Arizona, California and Nevada have agreed to take less water from the drought-prone Colorado River, a groundbreaking agreement that, for now, prevents the river from sinking so low it would jeopardize the water supply to major Western cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles. as well as some of the most productive farmland in America.
THE OK, announced Monday, is asking the federal government to pay about $1.2 billion to irrigation districts, cities and Native American tribes in the three states if they temporarily use less water. The states also agreed to make additional cuts beyond those tied to federal payments to generate the total reductions needed to prevent the river from collapsing.
Together, these reductions would represent about 13% of total water use in the lower Colorado basin – among the most aggressive ever seen in the region, and would likely require significant water restrictions for residential and agricultural uses.
The Colorado River provides drinking water to 40 million Americans in seven states and parts of Mexico and irrigates 5.5 million acres of agricultural land. Electricity generated by dams on the river’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, powers millions of homes and businesses.
But drought, population growth and climate change have reduced the river’s flow by a third in recent years compared to historical averages, threatening to cause a water and electricity disaster across the West.
California, Arizona and Nevada get their share of water from Lake Mead, formed by the Colorado River at the Hoover Dam and controlled by the federal government. The Bureau of Reclamation, an agency of the Department of the Interior, determines how much water each of the three states receives. The other states that depend on the Colorado draw their water directly from the river and its tributaries.
“This is an important step towards our shared goal of charting a sustainable course for the basin that millions call home,” Office of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in a statement. a statement.
The deal reached over the weekend only runs until the end of 2026 and has yet to be formally adopted by the federal government. At this point, the seven states that rely on the river — including Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — could face a deeper toll as its decline is expected to continue.
The Colorado negotiations have been spurred by a crisis: Last summer, water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs along the river, dropped enough that officials feared the the hydroelectric turbines they power soon stop working.
There was even the risk of reservoir levels dropping so low that water no longer reached the intake gates that control the flow of the lakes, essentially drying up the river downstream.
Faced with this prospect, the Ministry of the Interior last June asked the seven states to find a way reduce their water consumption by two to four million acre-feet of water per year. (An acre-foot is roughly equal to the amount of water two to three households use in a year.) The states failed to reach an agreement, even though water levels in the two reservoirs remained dangerously low.
This inertia led the federal government to lay the foundations for a unilaterally impose cuts on these states. Adding to the pressure, the Home Office said last month it may disregard century-old rules governing which states should bear the brunt of the cuts and instead come up with a different formula.
The federal government has given states until May 30 to take a position on the prospect of unilateral cuts. But behind closed doors, the Biden administration was negotiating with states to reach a deal and avoid having to impose cuts that would certainly face legal challenges and ultimately delay any action.
Under the agreement announced Monday, most of the cuts, 2.3 million acre-feet, would come from water districts, farmers, towns and Native American tribes who had agreed to take less water in order to qualify for federal subsidies offered as part of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. These payments will total approximately $1.2 billion.
An additional 700,000 acre-feet would come from California, Nevada and Arizona, which have agreed to settle the cuts among themselves in the coming months. (Under the terms of the agreement, up to 200,000 acre-feet of those cuts could be eligible for compensation through other federal programs, but those arrangements have yet to be worked out.)
If states don’t identify those additional 700,000 acre-feet of cuts, the Interior Department said it would withhold water, a move that could face legal and political challenges.
Together, the cuts would save three million acre-feet over the next three and a half years, beyond existing agreements. This is much less, on an annual basis, than what the federal government demanded last summer.
The Department of the Interior was able to negotiate less drastic reductions thanks to an unusually wet winter that provided snowfall levels in the Colorado Basin well above average, especially in California. This should significantly increase the amount of water in the river, at least temporarily.
The terms of the deal were described to The New York Times by a senior Interior Department official who participated in the negotiations and who spoke on the condition that he not be identified by name. The Washington Post reported elements of the agreement last week.
The structure of the deal allows the Biden administration to avoid, for now, the problem of which states will bear the brunt of the cuts.
The Interior Department declined to provide a breakdown showing how much of the 2.3 million acre-feet of voluntary reductions offset by the federal government would come from each state. And, finding the extra 700,000 acre-feet remains an unsolved problem for the three states in the lower basin.
As a result, what until recently looked like a state-vs-state cage game produced a more tolerable outcome for the states involved, if not entirely welcome.
Rules governing the river, which date back to 1922, say much of Arizona’s supply from the Colorado River would be cut to near zero before California experiences cutbacks. Although Arizona would still see its water supply cut significantly, the deal effectively eliminates the threat of drastic cuts.
“I’m very pleased with this proposal,” Tom Buschaztke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the state’s lead negotiator in the talks, said Monday. “I think there’s a lot of fairness in that.”
Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, called the deal a positive step, but one that may only offer a reprieve. “Before 2026, we could be back in that danger zone,” she said.
California is also doing better than it otherwise would have. The Ministry of the Interior has raised the prospect of cut off each state’s supply equally, as a share of its total use. Because California uses more water from Colorado than any other state, it would have lost the most — a shock to Southern California farmers, as well as cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. Relying heavily on voluntary reductions circumvents this concern.
Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River resource manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said the deal could provide a few years of stability for Los Angeles, San Diego and other California cities that rely on water from the Colorado River. Colorado.
The biggest challenge will be to reach an agreement after 2026, when the federal government may not be willing to provide as much funding to conserve water, and the states will not be able to count on more winters of heavy rains. and snowfall. “We know the future will be drier than the past,” Mr. Hasencamp said.
The deal is also something of a victory for the Biden administration, which has at times seemed unsure of how to respond to the growing crisis. In the past year, he twice set deadlines for states to reach an agreement, which they failed to meet. The Department of the Interior said the agreement shows states are able to work with the federal government to meet the challenge of Colorado’s decline.
This notion too will soon be put to the test. The ministry said its next step would be to study the effects of the agreement the states have reached, before deciding how to proceed. In the meantime, the next round of negotiations, on what to do after 2026, is due to start next month.
Jack Healy contributed to Phoenix reporting.