Colorado River agreement punts on drastic cuts and difficult negotiations

The proposal from Arizona, California and Nevada is not a long-term fix, water experts argue.

By: - May 24, 2023 5:00 am
Lake Mead, one of the West's primary sources of water.

Nevada’s Lake Mead, seen here in May 2022, was severely depleted after decades of drought. A new agreement among Arizona, California and Nevada offers a temporary fix to the region’s water issues. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Read more Stateline coverage of how communities across the West are grappling with drought that’s worsening because of climate change.

State and federal officials are celebrating an agreement reached this week by Arizona, California and Nevada to reduce their use of Colorado River water by millions of gallons over the next three years.

But it’s a temporary reprieve.

Bolstered by a winter with heavy rain and snow throughout a region that has suffered two decades of severe drought — and the worst megadrought in 1,200 years — the three-state agreement will spare seven Western states from painful cuts. Negotiators had feared drastic reductions to prop up the depleted river system that provides water to 40 million people, some of the country’s most productive agricultural land and a hydroelectric power apparatus.

Instead, the three states in the Colorado River’s lower basin agreed to reduce their water use by 3 million acre-feet (a unit of measurement that amounts to 326,000 gallons) through the end of 2026. The agreement meets just half of the reductions that federal officials called for during negotiations. Federal officials, however, praised this week’s announcement.

States reached the deal this week after months of tense negotiations, missed deadlines and proposed drastic cuts from the feds if states couldn’t come to a consensus. But soon, talks must restart and states will have to make difficult decisions.

Officials have yet to release specific details of the agreement, but it’s clear that states avoided the fundamental conversations needed to ensure the future of the Colorado River, said Michael Cohen, a senior researcher with the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit that studies water issues.

If not for the wet winter, especially in California, Western states would have had to make more substantial structural changes to the region’s water-sharing compact and accepted far more reductions in their share of the Colorado River, he added.

“It bought them time,” he said. “By doing so, they skirted the big issues. We didn’t buy ourselves time; Mother Nature gave us some time.”

Western states agree to Colorado River water-sharing agreement

The Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency housed at the Interior Department, still must run an environmental analysis of the proposal from the three lower basin states. The four states in the Colorado River’s upper basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — said earlier this week they did not endorse the proposal but supported the submission of a temporary plan.

When negotiations begin next month among all seven states to hammer out Colorado River water-sharing beyond 2026, there will be some challenging conversations about California’s century-old senior water rights, the conservation role that upper basin states play and the agriculture industry’s 80% share of the river system’s water, Cohen added.

This week’s announcement is a “stepping stone” for post-2026 negotiations, said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that raises awareness of the role that water plays in the state’s agriculture industry.

Some of the conservation can come from reducing agricultural use and developing efficient farming technologies, but water reductions also will require investments from urban areas in conserving water and creating new water supplies, he argued.

“Those investments have helped us meet our needs throughout the southern part of California, both in urban and agriculture,” he said. “That’s what needs to happen then in other states.”

Urban areas from Los Angeles to New York depend on the fruits and vegetables of Southern California, he added; California’s Imperial Valley produces two-thirds of the country’s winter vegetables.

For now, state officials are lauding their efforts, especially those that bolster depleted reservoirs including Lake Mead and Lake Powell and build cooperation between state officials.

Colorado River Board of California Chair JB Hamby said in a statement this week that the proposal by Arizona, California and Nevada would result in better protections for the river system than any of the alternatives the federal government offered in recent months.

“California’s water users will work quickly to implement conservation that will protect the system in the near term,” said Hamby, who also serves as California’s Colorado River Commissioner. “At the same time, California will work to address the systemic challenges facing the Colorado River.”

California would be responsible for saving 1.6 million acre-feet of the 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water through 2026. The rest of those savings would come from Arizona (1.1 million acre-feet) and Nevada (285,000 acre-feet).

Even after a wet winter, California is preparing for the next drought

During that time, the federal government will spend $1.2 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act for conservation projects in the three lower basin states, such as lining irrigation ditches, refilling underground aquifers or compensating farmers for fallowing their crops.

Those investments will account for 2.3 million acre-feet of the 3 million acre-feet of reductions. The rest of the cuts would be voluntary from the states.

States rightly hammered out an agreement rather than leaving it to Congress or the courts, said Jim Holway, director of the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a nonprofit that researches effective land stewardship.

But relying on federal dollars is a temporary fix rather than a sustainable strategy for long-term water conservation, he said.

“You shouldn’t be subsidizing the cost of the scarce resource because then people don’t make the right decisions about how to efficiently and effectively use it,” said Holway, who formerly served on the board of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. “That, to me, is not the right way to go.”

As the climate gets drier and warmer, water supplies from the Colorado River will continue to plummet over the coming years. This will require states to make “very hard decisions” not just about water supplies, but around the governance and culture of water use in the West, Holway argued.

“They want to have the growth, but they will continue pretending they live in a frontier with no scarce resources, and everybody can make their own decisions and we don’t need any stinking government to get involved,” he said. “And that’s just ludicrous.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.