LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The federal government will choose from three alternatives to prepare for the likelihood of future water shortages in the coming years.

Two of the alternatives put new cuts into place for Nevada, Arizona and California based on either a priority system or a pro-rata system. Another alternative — described as “no action” — would leave all the current mechanisms in place to determine cuts as lake levels fall.

The choices have one thing in common: Water will be held in Lake Powell and released as needed to meet requirements in the “Law of the River,” while Lake Mead’s level will continue to drop as long as the drought impacts the entire Colorado River Basin. The government intends to protect the amount of water being stored in Lake Powell to ensure hydropower production isn’t interrupted. It’s the status quo for agreements currently in place, and a cornerstone of the alternatives presented on Tuesday.

Lake Mead could drop nearly 100 feet more before federal officials act to prevent it from dropping below 950 feet.

It all depends on keeping the level of Lake Powell at 3,500 feet elevation or higher. That ensures Glen Canyon Dam will keep producing hydropower. Currently Lake Powell is at 3,520 feet — down more than a foot and a half in the past 11 days. Lake levels are expressed as the elevation of the lake surface above sea level.

What will change? As the elevation of Lake Mead drops in 2024, 2025 and 2026, additional cuts will kick in.

Under “Action Alternative 1,” a priority system laid out by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would favor California and require the biggest cuts for Arizona. Water for Nevada would be cut significantly, but it uses far less than either Arizona or California. For example, if the cuts were in place today, with Lake Mead’s current level at 1,046 feet, Arizona would lose 592,000 acre-feet of its river water, Nevada would lose 25,000 acre-feet and California would maintain its share. If the lake drops below 1,045 feet, Arizona would lose 640,000 acre-feet, Nevada would lose 27,000 acre-feet and California would lose 200,000 acre feet. The table below shows how the losses would progress as Lake Mead drops:

Under “Action Alternative 2,” the cuts would be a simple percentage of how much water is actually consumed in Arizona, Nevada and California. At today’s Lake Mead level, all three states would lose 8.23% of their river allocation, meaning 592,000 acre-feet from Arizona and 25,000 acre-feet from Nevada. If the lake drops below 1,045 feet, allocations shrink by 11.56%: 640,000 acre-feet from Arizona, 27,000 acre-feet from Nevada and 200,000 acre-feet from California. The table below shows how the losses would progress as Lake Mead drops:

“Both alternatives acknowledge that whether we like it or not, the heavy lifting has to be in the lower basin,” according to Estevan López, New Mexico’s Upper Colorado River Compact Commissioner.

The three choices are detailed in a 476-page SEIS (Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement) prepared by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The SEIS builds on input from the seven states that rely on the river — some 40 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. A 45-day period for public comment opens Friday and runs through May 30 as the government works toward its “record of decision” this summer.

But some of the recommendations included in the six-state agreement that Nevada signed were ignored in the Bureau of Reclamation alternatives. Issues of evaporation and “transit loss” — big factors in Arizona and California as river water travels hundreds of miles in open canals and tunnel systems — were not part of the federal plan.

Negotiations continue between the seven states. JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said Tuesday that federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act has made a huge difference in his state. And this year’s “improved hydrology” brought by snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin sets the stage for promising negotiations, he said.

Hamby said a comprehensive agreement is needed by the time the public comment period ends.

It’s a critical time for such negotiations after California refused to sign the agreement crafted by Nevada, Arizona and other river states. California instead chose to offer its own plan.

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said avoiding litigation is a priority for water leaders. A court decision that could take years could freeze any actions while Lake Mead “crashes,” he said. Lawsuits could come first on behalf of farmers.

Tuesday’s presentation brought together federal and state water officials including Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton and Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger. The event at Hoover Dam unfolded with the Lake Mead “bathtub ring” in the background.

Entsminger and water officials from other states hadn’t even had time to read the options that were only released today. But he knew enough to say today’s release was probably not the solution Nevadans were hoping for.

“There’s not a lot of nuance, even in 476 pages … not a lot of nuance,” he said.

“If I had a crystal ball, my prediction would be there would be fourth, fifth, sixth alternatives proposed,” Entsminger said.

Many officials who spoke Tuesday made reference to this year’s promising snowpack levels and the expectation that the Colorado River would see flows at 177% of normal entering Lake Powell. But they were quick to say it wasn’t a solution. Beaudreau said this year’s water supply “does not get us off the hook.”

“Unprecedented conditions require new solutions,” Touton said, reminding everyone of the 23-year drought.

Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo issued a statement early Tuesday afternoon after the presentation concluded. “Nevada has long been a leader in urban water efficiency, and our communities and citizens have a strong water conservation ethic. This is an important step in a multi-phased process to protect Lake Mead and put the Colorado River system on a more sustainable trajectory,” he said.

“I have directed our Colorado River representatives to remain actively engaged with state and federal partners and to make every effort to find consensus and agreement on a negotiated path forward. Each of the 40 million Americans that use the river deserve a reliable water supply, but it will take sacrifice from all of us to make that a reality,” Lombardo said.

Alternatives considered by the Bureau of Reclamation but eliminated from detailed analysis:

  • Fill Lake Powell first
  • Decommission Glen Canyon Dam or operate for run of the river
  • Fill Lake Mead first
  • One-dam alternative
  • Evaporation, seepage, and system losses
  • Ecosystem-based alternative
  • Worst-case drought alternative
  • Hydropower prioritization alternative
  • Importation of water

The alternatives were mostly dismissed because they would fall outside the requirements laid out in the “Law of the River” — the 1922 Colorado River Compact and subsequent agreements governing water allocations.

Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said the government is stuck in a reality that’s been out of date for three decades.

“Any way you look at it, it would be hard to deny that litigation is coming. However, it is important to underscore that the Upper Basin water managers get to have their cake and eat it too under Alternatives 1 and 2. Nothing in the Draft SEIS impacts Upper Basin consumptive uses –– nor do the Alternatives negate the Upper Basin’s desires to develop considerable quantities of water in the coming years and keep Glen Canyon Dam running like it is 1990,” Roerink said in a statement late Tuesday afternoon.

“The Upper Basin states are clinging to their paper water rights and memories of past management mindsets. But the water doesn’t exist. All the while, if conditions continue to diminish, the Lower Basin will solely feel the pain to the detriment of ecosystems and communities. We need to erase the structural deficit and modernize Lower Basin accounting moving forward, but the Upper Basin needs to make meaningful contributions to help balance the Colorado River System,” Roerink said.