Western States Offer Water Cuts to Help Colorado River amid Drought

Arizona, California, and Nevada have proposed a plan to reduce their water use from the drought-stricken Colorado River over the next three years. The adoption of the proposal is a significant breakthrough in a year-long stalemate that pitted Western states against each other. The plan will conserve an additional 3 million acre-feet of water through 2026 when current guidelines for sharing the river expire. Although this is less than what federal officials considered an amount that would be needed to prevent a crisis in the river, the proposal is still a notable step in the long and difficult negotiations between the states.

Forty-million people, seven U.S. states, parts of Mexico, and over two dozen Native American tribes depend on the 1,450-mile (2,334-kilometer) river for water. The Colorado River also produces hydropower and supplies water to farms that grow most of the nation’s winter vegetables. Under the agreement, cities, irrigation districts, and Native American tribes in the three states will receive federal funding in exchange for temporarily using less water, although officials did not disclose the expected amount.

Although the proposal is not a final deal, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton considers it an “important step forward.” She indicated that the bureau would pull back its proposal from last month that could have resulted in sidestepping the existing water priority system to force cuts while it analyzes the three-state plan. The bureau’s earlier proposal, if adopted, could have resulted in a messy legal battle. Terry Fulp, former regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin region, remarked, “At least they’re still talking. But money helps you keep talking.”

The three Lower Basin states are entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet of water altogether from the river, and the proposal would conserve half of that amount by the end of 2024. California, based on a century-old water rights priority system, gets the most water, which mostly goes to farmers in the Imperial Irrigation District. Arizona and Nevada already faced cuts in recent years based on prior agreements, but California has been spared. Under the new proposal, California would give up about 1.6 million acre-feet of water through 2026, roughly the same amount the state first offered six months ago.

The Imperial Irrigation District would account for more than half of California’s cuts. J.B. Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said the district had already taken measures to improve water efficiency and would need to do more. The director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Tom Buschatzke, stressed that the announcement is not a final deal and needs analysis and approval from the federal government, which will then determine the amount of funding allocated for entities that give up water.

Water officials see the proposal as a way to preserve water levels at Lakes Mead and Powell beyond 2026. The Colorado River has been in crisis due to a multi-decade drought intensified by climate change, rising demand, and overuse. Although water levels at key reservoirs have rebounded somewhat thanks to heavy precipitation this winter, the federal government has cut some water allocations and offered billions of dollars to pay farmers, cities, and others to cut back.

Michael Cohen, a senior researcher at the Pacific Institute focused on the Colorado River, called the amount of cuts the three states have proposed a “huge, huge lift” and a significant step forward. Although he considered the agreement a “little additional time,” he is skeptical if there are more dry years ahead, saying, “this agreement will not solve that problem.”

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