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Western States Agree to Conserve Colorado River Water

The reductions would surpass 10 percent of the total water use in the lower Colorado River basin: More than 1.5 million acre-feet would be conserved by the end of next year, according to the plan.

A view of the Colorado River from the Navajo Bridge in Marble Canyon, Arizona, Aug. 31, 2022.
(Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
California, Nevada and Arizona agreed on a deal to conserve about 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water over the next three years, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office announced Monday. The agreement comes amid concern that the nation’s largest reservoirs face dangerously declining levels.

The deal comes nearly a year after the Biden administration told seven states that heavily rely on the river’s water and hydropower to cut back on their use to accommodate the dwindled supply.

The Colorado River, home to the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, supports 40 million people, almost 6 million acres of agriculture and tribal communities across seven states and portions of Mexico, according to California’s Colorado River Board. Almost half of those people reside in Southern California; California is the Colorado River’s largest beneficiary.

Cuts would most affect people in Southern California. That said, repercussions could echo up and down the state as localities figure out how to operate with less water.

The reductions would surpass 10 percent of the total water use in the lower Colorado River basin: More than 1.5 million acre-feet would be conserved by the end of next year, according to the plan. An acre-foot is about what two average houses use in a year.

The U.S. Department of Interior said on Monday it would start a federal environmental review, which it needs to conduct before finalizing the states’ plan.

The river’s main reservoirs are Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona and Lake Mead in Nevada and Arizona. Lake Mead, which sends water to Southern California, has less than a third of its capacity thanks to drought, climate change and demand to meet a growing population. Shrinking river supplies also threaten hydrologic power systems that require flowing water to produce electricity.

A wet winter temporarily made up for some of the lacking water supply, but not enough to prevent drastic cuts.

California, Nevada and Arizona are part of the river’s lower basin. Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, which sit on on the upper basin, supported their new plan.

In announcing the agreement, 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 System for decades to come.”

Deal calls for $1 billion in compensation

As part of the agreement, the three states called for the federal government to give more than $1 billion to irrigation districts, localities and Native American tribes affected by the cuts. This would equate to about $2.3 million acre-feet of water.

This deal amends 2007 rules that guide operations on the Colorado River and are set to expire at the end of 2026. With this temporary agreement in place, Colorado River states can work on the plan that will take effect then.

Last June, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, part of the U.S. Department of Interior that manages water, told the states that they had to reduce their intake before 2026. Months went by without a deal.

Come January, all the states but California presented an option that would put the heaviest burden on California, which has senior water rights to the river. California countered with a plan that would put a greater burden of cuts on Arizona while it pledged to conserve up to another 400,000 acre-feet of water a year.

Without consensus, Bureau of Reclamation presented three alternatives for the next three years to be decided on after May 30 that would affect California, Arizona and Nevada, if the states did not reach a deal.

This analysis spurred the states to an agreement that would help with declining reservoir levels and reduced water influxes. In announcing that it would review the states’ agreement, the Bureau said it would withdraw its analysis, providing more time for an environmental review of the states’ proposal.

“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 in a release on Monday.

California has reduced Colorado River intake before. The state cut about a fifth of its water use from the Colorado River in 2003 at the charge of the Interior Department to accommodate rising populations in Arizona and Nevada. That caused California to implement stringent conservation measures to get by on its allotment of 4.4 million acre-feet per year.

California reduced intake again through the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2019 Drought Contingency Plan.

“The entire Western United States is on the frontlines of climate change ,” Newsom said in a statement Monday. “We must work together to address this crisis and the weather extremes between drought and flood.”

©2023 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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