CNN.
Bennet told CNN he hopes the trip will help spur collaboration between senators and state officials as their negotiations on water cuts reach an important juncture.
“I believe very strongly these water issues are best decided at the state level,” Bennet told CNN. “The Western senators can play an important role in trying to backstop the consensus the states can come to. This is a real crisis for the American west and potentially for our future.”
The trip comes at a critical time for the Colorado River.
Speaking at a congressional hearing last year, Touton told members of Congress that the river’s system and water levels were crashing, and that states needed to figure out how to cut up to 25% of their usage to stabilize it. If states did not come up with their own solution, Touton vowed the federal government would step in and make the necessary cuts.
Western states are still in drawn-out negotiations over how exactly to do that. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Reclamation is preparing to soon release a highly anticipated environmental analysis detailing potential water cuts the federal government and states could implement — which could eventually lead to the federal government making those cuts themselves.
A blockbuster winter snow season could help boost the river this year, but Bennet cautioned that the winter shouldn’t delay action on the river.
“Every single drop of water and every single snowflake is welcome,” Bennet said. “But it cannot be an excuse to kick that can down the road, to not make difficult decisions that have to be made.”
A Department of Interior spokesperson declined to comment on the trip.
Senators going on the trip are aligned in one respect — they prefer a deal to be struck by states rather than the federal government imposing mandatory cuts.
“The future of the Colorado River and the states that rely on it is the most pressing issue of the moment for Western states like Wyoming,” Lummis said in a statement, adding she wanted to ensure “states remain in the driver’s seat on finding solutions” for a dwindling river.
Hickenlooper also reiterated his desire for the seven states — Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and California — to produce an agreement on water cuts.
“The best solution to this crisis appears to be all seven basin states working together to find a solution that honors Tribal sovereignty, supports our agricultural producers, strengthens communities, and protects our most precious resource,” Hickenlooper said in a statement.
But getting a deal that all seven can agree on could prove a challenge, with California water officials disagreeing with a plan proposed by the other six states earlier this year. State negotiators are continuing to talk, with hopes a new deal can be reached.
Bennet said members of the California delegation were invited on the trip, but scheduling issues prevented them from joining.
While senators aren’t directly involved in the state negotiations, Bennet and others have already begun discussing passing more federal funding to help pay for additional water cuts or longterm water infrastructure projects to help reduce usage of farms, cities and tribes.
In a statement, Cortez Masto told CNN she was looking forward to working with colleagues who “understand that every state in the Colorado River Basin is affected by the ongoing drought and we can’t wait any longer to take serious action.”
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