Early next month, the federal government will formally advance the process for the development of new operating guidelines. Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, pictured here at a press conference in Lake Mead last month, on Monday praised states for "leadership and unity of purpose in developing this consensus-based approach." (Photo: Jeniffer Solis)
After months of negotiations, seven Western states along the Colorado River have agreed to water cuts over the next three years to help keep two of the main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, from falling to critically low levels — but those cuts fall short of what scientists say are needed to stabilize the river in the long-term.
Under the proposal — drafted by California, Nevada, and Arizona — the three Lower Basin states agreed to collectively reduce water use by at least 3 million acre-feet by the end of 2026, when the Colorado River’s current operating guidelines are set to expire.
The three Lower Basin states will need to cut at least 1.5 million acre-feet of water use by the end of 2024 to meet goals, according to the states.
Last year, however, federal officials called for a reduction of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, to address the unresolved water shortfall and the effects of climate change.
Federal water managers say this year’s large snowpack will help alleviate drought throughout the West, but it will not be enough to pull the Southwest out of drought entirely.
On Monday, representatives for the seven states that rely on the Colorado River announced they had reached the consensus-based plan they say will cut water usage by about 14% across the Southwest over three years. But federal officials have said Colorado River water use needs to be cut by about 15% to 30% per year to ensure the long-term viability of the river.
Conservation groups highlighted the need for further cuts to save the Colorado River. Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, called the agreement “another stopgap measure to quell hostilities among the states.”
“The math of this deal appears to be an attempt by the Lower Basin to address the structural deficit and other accounting shortcomings for the near-term. The long-term equation — with climate change devastating river hydrology at every turn — is much more difficult to solve,” Roerink said.
The Colorado River serves about 40 million people throughout the West. Water from the river is divided among Lower and Upper Basin states, including California, Arizona and Nevada, and Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico.
Each basin is allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of water, for a total of 15 million acre-feet. A typical U.S. suburban household uses about one acre-foot of water annually. However, Lower Basin states — Nevada, Arizona, and California — routinely use nearly all their 7.5 million acre-feet Colorado River allocation compared to the 4.5 million acres-feet used by the upper basin states, according to state water managers.
Those water allocations are based on a faulty century-old model that assumed the river system could supply 15 million acre-feet annually. Today, officials acknowledge only 12.4 million acre-feet flows from the river each year, and flows continue to shrink due to climate change.
Lake Mead and Lake Powell remain at about 50% of their typical storage levels for this time of year compared to the last 30 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the major dams in the river system.
Still, the agreement this week avoids a costly court battle and mandatory cuts by the feds. States will meet next month to continue negotiations over the future of the river.
The reworking ahead
Last year, the seven basin states missed a federal deadline in August to come up with a unified plan to protect the Colorado River. The states also failed to agree to a plan by a new agreed deadline in January. By April, the Bureau of Reclamation threatened to unilaterally reduce water usage in the Colorado River Basin if state and tribal leaders didn’t reach an agreement by summer.
The Biden administration said the federal Interior Department, which laid out options for larger reductions, will analyze the proposal submitted by California, Nevada, and Arizona. Monday’s agreement will ultimately have to be approved by the Interior Department.
Federal officials have publicly signaled support for the agreement, despite its shortcomings.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland called the agreement a testament to the Biden administration’s commitment to working with states, tribes and communities in the West “to find consensus solutions in the face of climate change and sustained drought.”
The Bureau of Reclamation laid out three water-cutting proposals last month if states did not agree on a solution, including reductions based on senior water rights or equal water cuts spread evenly across all lower Colorado Basin states.
Federal water managers agreed to withdraw their previous proposals on Monday, so they “can fully analyze the effects of the proposal.”
“I commend our partners in the seven Basin states who have demonstrated leadership and unity of purpose in developing this consensus-based approach to achieve the substantial water conservation necessary to sustain the Colorado River System through 2026,” said Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau.
Early next month, the federal government will formally advance the process for the development of new operating guidelines replacing the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead at the end of 2026.
The states agreement comes after years of contentious negotiations, with states refusing to concede even as reservoirs shrunk, threatening drinking water supplies and electricity generation across the West.
In a letter sent to the Bureau of Reclamation states requested the modeling be incorporated into the agency’s larger environmental review of how to operate Glen and Hoover dams at low-water scenarios, which the BuRec plans to finalize in August.
Late last year, representatives for the seven western states who rely on the Colorado River vowed to reach a compromise before the federal government could step in. The governors of California, Nevada, and Arizona praised the agreement announced Monday and emphasized the need for states to work together to address the West’s water woes in the long-term.
“Through this partnership, we look forward to equitably advancing our mutual goal of conserving our shared water resources. It’s never been more important to protect the Colorado River System, and this partnership is a critical next step in our efforts to sustain this essential water supply,” Republican Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo said.
Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs of Arizona said the proposal by Lower Basin states was the result of months of tireless work by state water managers.
“From here, our work must continue to take action and address the long-term issues of climate change and overallocation to ensure we have a sustainable Colorado River for all who rely upon it,” Hobbs said.
California, the sole holdout on a state-led proposal submitted by Colorado River Basin states in January, has made significant cuts to water usage in order to reach the current agreement, said California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“The entire Western United States is on the frontlines of climate change — we must work together to address this crisis and the weather extremes between drought and flood,” Newsom said.
Cities, irrigation districts and Native American tribes will be compensated for 2.3 million acre-feet of water conserved under the agreement, using $1.2 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act. The remaining 700,000 acre-feet of water conservation needed to stabilize the river will have to be achieved through voluntary, uncompensated reductions by the Lower Basin states, according to the Interior.
But exactly how that reduction will be achieved—and who will bear the biggest burden—was not immediately clear.
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