LAS VEGAS — The Biden administration signed agreements with California water agencies Wednesday to conserve a significant share of water through 2025, part of a larger effort to stave off potential disaster in the drought-stricken Colorado River Basin.
The deals, including some expected to be signed as soon as next week, will save 643,000 acre-feet of water — nearly 210 billion gallons — in Lake Mead, the Bureau of Reclamation said.
The conservation efforts will cost taxpayers about $295 million, drawn from funds already allocated by Congress for the Colorado River Basin in the Inflation Reduction Act.
“We all are aware of the risks the basin is facing and fully understand what the results of inaction could be,” Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said after signing contracts with the Coachella Valley Water District to save up to 105,000 acre-feet of water and Quechan Indian Tribe to save 39,000 acre-feet.
Shoring up water levels in the Colorado River, including in lakes Mead and Powell, has been a priority for the Biden administration, both to keep water flowing to communities and farms and ensure electricity generation continues at the reservoir’s hydropower dams.
Touton also appeared with leaders of the Imperial Irrigation District to commemorate a recently signed deal to save 100,000 acre-feet of water in 2023.
An acre-foot of water is equal to about 326,000 gallons, about the amount needed by two to three families for an entire year.
“The fact remains we need to keep working. Because inaction is not an option,” added Touton, who this week is attending the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference, a marquee event for water managers that draws federal, state and tribal leadership.
To date, the Biden administration has executed to 21 water conservation contracts, including 18 in Arizona that will save nearly 349,000 acre-feet in water in Lake Mead in 2023, and up to 984,000 acre-feet of water through 2026.
The Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada pledged earlier this year to save up to 3 million acre-feet of water as part of an emergency effort after severe drought threatened to drain major reservoirs to catastrophic levels.
But the reductions are not easy, noted Bart Fisher, president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District, who said it would require nearly 30 percent of agricultural land to be fallowed in his California region near the Arizona border.
“But if we can stabilize the river … it is worthwhile, because it secures our own water future,” Fisher said.
California claims the largest share of the Colorado River — and some of its oldest rights, meaning it is the last in line to take cuts when reductions are necessary — and has historically shown reticence to give up any of its flows.
But Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to cities in Southern California, touted his state’s efforts to conserve water in the face of persistent drought.
“This is recognizing the fact that California is a leader in the Colorado River system protection,” he said. “We’re doing things in California that are leading the pack.”