Colorado River Deal Brings Relief, but is it a Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Crisis?

The American West is breathing a collective sigh of relief after Colorado River basin states resolved months of tensions with a pivotal plan for water consumption cutbacks earlier this week.

Yet both state officials and water experts are raising concerns that this conservation proposal may just be a short-term solution to a long-term crisis.

“I think they needed to do something, and this is what they could agree to,” Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, told The Hill.

“They agreed to ask the federal government to pay them to use less water,” Lund added, chuckling.

Heated talks produce results

Following a year of fiery negotiations, the Colorado River’s Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — announced on Monday that they had finally agreed to a joint plan for water consumption cutbacks.

In a proposal submitted to the Bureau of Reclamation, these three states offered to conserve at least 3 million acre-feet of water, or about 13 percent of their total allocation, by the end of 2026. At that point, the river’s current operating guidelines are set to expire.

More than three-quarters of that conservation would be funded by about $1.2 billion dollars from the Inflation Reduction Act. The rest would be voluntary commitments.

While the exact breakdown among states is not yet available, California has agreed to give up about 1.6 million acre-feet — slightly more than half of the total. For reference, a typical suburban U.S. household uses about one acre-foot of water each year.

Sharon Megdal, director of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center, said that although many details are currently unavailable, she finds the proposal to be “encouraging.”

“The goal remains to avoid a crash of the system — or even approaching as closely as we did a crash of the system,” Megdal told The Hill.

Allocating more water than there is

The over-tapped Colorado River watershed, which serves about 40 million people, is divided into a Lower and Upper basin, which respectively include California, Arizona and Nevada, and Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

A 1922 compact allocated 7.5 million acre-feet to each basin annually, while a 1944 treaty then allotted another 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico. But these generations-old allocations ended up far exceeding the river’s actual flow — a situation made worse by years of severe drought.

Meanwhile, cuts agreed upon in the past have proven insufficient to preserve the levels of the basin’s two main reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

As it became increasingly apparent that there wasn’t enough water to keep these reservoirs stable, officials began strategizing about Lower Basin reductions in 2005.

They ultimately signed an agreement in 2007, known as the Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages. But these guidelines expire in 2026 and will require new negotiations that focus on long-term planning.

Last June, however, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton called upon the states to find a way to cut annual consumption already by about 2-to-4-million-acre feet — a request that led to nearly a year of heated deliberations.

What ended up materializing were two competing offers at the end of January: a joint document from six states that sought to distribute evaporation losses and a separate proposal from California, which favored the state’s status as a senior water rights holder.

With the collapse of any unified agreement, the Bureau of Reclamation in April presented a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement with a set of alternatives that the federal government could impose.

But on Monday, with the support of all seven states, California, Arizona and Nevada submitted their consensus-based proposal to the agency.

‘A now 22-year-long mega-drought’

“It’s a useful short-term solution,” Lund said, noting, however, that there is a real need to reduce consumption by about 2 to 4 million acre-feet per year in the Lower Basin.

“And this is not that. This is the federal government paying $1.2 billion to get about 3-million-acre feet of conservation over three years,” he added.

David White, an Arizona State University water policy expert, characterized the proposal as both “positive” and including some drawbacks.

“This is an important but an incremental adaptation to environmental changes that are occurring as a result of a now 22-year-long mega-drought in the region,” White said.

“But clearly, our policy changes are not keeping pace with environmental change,” he added.

White identified a need for “more transformative adaptations,” such as the restructure of the agricultural sector, which accounts for two-thirds of the Lower Basin’s Colorado River demand and is replete with water-intensive forage crops such as alfalfa. 

Also important to White is the integration of “radical efficiency” tools, including drip irrigation, satellite imagery and laser leveling — smoothening land to minimize runoff. He also called for continued conservation in the industrial and municipal sectors throughout the West.

This past unusually wet winter has given Colorado River states “just enough breathing room” to turn their “focus on the longer-term structural imbalance in the basin,” according to White. But he warned against complacency, stressing that environmental changes tend to outpace policy.

“As we shift to 2026, we really need to think about a process for operating the reservoirs on the Colorado River system in ways that give us more adaptability, more flexibility,” White said. 

“We need to think about creating a system where we’re allocating more like 11 or 12 million acre-feet a year instead of allocating 15 to 18 million acre-feet a year,” he added.

Planning for 2026 and beyond

Heading into the future, Lund likewise had some qualms about how negotiations will unfold. He expressed concerns that the Inflation Reduction Act funding “might become a precedent” for the idea that all reductions need to be paid for by the federal government.

“That basically puts the Feds on the hook for a billion dollars a year, indefinitely. And that’s a lot of money,” Lund said.

Such a precedent could reach beyond the Colorado River basin to other areas of the American West that need to cut back on water consumption, according to Lund.

“The bottom line of it, though, is there’s water law in the West that is set up so that if there’s not enough water, users have to reduce their water use,” he said.

“And these payments are just a convenient way of avoiding the litigation and the discussions that would have to go with implementing water law-based reductions,” Lund argued.

One possible solution that Lund said he would support heading into 2026 would be approval from the federal government for water rights holders — such as cities, tribal nations and other users — to be able to sell and exchange water across state lines.

“Water law in the basin basically divides the water up by states and California has superior rights,” he said.

But if, say, the city of Phoenix was able to buy sufficient water from Imperial Water District in California, there would be no need for the federal government to compensate conservation, according to Lund.

“I would like to see some provision where the states all agree that they can buy and sell water from other states, maybe from Mexico,” he said, acknowledging, however, that this would require a change to historic treaties.

When it comes down to it, Lund characterized the current proposal as “a temporary deal” that works “for this kind of purpose” in the short-term.

“But there’s not enough money there to do this in perpetuity,” he concluded.

Source : The Hill


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