“Life or death” negotiations result in an agreement to prevent the Colorado River from drying up for the time being

washington • The Biden administration has brokered a hard-fought deal between California, Arizona and Nevada to draw less water from the drought-stricken Colorado River. For now, this agreement reduces the risk of the river drying up downstream of Hoover Dam, which would otherwise jeopardize water supplies for Phoenix, Los Angeles and some of America’s most productive agricultural areas.

The agreement, announced Monday, would see the federal government pay about $1.2 billion to irrigation districts, cities and Native American tribes across the three states if they temporarily use less water. The states have also agreed to make further cuts beyond that amount to meet the overall reduction needed to protect against the river’s collapse.

Collectively, these reductions would account for about 13% of total water use in the Lower Colorado Basin – one of the most aggressive on record in the region and likely to require significant water restrictions for residential and agricultural use.

The Colorado River provides drinking water to 40 million Americans in seven states and part of Mexico and irrigates 5.5 million hectares of farmland. The 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 rates by a third compared to historical averages in recent years and threaten to trigger a water and electricity catastrophe in the west.

California, Arizona and Nevada get their water share from Lake Mead, which is 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. The other states that depend on the Colorado get their water directly from the river and its tributaries.

The agreement reached over the weekend only runs until the end of 2026 and has yet to be officially 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 deeper stress as the decline is likely to continue.

Negotiations on the Colorado were fueled 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 water turbines they power could soon stop operating .

There was even a risk that the level of the reservoirs would drop so low that the water would no longer reach the inlet valves that control the outflow from the lakes – effectively drying up the river downstream.

With that prospect in mind, the Department of the Interior last June called on the seven states to find a way to reduce their water use by 2 to 4 million acres of water a year. (An acrefoot is about as much water as two to three homes use in a year.) The states were unable to reach an agreement, although water levels in the two reservoirs remained dangerously low.

That inertia prompted the federal government to lay the groundwork for unilaterally imposing cuts on those states. To add to the pressure, the ministry said last month it could flout centuries-old rules governing which states should bear the brunt of the cuts and instead come up with a different formula.

The federal government gave the states until May 30 to comment on possible unilateral cuts. But behind closed doors, the Biden administration was negotiating with the 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 Native American tribes that had agreed to withdraw less water to qualify for federal grants as part of the 2022 inflation to qualify reduction law. These payments total approximately $1.2 billion.

Another 700,000 acre-feet would come from California, Nevada and Arizona, who agreed to negotiate the cuts among themselves over the coming months. Otherwise, the Home Office would hold back the water — a move that could pose legal and political challenges.

Combined, the cuts would save 3 million acre-feet over the next three-and-a-half years, exceeding existing agreements. On an annual basis, this is far less than the federal government demanded last summer.

Thanks to an unusually wet winter that left the Colorado Basin, particularly in California, with snowpack well above average, the Interior Department was able to negotiate less drastic cuts. As a result, 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 that his name not be identified. The Washington Post reported elements of the deal last week.

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

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

The rules governing the river, dating back to 1922, stated that much of Arizona’s supply from the Colorado River would be reduced to near zero before reductions occurred in California. Even if Arizona’s water supply would still be significantly reduced, the deal effectively removes the threat of drastic cuts.

California is also doing better than it would have otherwise. The Home Office held out the prospect of an equal cut in each state’s supply in relation to its total consumption. Because California consumes more water from Colorado than any other state, it would have lost the most — a shock to Southern California farmers as well as cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. Relying largely on voluntary reductions circumvents this problem.

The deal is also a win of sorts for the Biden administration, which at times seemed uncertain about how to respond to the growing crisis. In the past year, it twice set deadlines for the states to reach an agreement, but they failed to meet them. The department said the agreement shows states are able to work with the federal government to meet the challenge of Colorado’s decline.

This idea, too, will soon be put to the test. The Home Office has said its next step will be to study the implications of the deal struck by states before deciding how to proceed. In the meantime, the next round of negotiations on what to do after 2026 is due to start next month.

Justin Scaccy

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