LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The federal government asked, but states have not delivered plans of “sufficient magnitude” to save massive amounts of water, according to the federal official responsible for managing the Colorado River Basin.

In June, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton ordered seven states — Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming — to come up with plans to cut water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet — 15-30%. Those plans were due today.

FILE – A bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water line of Lake Mead near water intakes on the Arizona side of Hoover Dam at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area Sunday, June 26, 2022, near Boulder City, Nev. The reservoir is now below 30 percent of capacity, Its level has dropped 170 feet (52 meters) since reaching a high-water mark in 1983. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

While not abandoning the spirit of partnership, Touton said Tuesday the federal government has begun the process of taking matters into its own hands. Her statement was clear:

Since June, Reclamation has engaged with our partners across the basin and with the basin states on voluntary agreements to meet the reduction amounts needed for the system. While significant progress has been made, they are not complete. Reclamation understands the difficult decisions the basin states must consider, and appreciate and respect the way the state leaders serve the needs of their citizens. They have long been our partners in managing water in the west and will continue to be our partners. Reclamation is committed to working closely with the basin states and the tribes to work toward solutions.
There are a lot of conversations about how we collectively mitigate the impacts of drought and climate change on the Colorado River and our shared goal of forming durable and equitable solutions. But to date, the states collectively have not identified and adopted specific actions of sufficient magnitude that would stabilize the system.
Today, Reclamation is initiating multiple processes to pursue actions as authorized to examine among other tools, the ability to further manage elevations in the basin’s reservoirs, maximize efficient and beneficial uses, and assess evaporation, seepage and other system losses in the lower basin.
More information will be forthcoming regarding the next steps in the process that we will follow.
But I want to be very clear: Our actions to initiate these steps do not preclude that a solution to this basin is one of partnership.

Camille Calimlim Touton, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner

As the federal government declared a second year of operating under a water shortage in the Southwest, Touton’s message echoed statements a day earlier by Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger.

“The Colorado River cannot provide enough water for the current level of use,” Entsminger wrote in a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation. “The math is simple, even if the law and politics are not: the bulk of the responsibility to reduce use falls on water users downstream of Hoover Dam, because that is where the bulk of the water is used.”

“Additional conservation is needed to protect critical elevations in Lake Mead and Powell in 2023 and every single year thereafter,” Entsminger wrote. “Our moment of reckoning is near.

Camille Calimlim Touton, Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Touton said, “We talk about protecting the system, about the infrastructure being more resilient. But what we’re doing today is protecting the people. We are taking steps to protect 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River for their lives and livelihood. That is why ensuring the continued operation of the Colorado River reservoirs remains a top priority for the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation.”

A reporter asked if the states were just calling the federal government’s bluff on the need for an additional savings of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet. “Why not begin taking these steps today to enforce a real deadline?”

Touton responded, “That’s exactly what we did today. We started the process in which we will develop these tools to take the action when we see it necessary for the system.”