Western US states reach deal on Colorado River conservation

Arizona, California and Nevada agree to cut water usage from the Colorado River by 13 percent over three years.

An aerial view of Lake Powell is seen, where water levels have declined dramatically, revealing lines in the surrounding rock where water once reached
Water levels at Lake Powell, one of the reservoirs on the Colorado River, have reached record lows amid ongoing drought [File: Caitlin Ochs/Reuters]

Seven states have reached a “historic consensus” on conserving water from the Colorado River in the western United States, a breakthrough in a region where persistent drought has made water allocation a point of debate.

In a statement on Monday, the US Department of the Interior (DOI) said that the three states that make up the Colorado River Basin — Arizona, California and Nevada — had agreed to voluntary measures to conserve 3 million acre-feet of water, or 3.7 billion cubic metres, through 2026. That amounts to using approximately 13 percent less water over three years.

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“There are 40 million people, seven states, and 30 Tribal Nations who rely on the Colorado River Basin for basic services such as drinking water and electricity,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a press release on Monday.

“Today’s announcement is a testament to the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to working with states, Tribes and communities throughout the West to find consensus solutions in the face of climate change and sustained drought.”

As climate change exacerbates drought in the western US, water flow along the Colorado River has tumbled by approximately 20 percent since the 1900s.

Facing the prospect of the river’s collapse, states that rely on the river have sparred over how to decrease their usage and which areas should accept the steepest reductions.

Questions have also emerged over the role of Indigenous communities, who were historically excluded from conversations about the river and water usage.

The federal government has sought to mediate between various states, and the DOI press release does not offer details regarding the apportionment of cuts.

The upper basin of the river includes the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, with California, Arizona and Nevada in the lower basin.

Monday’s deal was reached when all seven states agreed to a proposal that would temporarily avert the possibility of the US Bureau of Reclamation imposing mandatory cuts on the lower basin states.

In a statement on Monday, President Joe Biden linked the deal, which he called an “important step forward”, to larger efforts his administration has taken to combat climate change and improve infrastructure, lauding the “record resources to support water conservation and improve the Colorado River’s long-term sustainability”.

In exchange for the 3 million acre-feet (3.7 billion cubic metres) in water usage reductions, California, Arizona, and Nevada will receive $1.2bn in federal compensation, according to the terms of the deal.

JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said in a statement that California alone would account for about 1.6 million acre-feet (2 billion cubic metres) in cuts.

In recent years, water reservoirs in the region have reached record lows amid a decades-long drought. Climate change, as well as growing demand and overuse, have fuelled the plummeting water levels.

While an especially rainy winter season has temporarily eased drought concerns in California, water access is expected to be an ongoing challenge for the western US for years to come.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies