US states agree to use less from Colorado River to avoid water crisis

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US states agree to use less from Colorado River to avoid water crisis


A stretch of the Colorado River cutting through sandstone walls and canyons

2020 Nora Connors Photography/Shutterstock

A temporary plan to save the Colorado River is shaping up after months of heated debate. The plan represents a breakthrough in negotiations over how to use less water from the overdrawn river, but is still a far cry from solving the water crisis facing the western US.

The proposed plan would see California, Arizona and Nevada – states that rely on the river’s lower basin – reduce the amount of water they take by at least 3 million acre-feet between now and 2026. Half of that would be conserved by the end of 2024, according to a letter sent by the states to the US Department of the Interior on 22 May.

The Colorado River supplies water for more than 40 million people. The majority of these new cuts – 2.3 million acre-feet – would come from reductions in water use in cities, Native American tribes and irrigation districts. The total cuts are equivalent to around 13 per cent of total water use in the lower basin states, and would be compensated by $1.2 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act, according to the New York Times.

California, Arizona and Nevada would be responsible for finding places to cut the remaining 700,000 acre-feet themselves. The four states that rely on the river’s upper basin – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – have said they support the consideration of the proposal by the US federal government, but have not endorsed the plan.

After decades of megadrought and overuse, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two major reservoirs on the river, faced record low levels. Water officials warned without cuts the reservoirs could get so low that water would not be able to flow past the dams and produce energy.

In June 2022, US officials said states would have to come up with a plan to cut between 2 and 4 million-acre feet or face mandated cuts, setting off months of intense negotiations and two missed deadlines to propose a plan.

The new proposal was aided by what has turned out to be an extremely wet year in the western US, which has made reductions in water use easier to stomach, says Sarah Porter at Arizona State University.

While the proposal represents a breakthrough in negotiations, it would still have to be agreed to by the US government and other states. And the plan says nothing about what might happen after 2026, when the rules that divvy up water on the river are set for a major renegotiation. “This is an attempt to keep the system functional,” says Porter.

The seven states that rely on the river to irrigate farms and provide drinking water for millions of people recognised as much in their letter to the federal government: “One good winter does not solve the systemic challenges facing the Colorado River.

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