Breakthrough deal struck to keep drought-ravaged Colorado River flowing — key water source for California

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Arizona, California and Nevada advanced a proposed plan to cut their use of drought-ravaged Colorado River water for drinking, washing and hydropower over the next three years.

Negotiations around the plan announced Monday have been hard-fought, dividing the states because of big differences in their population size and water use, such as for California’s agricultural needs. California’s ag output includes more than 400 commodities, and over one-third of the U.S.’s vegetables and three-quarters of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown in California.

But now, federal financial assistance and a lift from a snowy winter and spring rains in replenishing the severely reduced river and its vital Lake Mead reservoir reinvigorated talks.

As newly drawn up, the states combined aim to conserve an additional 3 million acre-feet of water from the 1,450-mile river that provides water to 40 million people in seven U.S. states, parts of Mexico and more than two dozen Native American tribes.

An acre-foot is enough water to supply one to two households a year.

The Colorado River also irrigates some 5.5 million acres of farmland. And the electricity generated by dams on the river’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, powers millions of homes and businesses.

At least half the pledged water savings would have to be conserved as soon as 2024, the new plan details. In exchange for temporarily using less water, cities, irrigation districts and Native American tribes in the three main states will receive $1.2 billion in federal funding, though officials have not yet detailed how much might be allotted to respective participants.

In April, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, part of the Interior Department, released a plan that considered two ways to force cuts in the Colorado River supply for Arizona, Nevada and California, which make up the river’s Lower Basin.

One proposal mulled using a decades-old water priority system to reduce usage that would have benefitted California and some Native American tribes with senior water rights. The other would have been a percentage cut across the board to spare Arizona and Nevada, the states with lower-priority rights, from having to shoulder a greater burden.

The Interior Department on Monday said it would pull back these earlier proposals and newly analyze the plan just submitted. The agreement struck over the weekend runs only through the end of 2026, and still needs to be formally adopted by the federal government.

JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said in a statement his state would be responsible for 1.6 million acre-feet in cuts.

No details were immediately provided on how Arizona and Nevada would split the rest.

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The Colorado River has been in crisis owed to a multidecade drought in the western U.S. intensified by climate change, rising demand as Americans move west, and overuse. Those pressures have sent water levels at key reservoirs along the river to unprecedented lows, though they have rebounded somewhat thanks to above-normal precipitation and deep snowpack this winter and early spring.

For instance, in the early months of 2023, mountainous areas of California experienced nearly unprecedented snowfall accumulations — more than 40 feet since the start of the season. At the airport in Flagstaff, Ariz., 11.6 feet of snow had fallen in the winter season, second only to the winter of 1948-49.

But these areas and other parts of the U.S. West have been living with a major freshwater deficit. Levels at Lake Mead — created by Nevada’s Hoover Dam in the 1930s and the largest reservoir among several on the Colorado River — had fallen to record lows; it stood at only one-quarter full in recent years. Already, levels at the manmade water source have been retreating since 1999 in part from increased demand in rising-population areas.

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In recent years, usage cutback agreements hit Arizona the hardest, which lost some 18% of its share from the river in 2022, or 512,000 acre-feet of water. That’s around 8% of the state’s total water use, the Associated Press reported at the time.

California was spared initially from Lake Mead-related cuts because it has more senior water rights than Arizona and Nevada. But California had already implemented its own voluntary drought-related water cutbacks in 2021.

The Associated Press contributed.


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