Federal officials have proposed new rules targeting well owners who are illegally pumping water from wells along the lower Colorado River, a source of water for millions of people in the West.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation regulations would essentially force the well owners to either pay to acquire rights to the river water or turn the spigot off.
"If someone is using Colorado River water without an entitlement, that harms the entitlement holders in Arizona, California and Nevada who do have one," said Lorri Gray, director of the bureau\'s Lower Colorado Region. The bureau oversees the river in those three states.
The federal crackdown comes at a time when the bureau and all seven states that rely on the Colorado River are trying to stretch water supplies to meet growing demand and avert drought-related shortages.
The states - California, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico - adopted a drought plan last year that outlines efficiency measures, such as lining earthen canals to stop seepage and removing invasive plants that use too much water.
Gray said bringing illegal wells into compliance would help ensure the river\'s long-term sustainability and protect users with a legal right to the resource.
Most of the well owners are private citizens who have drilled their wells too close to the river.
Instead of pumping groundwater, to which landowners have a right, they are drawing water from the river\'s subsurface flow. Well owners must get approval to siphon water from the river\'s surface or subsurface.
To comply with the new procedures, well owners could seek an individual water right, join an existing water district or become a customer of a provider with rights to Colorado River water. They could continue to pump water from the well but only within the limits of the water right or provider.
Well owners who can\'t acquire water rights couldn\'t continue to use their wells.
The bureau is still trying to determine how many wells have tapped the river or the exact amount of water pumped. Hydrologists estimate the annual losses at 9,000 to 15,000 acre-feet, enough water to serve Lake Havasu City for most of a year.
More than half the wells identified are in Arizona.
Gray said the bureau will try to work with the well owners to keep a water supply.
"A key goal of this rule is to help those well owners who are using Colorado River water without a legal entitlement become lawful users of that water," she said.
The bureau is seeking comments on the proposed rule, which was published last week in the Federal Register.