What to know as Colorado River states reach deal on cuts, start long-term negotiations
The seven U.S. states that use water from the Colorado River — overallocated and shrinking in supply with a warming climate — reached a short-term deal Monday that officials say will avert a near-term shortage across a watershed that supports about 40 million people in the Southwest.
In a letter Monday, negotiators for the states, including Nevada, outlined a consensus proposal for federal officials to consider as they look to stabilize Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the river’s main reservoirs, which reached record lows during the worst prolonged drought in 1,200 years.
The plan commits the three states that draw on Lake Mead — Arizona, California and Nevada — to conserve 3 million acre-feet of water over the next three years as the negotiators turn their attention to long-term planning for the river. The guidelines that dictate how the river’s complex system of reservoirs are managed, including during times of shortage, are set to expire in 2026.
While the 3 million acre-foot deal represents a significant cut over three years, it is far less than the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of annual cuts the U.S. government said was necessary last year (an acre-foot is the volume of water that can fill roughly one football field to a depth of 1 foot).
Conditions have improved since the winter, with a flurry of storms bringing much-needed snow to the region. The Colorado River relies on a strong snowpack, which runs off during the spring and feeds the river’s tributaries. Experts, scientists and water managers emphasize, however, that one year of strong snowpack cannot alone solve the long-term shortage on the river.
In an interview, John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said he believes the deal “is sufficient to get us through the end of 2026,” while noting more work needs to be done in the coming years to prepare for a hotter and drier future in the Southwest.
The governors of Arizona, California and Nevada released a joint press release Monday backing the proposed deal. In the statement, Gov. Joe Lombardo applauded the deal and said “we look forward to equitably advancing our mutual goal of conserving our shared water resources.”
President Joe Biden released a statement praising the deal, as did members of the state’s federal delegation, including Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV), vice chair of the congressional Colorado River caucus.
Here’s what you need to know about the proposal and what it represents:
The proposal is part of a process and needs to be analyzed: The seven states agreed to a consensus-based framework for cuts, but the proposal will not be implemented immediately. It comes as the federal government goes through an environmental review analyzing how to cut water on the river. Arizona and California officials must also finalize contracts with water users.
A draft of the environmental review, in April, looked at two bookend options, but it left open the possibility that states could present their own alternative. The framework released Monday represents that alternative, which came out of talks with federal officials in the U.S. Department of Interior.
In order to be implemented, the federal government needs to analyze the state plan as part of its environmental review process and issue what is known as a “record of decision.”
“First of all, this is a proposal, not an agreement,” said Tom Buschatzke, who leads the Arizona Department of Water Resources and helped with negotiating the deal. “There’s a big difference.”
In other words, the proposal still needs to be analyzed before it becomes a binding action.
Assuming that the deal is implemented, though, here’s generally what it would do: In total, it would cut 3 million acre-feet of water, with 1.5 million acre-feet conserved by the end of 2024.
Most of the cuts, up to 2.3 million acre-feet, will be funded through a program known as system conservation. That program provides compensation to water users, including Native American tribes, farmers and municipalities, for conserving water. The plan would rely on federal funding approved in the Inflation Reduction Act, which set aside $4.6 billion for the Colorado River. The New York Times reported that the federal government is prepared to allocate about $1.2 billion.
The other portion of water could be compensated in small part by the federal government or by states and local governments, according to the framework proposal. A portion of water might also be conserved through banking water in Lake Mead for future use. If water is left in Lake Mead, the plan would require it to stay there until at least 2027, buoying reservoir elevations.
Where does that leave Nevada? Southern Nevada receives an annual allocation of 300,000 acre-feet of water, the smallest allocation of the Colorado River. But Las Vegas depends on the Colorado River, the source of 90 percent of its drinking water. During the past two decades, Las Vegas officials have reduced per capita water consumption through aggressive conservation.
Through recycling indoor water, converting turf to desert landscaping and removing decorative irrigation, the water agency has consumed less than its full river allocation in recent years. That means Southern Nevada has a buffer to absorb some of the cuts contemplated in the plan.
“The fact that the state with 1.8 percent [of the river] is positioned to make significant contributions to a conservation plan like this is a testament to our community’s conservation efforts over the last 20-plus years,” Entsminger said, noting that Las Vegas used about 225,000 acre-feet last year.
Under the proposal, the water authority expects to conserve about 285,000 acre-feet of water over the next three years, about the amount of Nevada’s entire allocation in any given year.
The plan is a short-term fix that builds on existing law: The deal doubles down on efforts that Colorado River users have employed to address shortages during the past two decades. It does not make dramatic changes to how water is allocated, unlike some of the options that the federal government was weighing. But past plans did not always go far enough to stave off the extreme drought conditions that were facing the Colorado River over the past several years.
The proposal Monday builds off a 2007 agreement known as the Interim Guidelines, a plan that laid out how water users would share cuts in the case of shortages. Those plans, which expire in 2026, did not go far enough and were supplemented by Drought Contingency Plans in 2019.
Last year, federal officials called for even further cuts to meet the shortages. Until Monday, the seven states, however, were unable to publicly reach a short-term deal on how cuts would be divided, especially within a water rights system that gave water users in California a priority to water over Arizona’s major diversion, a 336-mile canal known as the Central Arizona Project. The canal runs through Phoenix to Tucson, delivering water to cities, tribes, businesses and agricultural users.
There remain major questions about the river’s long-term future: Now, the seven states are turning their focus to the next iteration of guidelines, when the current rules expire in 2026.
In the letter Monday, all seven states called on the federal government to begin a formal process for the larger negotiations by July. Such negotiations will be closely scrutinized and are likely to address unanswered questions fundamental to how the seven states, 30 Native American tribes and Mexico will share the Colorado River in a future where the region is more arid.
Those negotiators will also have to address deep inequities embedded into the Colorado River’s current operating system, including how water is shared, a lack of representation for tribal water rights and foundational rules that rarely prioritize the ecological values of the river.
Buschatzke said that the proposed agreement was a positive sign that those talks can start on the right tone — and with enough water in the large reservoirs to prevent the focus from quickly shifting to a short-term crisis. Without a consensus-based deal, he said the federal government would have acted on its own, likely leading to legal posturing, making collaboration harder.
“By avoiding that,” Buschatzke said, “I think we have a better kickoff for the discussions of the post-2026 when we are not necessarily at odds and arguing over those legal positions.”