Months after the federal government called for action and the first deadline passed, six Western states that depend on water from the Colorado River agreed on a model to drastically reduce water use in the basin.
California — with the largest allocation of water from the river — is the lone holdout. Officials said the state would release its plan.
The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to 40 million people and a $5 billion agricultural sector flowing through seven states and into Mexico. The river, which has been severely stressed by drought, demand, and overuse, is a source of livelihood for some of the greatest cities in the nation, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, and Las Vegas, two states in Mexico, Native American tribes, and others.
States failed to respond to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s request for proposals on how to preserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water by the deadline of mid-August. By the end of January, they got back together and agreed to incorporate it into a more extensive proposal that Reclamation was working on.
Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming sent a letter to Reclamation, the agency in charge of running the major dams in the river system, on Monday outlining a substitute that improves upon current regulations, deepens water cuts and takes water lost to evaporation and transportation into account.
These states want to raise the thresholds that would cause water reductions at the river’s health indicators, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The model gives the most excellent reservoirs constructed in the United States more of a protective buffer.
Additionally, it aims to correct water accounting and guarantee that any water that the Lower Basin states purposefully keep in Lake Mead is accessible for use in the future.
According to the simulation, the Lower Basin would experience cutbacks of around 2 million acre-feet, while the Upper Basin would experience lower cuts. The calculations consider Mexico and California, none of which signed the letter from Monday. According to Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager John Entsminger, all states have been bargaining in good faith.
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“I don’t view not having unanimity at one step in that process to be a failure,” he said late Monday. “I think all seven states are still committed to working together.”
California proposed cutting 400,000-acre feet last October. Two to three American households could live off one acre-foot of water for a year. California will present a plan for water reductions in the basin that is workable, based on voluntary action, and in compliance with the law governing the river and the hierarchy of water rights, according to JB Hamby, chair of the Colorado River Board of California.
“California remains focused on practical solutions that can be implemented now to protect volumes of water in storage without driving conflict and litigation,” he said in a statement Monday.
Concerning the agreement made among the six states, nothing will happen right now. However, disagreeing faced the possibility of leaving final-cut implementation to the federal government’s discretion.
There have been heated discussions over how to reduce water use by about one-third. The Lower Basin states, Arizona, California, and Nevada, according to the Upper Basin states of Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, must shoulder the bulk of the work. What’s lawful and what’s fair have been the main discussion topics in the Lower Basin.
The six states that agreed to the concept on Monday understood that some of their suggestions might not be included in the ultimate plans for using the river’s largest dams. They stated that negotiations were still going on and that their proposal did not supersede any already-existing claims to the Colorado River made by states and other parties.
Entsminger of Nevada stated that numerous actions and pledges must be made at the federal, state, and municipal levels. The plan presented on Monday includes considering the water lost to evaporation and leaky infrastructure as the river passes through the dams and waterways of the area.
More than 10% of the river’s flow, according to federal officials, is lost to evaporation, leaks, or spills. However, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico have never provided an accounting for this water loss.
The six states maintained that whenever Lake Mead’s elevation drops below 1,145 feet, Lower Basin states should share those losses with them, thereby deducting those sums from their allotments (349 meters). On Monday, the reservoir was significantly lower.
The agreement between the six states will be taken into account by Reclamation as part of a bigger plan to change how the massive Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams on the Colorado River are operated. A more than two-decade-long drought and climate change have caused the reservoirs behind the dams, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, to reach unprecedented lows.
By early March, Reclamation intends to release a draft of that proposal to finalize it by mid-August, when the organization usually discloses the water available for the upcoming year. Reclamation has stated that it will take the necessary steps to ensure that the dams can continue to provide water and generate energy.
For the previous two years, Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico in the river’s Lower Basin have been forced to make obligatory cuts due to those yearly pronouncements made in August.
Due to its most extended and reliable water rights—particularly in the Imperial Valley, where most of the nation’s winter vegetables are grown—and its proximity to Yuma, Arizona, California, has been exempt from cuts.
The six states’ approach can only go so far in addressing the river’s hydrological reality without California’s involvement. According to water managers in the Lower Basin, California, tribes, and farmers who directly access the Colorado River are necessary for the magnitude of conservation that Reclamation requests.
The amount Mexico will ultimately contribute to the savings is still unknown. Mexico received its full allotment of 1.5 million acre-feet during the best water years as per a 1944 pact with the United States.
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