LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — A federal government deadline is looming over seven states that depend on Colorado River water. That deadline arrives on Jan. 31, and if the states haven’t agreed on a plan to save water, feds will dictate a solution for them.

And we’re not talking about a drop in the bucket. It’s a demand that produced a lot of scoffs and raised eyebrows when it was announced last year. The U.S. Department of the Interior wants agreement on a plan to save 2 million to 4 million acre-feet every year.

That’s 650 billion to 1.3 trillion gallons. The low end of that range amounts to more than seven years worth of Nevada’s share of river water.

Instead of coming together to solve the problem, the states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) boasted about how much they had already saved — and failed to reach an “adequate” solution by the first deadline in August.

The federal government waited, continuing to urge cooperation and collaboration. And it began putting together its own plans in case states failed again.

And water officials in Nevada went to work as well, assembling the only plan made public that addresses water use in all the Colorado River Basin states. The framework of the plan suggests saving 500,000 acre-feet through conservation measures in the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and 1.5 million acre-feet by penalizing Arizona and California for “transit loss” — evaporation and seepage that costs an enormous amount of water as the water is delivered in open canals and tunnels. See our previous coverage of the details:

Intake towers for water to enter to generate electricity and provide hydroelectric power stand during low water levels due the western drought on July 19, 2021 at the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River at the Nevada and Arizona state border. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

At a conference held at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in mid-December, tensions came to the surface.

“I can feel the anxiety, the uncertainty in this room, and in the basin, as we look at the river and the hydrology that we face,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told the conference. The Bureau of Reclamation manages the operation of dams including Glen Canyon Dam (Lake Powell) and Hoover Dam (Lake Mead). Those dams are driving some of the decisions about water at the bureau continues to abide by terms of the Colorado River Compact, known as “The Law of the River.”

A report on the Las Vegas conference in the Los Angeles Times quotes Touton: “We hope a consensus alternative emerges from the basin before the end of January,” Touton said. “Let’s get it done together.”

By all accounts more water is allocated that what actually flows down the river these days. Climate change has dried up the desert Southwest to the point that the Colorado River no longer meets the demand.

“I’m a big believer in law, I’m a big believer in food security, but I’m an even bigger believer in math,” Southern Nevada Water Authority CEO John Entsminger told a reporter for NPR in December. “The law is complicated, the politics are complicated, the science and the math are not complicated.”

Lake Mead – July 2022 (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

As governments have swung at solutions and missed, conservation voices have grown louder.

In a Dec. 12 letter to the Bureau of Reclamation, Save the Colorado Director Gary Wockner urged consideration for the river’s health, not just the water supply.

“Second, we strongly encourage you to consider and adopt solutions that are long-term, equitable, sustainable, and actually solve the problems on the Colorado River rather than kick the can down the road for a few years by simply tweaking the 2007 Interim Guidelines,” Wockner wrote. “All climate science indicates that the Colorado River will likely have significantly and consistently lower flows in the future, perhaps mirroring some of the lowest hydrology on record, like 2021. You must prepare and manage for ‘worst-case scenarios.’ “

Wockner has suggested that a “one reservoir” system would work better, filling Lake Mead and relegating Glen Canyon Dam to a “flood control” function — essentially draining Lake Powell.

Kyle Roerink, executive director of the conservation group Great Basin Water Network, told 8 News Now at the end of December, “The purpose of our collective efforts — funded at great taxpayer expense — should not just be filling reservoirs. It needs to be about changing behaviors.”

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) told the Los Angeles Times the river crisis “isn’t that hard of a math problem” if the region works together on plans for reductions. He pointed out that agriculture consumes about 80% of the water, “so ag is the big knob we can turn on this.”

One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre of land, about the size of a football field, one foot deep. An average household uses between one-half and one acre-foot of water per year for indoor and outdoor use according to some estimates.