By Janet Wilson for the Desert Sun. Read the original article here.

Will seven Western states be able to rapidly craft a voluntary plan to keep the Colorado River afloat for decades to come? It’s increasingly unclear, as negotiations have foundered between two sides, according to key players.

There are sharp differences between northern and southern states’ proposals, with representatives of the mountainous Upper Basin states of Colorado and New Mexico unwilling, to date, to shoulder large future cuts, both because of historic underuse of their share of the river and because of heavily populated California and Arizona’s historic overuse. The southwestern states have for years taken twice as much as their northern neighbors.

Major progress appears to be brewing on another front.

Upper Basin officials, including Colorado’s plainspoken river commissioner, Becky Mitchell, said they have been informed of a proposal under discussion by California, Arizona and Nevada, collectively known as the Lower Basin, where the Lower Basin and Mexico would agree to take 1.5 million acre-feet of water less from the shrinking river each year. Mitchell said far more details are needed.

That amount would be enough to both to make up for evaporation and leakage from delivery canals snaking across the hot desert, and to help stabilize the nation’s largest reservoirs, based on a report released Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that showed average annual losses to evaporation and river banks of 1.3 million acre-feet in the Lower Basin.

Lower Basin officials, including California’s Colorado River commissioner JB Hamby, who is leading the state’s negotiating team, declined to confirm numbers while they hash out specifics, but pointedly said major reductions need to be contributed by every state. One California official did confirm the numbers.

Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s top representative on the river talks, also wouldn’t confirm the 1.5 million acre-feet number, but emphasized the structural magnitude of what the Lower Basin is offering to do, noting his state and California, with help from Nevada and Mexico, would address evaporation and leakage for decades to come, and contribute more atop that to help stabilize the system. But, he said, more needs to be done, by everyone.

“It’s hugely important for folks to know that the Lower Basin is going to step up, and that we see a desire and a need for the rest of the problem to be solved collectively,” he said. “We can’t do it all. It is not physically possible.”

Federal officials say the wet winters and commitments to major conservation through 2026 have reduced the chances of Lake Mead falling below critical levels to just 4%, and of Lake Powell to 8% in the next three years. But far more than 1. 5 million acre-feet ‒ as much as 4 million acre-feet in dry years ‒ will likely be needed as climate change amps up extended droughts, experts say.

Others disagree on where further cuts should be made.

“I think the lion’s share of that needs to come from the Lower Basin, from the ones who are using it,” said Estevan Lopez, New Mexico’s representative on Colorado River policy, and a former U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner under President Obama. He acknowledged that the Lower Basin states disagree, and said, “the conversation has gotten a little rough.”

“I don’t want to say that we don’t have to do anything. That’s not what I’m saying. But it cannot be a one-to-one reduction with the Lower Basin,” he said.

For now, negotiations between the two sides have ground to a halt, even as a deadline looms to produce a draft agreement by next month. The last time representatives from all seven states met face to face was in early January, when they convened at the Woolley’s Classic Suites, at Denver Airport. Since then, at the urging of U.S. Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton, there have been two Zoom calls with all the states that highlighted the fundamental differences, one participant said. The northern states recently invited their southern counterparts to Salt Lake City to resume full talks, but none chose to attend.

“We’ll keep inviting them,” Mitchell said. “I do not think we are at an impasse, and I do not believe we need to be at an impasse.”

To kickstart talks again, Mitchell says the Lower Basin states simply need to respond to a fairer, more flexible framework that the northern states have proposed, and be willing to live within the same constraints they have endured moving forward, as well as ensuring compensation for northern tribes who have not used their rivers supplies.

Asked about what the Upper Basin states had proposed, California commissioner Hamby said “no comment,” but did say, “There is no path forward that will be successful where …. the entirety of the pain of future drought and shortage … would fall on one basin or another, or one user or another. The only successful path forward is for everyone to compromise.”

States in the northern Upper Basin of the Colorado River say they have been forced to use about half of their share of the river in recent years, while those in the Lower Basin have used or lost to evaporation and seepage twice as much as them.

Mitchell said in addition to agreeing to the framework, far more details are needed on the Lower Basin’s proposal.

“So one and a half million acre-feet, how that’s calculated and where it’s coming from is incredibly important,” she said. “I’m excited to see the Lower Basin’s willingness to conserve. Now comes the hard part: keeping verifiable, wet water in (Lake) Mead. It will be difficult, and I look forward to seeing their plans materialize. We have not yet seen any specifics.”

Much of the savings could potentially mirror earlier agreements, which have left water in Lake Mead, but also allowed the Lower Basin states to keep using more than their annual allocations. An acre-foot is enough to supply about three California households, so 1.5 million acre-feet would on paper be enough to supply half a million residences in dry years, though almost 80% of Colorado River water is used for agriculture.

Into thin air: Evaporation a major factor

Reclamation’s Thursday report shows about 860,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water was lost to evaporation annually between 2017 and 2021 from Lake Mead to the border with Mexico, and 445,000 acre-feet was lost to evaporation and transpiration from natural vegetation and habitats, or about 10% of the river’s average yearly total flow.

That lines up with the highest amount that the three southwestern states are discussing to make up for evaporation. They could also add another 300,000 acre-feet that would be held back in the nation’s two largest reservoirs to gradually build back elevation levels.

Both Lake Mead and Lake Powell nearly collapsed last year, after almost two decades of record drought. The federal agency is expected to release a second data report soon that might or might not help, on “consumptive use” by both sides over the past five years. A reclamation spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the reports or the negotiations.