A landmark deal to prevent the Colorado River from drying up for now (2023)


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The cut deal, aided by a wet winter and $1.2 billion in federal payments, expires at the end of 2026.

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A landmark deal to prevent the Colorado River from drying up for now (1)

VonChristopher Flavelle

Reporting from Washington

Arizona, California and Nevada have agreed to cut water withdrawals from the drought-stricken Colorado River. For now, this landmark agreement prevents the river from sinking so low as to threaten the water supply of major western cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles, as well as some of America's most productive farmland.

TheagreementThe law, announced Monday, requires the federal government to pay about $1.2 billion to irrigation districts, cities and Indian tribes in three states if they temporarily use less water. States also agreed to make cuts beyond those tied to federal payments to achieve the overall reductions needed to prevent the river from collapsing.

Together, those reductions would amount to about 13 percent of total water use in the Lower Colorado Basin -- one of the most aggressive the region has ever seen and likely requiring significant water restrictions for residential and agricultural purposes.

The Colorado River supplies drinking water to 40 million Americans in seven states and part of Mexico and irrigates 5.5 million hectares of agricultural land. Electricity generated by hydroelectric dams on the river's two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, powers millions of homes and businesses.

But drought, population growth and climate change have reduced the river's flow by a third compared to the historical average in recent years and threaten to causebreakdown of water and electricityacross the west.

The Colorado River is shrinking. Look at what is consuming all the water. Note: It's less about taking a long shower and more about what's for dinner.

California, Arizona and Nevada get their share of water from Lake Mead, which was formed by the Colorado River at Hoover Dam and is controlled by the federal government. The Bureau of Reclamation, an agency of the Department of the Interior, determines how much water each of the three states receives. Other states that depend on the Colorado get their water directly from the river and its tributaries.

"This is an important step forward toward our shared goal of finding a sustainable path for the basin that millions of people call home," Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in a statement.

The agreement reached over the weekend is only valid until the end of 2026 and has yet to be formally adopted by the federal government. At that point, all seven states that depend on the river -- including Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming -- could face more stress as the decline is likely to continue.

The Colorado talks were prompted by a crisis: Last summer, water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs along the river, dropped so low that officials feared the hydroelectric plants they power could soon shut down.

There was even a danger that the level of the reservoirs would drop so much that the water would no longer reach the inlet valves that control the outflow from the lake, and the river downstream would practically dry up.

Given this possibility, the Ministry of Interior asked seven states to do so last JuneFind a wayreduce their water consumption by two to four million hectares of water per year. (An acrefoot is about as much water as two to three homes use annually.) The states could not reach an agreement, even though water levels in the two reservoirs remained dangerously low.


This inertia prompted the federal government to lay the groundwork for itunilaterally impose cuts on those countries. To add to the pressure, the Home Office said last month it could ditch the centuries-old rules governing which states should bear the brunt of the cuts and come up with a different formula instead.

The federal government has given the federal states until May 30 to comment on possible unilateral cuts. But behind closed doors, the Biden administration has been negotiating with states to reach a deal and avoid cuts that would surely create legal challenges and ultimately delay any action.

Under the agreement announced Monday, most of the cuts (2.3 million acre-feet) would come from water districts, farm operators, cities and Indian tribes agreeing to withdraw less water to qualify for federal inflation-adjusted subsidies in 2022 to qualified reduction law. In total, these payments are about 1.2 billion dollars.

Another 700,000 acre feet will come from California, Nevada and Arizona, which have agreed to negotiate cuts among themselves over the coming months. (Under the terms of the agreement, up to 200,000 acre feet of those cuts could be offset through other federal programs, but those agreements have yet to be finalized.)

If states don't identify those 700,000 acre feet as additional cuts, the Interior Department said it would withhold the water, a move that could pose legal and political challenges.

Combined, the cuts would save three million acre feet over the next three and a half years, above existing agreements. On an annual basis, that's far less than the federal government asked for last summer.

The Interior Department was able to negotiate less drastic cuts thanks to an unusually wet winter that left the Colorado Basin with well-above-average snowpack.especially in California. Because of this, the amount of water in the river is likely to increase significantly, at least temporarily.

The terms of the deal were explained to the New York Times by a senior Interior Department official who was involved in the negotiations and spoke on condition of anonymity. The Washington Postreported on elements of the deal last week.

The structure of the deal allows the Biden administration to sidestep the question of which states will bear the brunt of the cuts for now.

The Interior Department declined to provide a breakdown showing how many of the 2.3 million acre feet of federally compensated voluntary cuts will come from each state. And finding an additional 700,000 acre-feet remains a problem for the three downstream states to solve.


As a result, what until recently looked like a cage fight between states has produced an outcome that is more tolerable, if not happy, for the states involved.

The 1922 rules governing the river stated that much of Arizona's supply from the Colorado River would be reduced to almost zero before California encountered restrictions. Even if Arizona's water supply would still be significantly reduced, the agreement effectively removes the threat of drastic cuts.

"I'm very pleased with this proposal," Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the state's chief negotiator in the talks, said Monday. - I think there is a lot of justice in that.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, called the agreement a positive step, but it can only mean a delay in implementation. We could be back in that danger zone before 2026, she said.

California is also doing better than it would otherwise. The Ministry of the Interior has promised thisReduce each state's supply equallyas a percentage of total usage. Because California uses more Colorado water than any other state, it would lose the most — a shock to Southern California farmers as well as cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. Relying heavily on voluntary reductions circumvents this problem.

Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River resource manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said the deal could provide several years of stability for Los Angeles, San Diego and other California cities that depend on Colorado water.

A bigger challenge will be reaching an agreement after 2026, when the federal government may not be willing to commit as much money to water conservation and states can no longer expect winters with heavy rain and snow. "We know the future is going to be drier than the past," Mr. Hasencamp said.

The deal is also a victory of sorts for the Biden administration, which has at times seemed uncertain how to respond to the growing crisis. In the past year, it twice set deadlines for the states to reach an agreement, but they did not meet them. The Interior Department said the agreement shows states are capable of working with the federal government to meet the challenge of Colorado's decline.

And this idea will soon be put to the test. The ministry said its next step would be to study the implications of the deals struck by states before deciding how to proceed. Meanwhile, the next round of talks on what to do after 2026 is due to start next month.

Jack Healy contributed reporting from Phoenix.

The correction has been made

May 22, 2023


In a previous version of this article, the last name of the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources was misspelled. He is Tom Buschaztke, not Buschaztke.

How we handle corrections

Christopher Flavelle is the Washington climate reporter for The Times, focusing on how people, governments and industries are trying to cope with the effects of global warming. @cflav

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