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Biden Administration and States Along Colorado River Strike Historic Water Conservation Deal


In an effort to tackle the pressing water crisis in the Western United States, the Biden Administration, along with the states along the Colorado River, has reached a groundbreaking agreement to conserve an unprecedented amount of the river's precious water supply.

The deal, announced on May 22, sees the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada pledging to save an additional 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River Water by the end of 2026. This amounts to about 13 percent of their total water allocation from the river. In exchange for their commitment, the federal government has agreed to compensate the three states for three-quarters of the water savings, a sum of around $1.2 billion. The funds will be sourced from the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act and will be used to support Native American tribes, farmers, cities, and other stakeholders who voluntarily forgo their water supplies.

The Colorado River is a lifeline for the region, but it has faced immense challenges over the last two decades. Severe droughts, population growth, and climate change have taken a toll on its water supply. The three Lower Basin states, recognizing the gravity of the situation, have agreed to temporarily reduce their water usage to prevent water levels from plummeting to a critical level that could jeopardize major cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix, as well as productive farmlands.

The negotiations leading to this agreement were not without their hurdles, with almost a year of talks and missed deadlines. The plan aims to safeguard two of the largest reservoirs in the US, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which have suffered from the river's diminished natural water flow, down by approximately 20 percent due to recent droughts. In fact, during the summer of 2022, water levels fell so drastically that officials were concerned about the functioning of the hydroelectric turbines.

Earlier, in June 2022, the federal government urged the seven states that rely on the Colorado River, including Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming, to find ways to reduce their water usage by two to four million acre-feet per year. However, no consensus was reached among the states, and the federal government even considered unilateral water cuts last summer. Fortunately, behind closed doors, negotiations were underway to avoid imposing cuts that could lead to legal challenges and further delays.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland praised the agreement as a testament to the Biden-Harris administration's commitment to finding consensus solutions amidst climate change and persistent droughts, emphasizing the importance of water access to millions of people, tribal nations, and communities in the Colorado River Basin.

Although this agreement is a significant step forward, it is not the final outcome. The deal still needs formal adoption by the federal government, and parties have also agreed to a new proposal that will undergo analysis by the Interior Department. The ultimate challenge lies ahead as all seven states relying on the Colorado River may face an even deeper water reckoning by 2026.

While a wet winter helped alleviate the crisis to some extent, it is not a long-term solution. The demand for water still far exceeds its supply. Climate scientist Wei Zhang highlights that the heavy snow and rain from the past winter will boost the river's stream flow, but it won't be sufficient to address the underlying water problem.

As the negotiations continue, the future of the Colorado River remains uncertain. It's a battle against time and nature, and all parties involved must strive to find sustainable solutions to ensure this vital waterway doesn't run dry.

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