Breakthrough Colorado River deal reached, bringing big water cuts for three years

LOS ANGELES — The seven states that depend on the Colorado River announced Monday that they have reached an agreement on cutting water use from the river over the next three years to prevent reservoirs from falling to critically low levels.

Representatives of the states reached the consensus after months of negotiations, with California, Arizona and Nevada together committing to reduce water use by about 3 million acre-feet between now and the end of 2026.

The Biden administration announced that the federal Interior Department, which had laid out options for larger reductions, will analyze the proposal from the states.

The agreement represents a major milestone in the region’s efforts to grapple with the Colorado River’s decline. The river, which supplies states from the Rocky Mountains to the U.S.-Mexico border, has long been overallocated, and its reservoirs have declined to their lowest levels since they were filled during 23 years of drought worsened by rising temperatures with climate change.

“This is an important step forward towards our shared goal of forging a sustainable path for the basin that millions of people call home,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland called the agreement a testament to the Biden administration’s commitment to working with states, tribes and communities in the West “to find consensus solutions in the face of climate change and sustained drought.”

California, as the state that uses the largest share of the Colorado River, will shoulder a large share of the reductions — up to 1.6 million acre-feet through 2026.

Federal officials said much of the reductions will come by paying agricultural irrigation districts and other water users to conserve water, using funding from the Inflation Reduction Act. Conserved water will remain in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir near Las Vegas, which is now at 30% capacity.

The federal government last month had laid out two options for preventing the Colorado River’s depleted reservoirs from reaching dangerously low levels, saying the water cuts could be imposed by following the water-rights priority system or by using an across-the-board percentage. Under those alternatives, federal officials said the cuts would reach about 2 million acre-feet each year — a much larger reduction from the three states’ total apportionment of 7.5 million acre-feet.

The river has received a desperately needed boost this year from storms that left the Rocky Mountains blanketed with heavy snow. Federal officials have estimated that runoff into the river’s reservoirs this year will be 149% of average.

With reservoirs now projected to rise substantially this year, the seven states — California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming — have come forward with a proposal for smaller reductions that water managers think will be sufficient to prevent reservoirs from reaching perilously low levels, even if dry conditions return during the next three years.

The Biden administration had presented its alternatives last month as part of a review aimed at revising the rules for dealing with water shortages through 2026, when the current rules expire. But the Interior Department said that in light of the proposal from the states, it is temporarily withdrawing the draft review “so that it can fully analyze the effects of the proposal.” The Bureau of Reclamation plans to update its review of alternatives, called a draft supplemental environmental impact statement, to include the states’ proposal as an alternative and complete the review this year.

Representatives of the seven states laid out the agreement in a letter, saying they “recognize that having one good winter does not solve the systemic challenges facing the Colorado River.” The states’ representatives urged federal officials to advance the process of developing new rules for dealing with shortages after 2026, “so that all parties can focus on their resources” on developing a new long-term plan for sharing shortages.

The consensus reached among the states will “protect the Colorado River system for the duration of the current guidelines,” said JB Hamby, chair of California’s Colorado River Board.

Hamby said the plan presented by the states will “generate unprecedented volumes of conservation that will build elevation in Lake Mead, make strategic use of the improved hydrology, and build upon partnerships within and between states,” as well as among urban water agencies, agricultural irrigation districts and tribes that depend on the river.

The governors of California, Arizona and Nevada praised the agreement as an effective strategy for stabilizing the river’s reservoirs through 2026.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the Western states are “on the front lines of climate change” and “must work together to address this crisis and the weather extremes between drought and flood.”

“California has stepped up to make significant cuts to water usage,” Newsom said. “This historic partnership between California and other Lower Basin states will help maintain critical water supply for millions of Americans as we work together to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River.”


Ian James

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3 thoughts on “Breakthrough Colorado River deal reached, bringing big water cuts for three years”

  1. California could step up even more of Newsome would allow desalination plant creation but he has been stubborn. Just imagine how great it would be if Democrats would use their brains to resolve issues.

  2. California shouldn’t get any of the water as it doesn’t provide any to the system. Instead being the pig it is gets the largest amount. Wonder if Vegas will still be running all it’s water displays that wastes a lot of water.

  3. California shouldn’t get any of the water as it doesn’t provide any to the system. Instead being the pig it is gets the largest amount. Wonder if Vegas will still be running all it’s water displays that wastes a lot of water.