Colorado River Basin states reach deal to save water, feds to consider

For the first time in years all seven states in the Colorado River Basin agree on a plan to save water from their drying region and it’s enough of a consensus for federal officials to pause their own plan, which would also force cuts.

U.S. Department of the Interior officials announced the seven-state deal Monday morning. As of last week only the lower-basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada had been on board but now the upper-basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have signed on too.

Water experts celebrated the seven states for being able to reach a water-saving deal but noted that it won’t be enough to solve the problem for the drying Colorado River Basin. Rather, they said, it might be enough to last a few years while the states, federal officials and Native American tribes work to find a more permanent solution.

“This is a short-term measure for a long-term problem,” Gage Zobell, a water law expert and partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney, said.

With this agreement, the states have narrowly avoided a federal deadline, after which they could have lost control over their own future. Federal officials said in their release Monday that they’d pause their parallel effort to force cuts in order to study the states’ proposal.

Still, this plan would only save about half of the smallest amount of water the federal government sought to conserve.

As written, the states’ plan would conserve 3 million acre-feet over the next three years, according to Interior’s announcement. Money from the Inflation Reduction Act would be used to pay those who are foregoing their water use.

Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation asked the states last summer to save between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet each year, up to a third of the river’s current flows. Just how low the Colorado River’s typical level might sink each year has yet to be seen. Climate change is exacerbating a decades-long drought and making it permanent, scientists repeatedly warn.

The above-average snowpack this winter at the river’s headwaters might have bought the basin enough time for this short-term solution to work, Rhett Larson, a water law professor at Arizona State University, said. Ongoing negotiations have been difficult, particularly with water managers in Arizona and California, the two biggest water users in the basin and therefore the two states with the most to lose.

“A little bit of extra water lowers the tension,” Larson said.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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