Colorado River states strike deal to save water, hydropower

By Jennifer Yachnin | 05/22/2023 01:45 PM EDT

The proposal put forward by Arizona, California and Nevada would temporarily cut use of Colorado River water in exchange for $1.2 billion in payments from the federal government.

The Colorado River flows at Horseshoe Bend in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

The Colorado River flows at Horseshoe Bend in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on June 8, 2022, in Page, Ariz. Brittany Peterson/AP Photo

This story was updated at 4:16 p.m. EDT.

Colorado River states announced a deal Monday that would reduce water deliveries to California, Arizona and Nevada to ensure enough water remains in major reservoirs to preserve hydropower generation in the drought-plagued river.

State officials from the three Lower Basin states announced their agreement Monday in a letter to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton, following nearly a year of contentious negotiations about how to share the pain of reductions in water use. The Biden administration touted the “historic” proposal, which would require the federal government to give $1.2 billion to the three states and other users taking cuts.


The cuts would be shared by both farmers and municipalities, which tap the river for drinking water. Although the deal would represent significant reductions in water use, an unexpectedly wet winter staved off the need for more aggressive reductions in the Lower Basin. Record snowpacks and subsequent spring runoff have boosted water levels in the river basin and its reservoirs.

President Joe Biden celebrated the agreement, saying in a statement the deal “marks an important step forward in our efforts to protect the stability of the Colorado River System in the face of climate change and historic drought conditions.”

The deal — which relies on a series of existing agreements set to expire in 2026 — would save up to 3 million acre-feet of water over three years. The proposal starts with an aggressive bid to conserve at least half of its total by the end of 2024, but state and federal officials did not detail how the plan will make those cuts.

The plan calls for the federal government to provide payments for the first 2.3 million acre-feet set aside through the Inflation Reduction Act for drought mitigation efforts.

An acre-foot of water would fill a football field to a depth of 1 foot. A million acre-feet of water would provide about 3 million families with fresh water for a year.

The agreement must still be approved by the Interior Department, which announced it would put an emergency planning process on hold while it conducts a National Environmental Policy Act review of the proposal.

“For over a century, Reclamation has led with solutions grounded in partnership and collaboration. The agreement today continues in this tradition,” Touton said in a statement. “I am proud of the Reclamation team’s work and thank our partners across the basin and the Basin states representatives for reaching this moment. This is an important step forward towards our shared goal of forging a sustainable path for the basin that millions of people call home.”

Interior released its own emergency plan last month to cut 2.083 million acre-feet of water through 2026.

That proposal — an update of the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines, which dictate how much water is withdrawn from each reservoir based on its current surface elevation — had faced a May 30 deadline for public comment. But Interior announced the process will be suspended while it reviews the Lower Basin state plan, and it will finalize a supplemental environmental impact statement later this year.

Although the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming did not endorse the Lower Basin plan, all seven states asked the Biden administration to conduct a full review of theproposal in a joint letter.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo (R) and Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) also praised the proposal in their own letter.

“The proposal’s emphasis on early and large contributions reduces the risk of Lake Mead and Lake Powell declining to critically low elevations and is accomplished through voluntary agreements with a diverse range of Arizona, California, and Nevada water users that include Tribes, cities, and agriculture,” the governors wrote.

In recent decades, drought has decimated flows in the Colorado River, shrinking supplies in both Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

In addition to ensuring water supplies to Arizona, California and Nevada, the reservoirs also produce hydropower for much of the West.

John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, acknowledged the proposal is only a short-term plan to address shortfalls. Officials are preparing to write a new operating plan for the river basin before the current one expires in 2026.

“The plan set forth by the Lower Basin States is not a panacea for the river, but rather a consensus solution that will help manage near-term water demands while serving as a bridge to negotiate the post-2026 operating criteria,” Entsminger said in a statement. “The Colorado River Basin has a warmer and drier future ahead and reducing water use, increasing water efficiency, and maximizing water recycling and reuse is paramount to a sustainable future for the 40 million people that depend upon this critical water supply.”

The proposal is also an apparent attempt to remove the Lower Basin states from the threat of cuts mandated from the Interior Department, which the Biden administration had suggested it could do.

In a joint statement, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and Central Arizona Project said the agreement was made possible due to the wet winter, which left behind record snowpacks that have begun to offer relief — but is not expected to fully replenish lakes Mead and Powell.

“This proposal protects the system in the short term so we can dedicate our energy and resources to a longer-term solution,” said Central Arizona Project General Manager Brenda Burman, who served as Reclamation commissioner in the Trump administration. “New guidelines for operating the river system will be due by the end of 2026. There’s a lot to do and it’s time to focus.”

J.B. Hamby, chair of the Colorado River Board of California, also pointed to the states’ “strategic use of the improved hydrology” to secure the agreement.

Disagreements over how to share reductions in the Colorado River water supply had focused heavily on whether California, the system’s largest user, should share the brunt of cuts with Arizona and Nevada.

Arizona and Nevada are considered “junior” in status to California, meaning that water users there would see their supplies cut first in times of shortage.

But relying on existing agreements among the states, and the higher spring flows, negates proposals that could have imposed more severe reductions on California and likely spurred a host of lawsuits.

The Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California, which is the largest user of the river, with a claim to 3.1 million acre-feet, praised the proposal.

The irrigation district would give up 250,000 acre-feet per year under voluntary programs, as part of a package of previously outlined conservation programs by major water agencies to save 1.6 million acre-feet of water over four years.

“IID is pleased that the Lower Basin States have come to consensus with the development of a plan that is based on voluntary, achievable conservation volumes that will help protect critical Colorado River reservoir elevations, and in particular Lake Mead, which IID is reliant upon for 100 percent of the Imperial Valley’s water supplies,” Henry Martinez, the district general manager, said in a statement.