The seven states that depend on the Colorado River announced Monday that they have agreed to cut water use from the river over the next three years to prevent reservoirs from falling to extremely low levels.
State representatives reached the agreement after months of negotiations, with California, Arizona and Nevada collectively committing to reduce water use by about 3 million acre-feet by the end of 2026.
The Biden administration announced that the federal Interior Department, which had presented options for larger cuts, would analyze the states’ proposal.
The agreement is a milestone in the region’s efforts to combat the decline of the Colorado River. The river, which supplies states from the Rocky Mountains to the U.S.-Mexico border, has long been overdrawn, and its reservoirs have dropped to their lowest levels as they fill during a 23-year drought that has been worsened by rising temperatures associated with climate change.
“This is an important step toward our shared goal of creating a sustainable pathway for the basin that millions of people call home,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Kalimlim Tuton.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland called the agreement a commitment by the Biden administration to work with states, tribes and communities in the West “to find consensus solutions to climate change and persistent drought.”
California, as the state that uses the largest share of the Colorado River, will bear most of the reductions, up to 1.6 million acre-feet by 2026.
Federal officials said most of the cuts would be made by paying agricultural irrigation districts and other water users to save water using Inflation Reduction Act funding. The stored water will remain in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir near Las Vegas, which is now at 30% capacity.
Last month, the federal government presented two options for preventing dangerously low levels of depleted Colorado River reservoirs, saying water cuts could be made by following a water rights priority system or using a shared percentage. Under those alternatives, federal officials said the reductions would amount to about 2 million acre-feet a year, a far greater reduction than the three states’ combined 7.5 million acre-feet allocation.
The river got a desperately needed boost this year with storms that blanketed the Rockies with heavy snow. Federal officials have estimated that discharges into the river’s reservoirs this year will be 149% of average.
With reservoirs now expected to increase significantly this year, seven states — California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming — have proposed smaller cuts that water managers believe will be enough to prevent reservoirs from entering. : dangerously low even if dry conditions return over the next three years.
The Biden administration laid out its alternatives last month as part of a review that aims to overhaul water scarcity rules by 2026, when the current rules expire. But the Home Office said that in light of the states’ proposal, it was temporarily withdrawing the draft review “so that it can fully analyze the implications 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 from seven states submitted the agreement in a letter, saying they “recognize that having one good winter does not solve the systemic challenges facing the Colorado River.” State representatives have urged federal officials to move forward with new rules to combat the deficit after 2026 “so that all parties can focus their resources” on developing a new long-term deficit sharing plan.
The consensus reached among the states “will protect the Colorado River system for the duration of the current guidelines,” said J. B. Hamby, president of the Colorado River Council of California.
Hamby said the plan presented by the states “will create unprecedented storage volumes that will increase Lake Mead, take advantage of improved hydrology and rely on cooperation within and between states,” as well as between municipal water agencies, agricultural agencies. irrigation districts and tribes dependent on the river.
The governors of California, Arizona and Nevada praised the agreement as an effective strategy to stabilize river reservoirs by 2026.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said the western states were “on the front lines of climate change” and “must work together to overcome this crisis and weather extremes between drought and flood”.
“California is committed to making significant reductions in water use,” Newsom said. “This historic partnership between California and the other states of the Lower Basin will help preserve a critical water supply for millions of Americans as we work together to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River.”
This article: will be updated.