May 22, 2023 - Climate

Arizona, California and Nevada agree on proposed Colorado River cuts

Concrete pillars rise out of a lake with a white ring around it showing how far water levels have fallen.

Two of Hoover Dam's four reinforced-concrete structures in Lake Mead. Photo: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Arizona, California, and Nevada have agreed on a historic proposal that would voluntarily conserve 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water through 2026 to alleviate the effects of the ongoing "megadrought" in the Western U.S.

Details: The 3 million acre-feet is in addition to cuts the Colorado River basin states have taken under 2007 and 2019 agreements.

  • In a press briefing Monday, Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) director Tom Buschatzke said it's unclear exactly how much of the 3 million acre-feet would come from Arizona.
  • But between that and other cuts the state is taking from previous agreements, Arizona would account for about 55% of the reduction, compared to roughly 30% for California and 6% for Nevada, Buschatzke said.

What they're saying: "I think this is a great day for Arizona … This is the three states coming together to make a voluntary, consensual proposal ... I think we have found ways to work together," Central Arizona Project (CAP) general manager Brenda Burman said during the press briefing.

Why it matters: The Colorado River basin is experiencing a 23-year drought — the worst in 1,200 years.

  • That drought threatens drinking and agricultural water supplies in the basin states, particularly Arizona, California, and Nevada.
  • Reduced water supplies also threaten the ability of Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam to produce electricity.
  • Burman said the plan calls for "frontloading" 1.5 million acre-feet into Lake Mead through 2024.

Between the lines: CAP, which pipes water from the river to the interior of the state, has already negotiated agreements for 144,000 acre-feet in voluntary cuts with several cities and other entities, including Glendale, Peoria, Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tucson.

  • The Gila River Indian Community has agreed to 125,000 acre-feet in cuts and the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation has agreed to take 14,000, Buschatzke said.

Of note: The federal government will spend $1.2 billion through the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act to compensate cities, tribes, and water districts for much of the conserved water.

  • The U.S. Interior Department said about 2.3 million acre-feet will be compensated.

What's next: The Interior Department must review the plan and submit it for public comment before it can be adopted.

  • "We agreed to a proposal. This is not an agreement," Buschatzke clarified.

Yes, but: The plan only goes through 2026.

  • Buschatzke said it would allow basin states to begin discussions on post-2026 conservation efforts.
  • California will "still have water on the table" after 2026, Burman said, "So in those drier years, we will look to our California partners to have their water on the table."

Catch up quick: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Camille Touton said last year that the basin states needed to conserve an additional 2-4 million acre-feet annually.

  • There was widespread concern that if the states couldn't agree, the bureau would impose a solution.
  • The bureau last month released two proposals, one that would base cuts on the priority of water rights, as California advocated, and another that would evenly distribute cuts.
  • In a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Gov. Katie Hobbs said the proposal would provide greater protection to Lake Mead and Lake Powell than the department's alternatives.

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