Millions of people across the American West can breathe a sigh of relief this week. On Monday, after months of negotiations, the seven states in the Colorado River Basin announced a deal with the Biden administration on use of the waterway. The Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada agreed to conserve 3 million acre-feet of water over the next three years — amounting to 13 percent of their total apportionment — with the administration compensating them for three-quarters of the savings. This would total about $1.2 billion in federal grants from the Inflation Reduction Act.
The agreement is a boon for the 40 million people who rely on the river for drinking water and electricity as well as the significant but dwindling populations of flora and fauna the basin supports. But the work to save the Colorado River from catastrophic overuse cannot end here.
The river has long been on an unsustainable course. After years of drought and climate change, its flow has shrunk by approximately 20 percent from its rate throughout the 1900s. With volume declining, there is simply not enough water to distribute at the levels agreed upon in the 1922 Colorado River Compact or even according to more recent guidelines. The dwindling flow has also elicited concerns that the river might soon contain too little water to operate its hydroelectric dams.
Water levels in Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest reservoir, hit record lows in February. Thanks to a large snowpack, the lake’s levels rose this spring, raising with them hopes of delaying worst-case scenarios. Still, experts warned of a looming catastrophe without urgent, farsighted action.
The new agreement — announced ahead of a May 30 deadline set by the federal government — buys time for stakeholders to craft a longer-term solution. Both sides had to compromise: The Lower Basin states initially wanted compensation for all their water savings, while the administration hoped to direct more funding toward lasting infrastructure investments over short-run buybacks. Ultimately, a consensus was reached after the Interior Department released a review in April outlining two extreme policy alternatives, including one option that saw the interior secretary imposing unilateral cuts on states.
The deal is, however, only a temporary reprieve for the river and those who depend on it. It extends through 2026, and stakeholders will soon embark on the lengthy process of renegotiating use of the river for the years thereafter. Further cuts will be needed for the river system to remain viable. Some of these reductions will have to come from the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Though some water districts have dramatically improved the efficiency of their water systems, more can be done: Cities, for example, can curb the presence of water-reliant vegetation, invest in water recycling and reduce wastage in plumbing. Farms, meanwhile, can improve irrigation processes, line canals to reduce leaks and prioritize crops that require less water.
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The Interior Department still has some policy levers it could use to push states and localities toward this transition. On Wednesday, it announced new investments for water conservation and efficiency, and it is finalizing new conservation agreements with eight local water entities. It could consider counting evaporated water toward all states’ allocations or defining the “beneficial use” of water and using that standard to allot deliveries. Moreover, the agency manages the operating guidelines for the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams, allowing it to control downstream releases according to the system’s hydrologic conditions.
As the post-2026 discussion picks up, it will be crucial to include other partners in negotiations — particularly the 30 tribes that depend on the river and have a range of experiences and insights to share. The Biden administration should also continue to work with Mexico, which receives a quota of water under a 1944 treaty.
Safeguarding the Colorado River for future generations will take years of dedicated planning and action. Federal and state officials, local leaders, and water districts have earned a moment to celebrate this week’s long-awaited deal. Then the hard work truly begins.
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