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Interior Department official with key role in Colorado River talks is stepping down

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Posted at 12:27 PM, Jul 13, 2023

WASHINGTON (AP) — A senior Interior Department official who has had a key role in negotiations over the shrinking Colorado River plans to step down from the job next week.

Tanya Trujillo told the department of her intention to resign as assistant secretary for water and science about six weeks ago and her last day is Monday, she told The Associated Press. Trujillo, who has served in the role since June 2021, said it made sense to leave now as the Biden administration gears up for a reelection campaign.

“It’s a normal transition time, either committing to staying to the end of the (presidential) term or leaving before the campaign really gets fired up,” she said. “I am really, really proud and happy about all the accomplishments that we put into place and made.”

The Interior Department declined to offer further comment on her departure.

Trujillo oversaw agencies including the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. She played an important role in discussions between the federal government, seven U.S. states and Native American tribes that share the waters of the 1,450-mile (2,334-kilometer) Colorado River. The waterway, which supports 40 million people and a $5 billion farm industry, has been in crisis for years because of a multi-decade drought intensified by climate change, rising demand and overuse.

Her departure comes as the states, cities and farmers that rely on the river are still struggling to decide how to reduce their use. In August the department will offer its annual analysis on the health of the river and announce if there will be additional cuts in the coming year.

In recent years, the federal government has lowered some states' water allocations and offered billions of dollars to farmers, cities and others to cut back. But key water officials — including Trujillo — didn’t see those efforts as enough to prevent the system from collapsing.

Last summer the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation called for the states to figure out how to use between 15% and 30% less in 2023. But states blew past the deadline set by federal officials, who also appeared to back off.

An agreement remained elusive for months longer, until Arizona, Nevada and California announced a breakthrough deal in May to cut their use in exchange for $1.2 billion in federal money. Interior is still reviewing the plan.

Anne Castle, who held Trujillo's position from 2009 to 2014, said the job has gotten “substantially more difficult” in recent years because of the rapid decline in available water supplies for Colorado River users.

“Those are hard jobs in the best of circumstances,” Castle said.

Before joining Interior, Trujillo worked on Colorado River issues in jobs including executive director of the Colorado River Board of California. She is a lawyer who has worked on natural resources issues for more than two decades.

Trujillo said Wednesday she plans to spend more time in her home state of New Mexico and will take some time off before returning to work on water-related issues.

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By Suman Naishadham and Felicia Fonseca (Associated Press)