To address the continued potential for low run-off conditions and unprecedented water shortages in the Colorado River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation this week released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to potentially revise the current interim operating guidelines for the near-term operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams.
The release comes on the heels of investments the Biden Administration announced last week as part of an “all-of-government effort” to make the Colorado River Basin and all the communities that rely on it “more resilient to climate change and the ongoing drought in the West.”
The draft SEIS analyzes alternatives and measures to address potential shortages in the event that such measures are required to protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety in 2024 through 2026, after which the current operating guidelines expire.
“It also ensures Reclamation has the tools to protect continued water deliveries and hydropower production for the 40 million Americans who rely on the Colorado River,” says a Bureau press release.
“The Colorado River Basin provides water for more than 40 million Americans. It fuels hydropower resources in eight states, supports agriculture and agricultural communities across the West, and is a crucial resource for 30 Tribal Nations. Failure is not an option,” said Bureau Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau.
The SEIS process was initiated in October 2022. The release of the draft follows months of discussions with the Basin states and water commissioners, the 30 Basin Tribes, water managers, farmers and irrigators, municipalities, and other stakeholders. The draft alternatives in the SEIS incorporate concepts from many models and proposals received during the scoping period, including from all seven Basin states.
The alternatives presented in the draft SEIS analyze measures that may be taken under Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s authorities to protect system operations in the face of unprecedented hydrologic conditions, “while providing equitable water allocations to Lower Basin communities that rely on the Colorado River System,” says the press release.
The draft SEIS includes proposed alternatives to revise the December 2007 Record of Decision associated with the Colorado River Interim Guidelines. The 2007 Interim Guidelines provide operating criteria for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. These include provisions designed to provide a greater degree of certainty to water users about timing and volumes of potential water delivery reductions for the Lower Basin States, as well as additional operating flexibility to conserve and store water in the system.
The draft SEIS will be available for public comment for 45 calendar days and the final SEIS is anticipated to be available with a Record of Decision in Summer 2023. This document will inform the August 2023 decisions that will affect 2024 operations for Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams.
Draft SEIS Alternatives
The draft SEIS analyzes three alternatives, which reflect input from the Basin states, cooperating agencies, Tribes and other interested parties, including comments submitted during the SEIS public scoping period, including two written proposals from the Basin states that informed the following alternatives considered in this draft SEIS:
No Action Alternative: The No Action Alternative describes the consequences of continued implementation of existing agreements that control operations of Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam, including under further deteriorating hydrologic conditions and reservoir elevations.
Action Alternative 1: Action Alternative 1 models potential operational changes to both Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam. Action Alternative 1 includes modeling for reduced releases from Glen Canyon Dam, as well as an analysis of the effects of additional Lower Colorado River Basin shortages based predominately on the priority of water rights. Action Alternative 1 models progressively larger additional shortages as Lake Mead’s elevation declines, and larger additional shortages in 2025 and 2026, as compared with 2024. The total shortage contributions in 2024, including those under existing agreements, are limited to 2.083 million-acre-feet because this is the maximum volume analyzed in the 2007 Interim Guidelines final environmental impact statement.
Action Alternative 2: Action Alternative 2 is similar to Action Alternative 1 in how it models potential operational changes to both Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam. Action Alternative 2 includes modeling for reduced releases from Glen Canyon Dam, as well as an analysis of the effects of additional Lower Colorado River Basin reductions that are distributed in the same percentage across all Lower Basin water users under shortage conditions. While both the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan encompass shortages and contributions that reflect the priority system, the incremental, additional shortages identified in Action Alternative 2 for the remainder of the interim period would be distributed in the same percentage across all Lower Basin water users. Action Alternative 2 models progressively larger additional shortages as Lake Mead’s elevation declines and models larger Lower Basin shortages in 2025 and 2026 as compared with 2024. The total shortage contributions in 2024, including those under existing agreements, are limited to 2.083 million-are-feet because this is the maximum volume analyzed in the 2007 Interim Guidelines FEIS.
Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing an additional $4.6 billion to address the historic drought.
To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once these projects are complete:
–$281 million for 21 water recycling projects that are expected to increase annual water capacity by 127,000 acre-feet annually
–Up to $233 million in water conservation funding for the Gila River Indian Community, including $83 million for a water pipeline project and an additional $50 million from the Inflation Reduction Act through the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program, which will also provide similar investments in 2024 and 2025
–Over $73 million for infrastructure repairs on water delivery systems, $19.3 million in fiscal year 2022 and another $54 million announced last week.
— $71 million for 32 drought resiliency projects to expand access to water through groundwater storage, rainwater harvesting, aquifer recharge and water treatment
–$10 million in new water storage investments