Amid the failure of Colorado River basin states to come to an agreement over water usage cutbacks, federal officials stepped in on Tuesday with a series of possible solutions.

The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation presented the options — which could either favor priority water users or distribute the burden evenly — in a bid to address a likely future of “unprecedented water shortages” across the basin, according to the agency. 

Presented in a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), the alternatives seek to ensure the integrity and safety of the river’s Glen Canyon and Hoover dam operations from 2024-2026, after current operating guidelines expire.

“The Colorado River Basin provides water for more than 40 million Americans,” Interior Department Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said in a statement prior to the announcement. 

“It fuels hydropower resources in eight states, supports agriculture and agricultural communities across the West, and is a crucial resource for 30 Tribal Nations,” Beaudreau continued. “Failure is not an option.”

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton first called for Colorado River basin states to boost their water conservation commitments last June, leading the states to begin months of deliberations.

“Drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin have been two decades in the making,” Touton said in a Tuesday statement. 

“To meet this moment, we must continue to work together, through a commitment to protecting the river, leading with science and a shared understanding that unprecedented conditions require new solutions,” she added.

The Colorado River region is divided into Upper and Lower basins. The Upper Basin includes Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, while Nevada, Arizona and California are in the Lower Basin. 

After the seven states missed an initial mid-August deadline to present a unified plan, they ultimately agreed to a new target date of Jan. 31 — aware that the Bureau would likely present its own alternatives if they again failed to do so.

What ended up materializing at the end of January were two competing offers: a joint document from six out of the seven states and a separate proposal from California.

The six-state plan would seek to spread the burden for evaporation losses along the river, making California — the river’s biggest user — face the biggest cuts.

California’s proposal, on the other hand, includes larger reductions for Arizona, while relying on voluntary efforts and abiding by the legal terms of a century-old water rights compact. 

As the states were deep in negotiations, the Bureau of Reclamation announced in October that it was initiating an expedited, supplemental revision process in parallel. 

The agency published a notice of intent at the time that it was preparing an SEIS, which would include potential alternatives to revise the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines

These guidelines establish the operating criteria for Lakes Powell and Mead — the basin’s two largest reservoirs, formed by the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams, respectively. 

“In the absence of consensus among all entities affected by changed operations, the Department must consider the overall conditions in the Basin in order to make the most prudent operational decisions,” the draft SEIS states. 

To do so, the SEIS analyzes three alternatives, which the agency said reflect the input of basin states, tribes and cooperating local entities.

The “No Action Alternative” would involve continuing to implement existing agreements that control the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams regardless of deteriorating hydrologic conditions, according to the SEIS. 

In the foreseeable scenario of ongoing low-runoff issues and reservoir decline, this status-quo option “would not meet the purpose of and need for federal action,” as it would fail to protect either dam’s integrity, the document determines. 

“Action Alternative 1” assesses the potential impacts of additional Lower Colorado River Basin cuts, based on the historic system of priority water rights — which favor California, as the most senior user. 

In this case, Arizona would shoulder the biggest burden in a shortage scenario, in which some 2.08 million acre-feet of reductions would be divided among the Lower Basin states. 

This option also models progressively larger additional shortages as Lake Mead’s elevation declines, as well as even bigger shortages in 2025 and 2026, in comparison to those of 2024.

Action Alternative 2, on the other hand, analyzes the effects of the same 2.08 million acre-feet of reductions — but distributed in equal percentages across Lower Basin states.

The draft SEIS concludes that the Bureau of Reclamation “has not identified a preferred alternative at this time,” noting that the preferred solution will be revealed in the final version of the statement.

The draft will be available for public comment for 45 calendar days, with the final version anticipated to be released by Summer 2023, according to the Interior Department.

“The prolonged drought afflicting the American West is one of the most significant challenges facing our country today,” Beaudreau said at a Tuesday press conference, announcing the SEIS.

“Everyone who lives and works in the basin knows that one good year will not save us from more than two decades of drought,” he added.