States Propose Landmark Deal to Conserve the Colorado River

The water cuts suggested by California, Arizona and Nevada are not as ambitious as those proposed by the federal government, but they will buy time

Aerial photo of the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River
The Colorado River's Glen Canyon Dam, which creates Lake Powell. RJ Sangosti / MediaNews Group / The Denver Post via Getty Images

For nearly a year, the Southwestern states that rely on the drought-stricken Colorado River have struggled to come up with a plan to conserve the crucial resource. Deadline after deadline has come and gone with no conclusion. Last month, the federal government released an ambitious proposal that asked for steep water cuts from the states, unless they could agree on a different plan.

Now, three states have put forward a proposal of their own, announced the Department of the Interior on Monday. The basin’s four other states agreed the proposal should be considered.

California, Arizona and Nevada—a trio known as the Lower Basin states—have proposed to reduce their Colorado River water usage by at least three million acre-feet through the end of 2026. The cuts would total 13 percent of these states’ total water consumption, per the Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow.

An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land with a foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons. In a year, two to three households use approximately one acre-foot of water total, according to the New York Times’ Christopher Flavelle.

In Monday’s announcement, the Interior Department said it would temporarily withdraw the federal proposal from last month and analyze the states’ proposal instead.

The suggested cuts in the new proposal are significantly less than what the federal government called for last June, when they asked states to conserve two to four million acre-feet each year, according to the New York Times. But the West is emerging from a winter of unusually heavy precipitation, which stabilized water levels in the river’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

“The good snowpack bought us the luxury of bringing forward a deal that wasn’t quite as much as the federal government was hoping for, but it does buy us time,” Kathryn Sorensen, research director at the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, tells NPR’s Kirk Siegler.

Even if this proposal is accepted, the states will need to reach another deal after 2026. “This is a step in the right direction but a temporary solution,” Dave White, who studies sustainability policy at Arizona State University, tells Grist’s Jake Bittle. “This deal does not address the long-term water sustainability challenges in the region.” Come 2026, all states that rely on the river, including the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, may need to make steeper cuts, per the New York Times.

With $1.2 billion in funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, the federal government will compensate water users for 2.3 million acre-feet of cuts, per the Washington Post. Since the states proposed modest cuts, this funding will cover most of the reductions. This financial compensation helped resolve one of the main sticking points of the deal: whether California or Arizona should bear the brunt of the cuts, per Grist.

After the federal government analyzes the proposal, it will publish an environmental impact statement for public comment.

“It is important to note that this is not an agreement,” Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s commissioner to the Colorado River talks, told reporters on Monday, per the Washington Post. “This is an agreement to submit a proposal and an agreement to the terms of that proposal to be analyzed by the federal government.”

The Colorado River is an important resource for seven western U.S. states, two Mexican states and many Native American tribes. The river supplies water to 40 million people and irrigates almost 5.5 million acres of agricultural land. Millions of homes and businesses use electricity generated by dams in the river, per the New York Times.

In recent decades, states have overused water from the river, and droughts fueled by climate change have lowered its water levels. Last summer, Lake Mead was filled to only 27 percent of capacity, its lowest level since 1937.

Per the new proposal, states would achieve 1.5 million acre-feet in reductions—half of the proposed reductions—by the end of 2024. By 2026, California will cover 1.6 million of the total 3 million acre-feet of reductions, Nevada will cut 285,000 acre-feet and Arizona will reduce 1.1 million acre-feet, per the Washington Post. Currently, those states use a yearly 4.4 million acre-feet, 300,000 acre-feet and 2.8 million acre-feet, respectively.

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