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Federal officials praise proposal, though will it save enough water?

By Conrad Swanson

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All seven states in the Colorado River Basin now agree on an apparent short-term breakthrough in negotiations to save water from their drying region and it’s enough of a consensus for federal officials to pause their own plan to 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 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 the smallest amount of water the federal government sought to conserve.

As written, the 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 long 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.

While the extra snow and water this winter helped move this deal forward, so too did pressure from Reclamation, which threatened to step in and take the reins if the states couldn’t reach agreement, Zobell said. Federal officials had set a deadline at the end of the month.

“Eight days,” Zobell said. “That’s how close we had come to the states basically losing control.”

Now federal officials will temporarily withdraw their own plan — which included different options to cut water from Arizona, California and Nevada — while they study this new proposal.

“It’s like you’re at the guillotine and we’ve pulled the blade away,” Zobell said. “But that doesn’t mean the blade can’t be put back.”

This new round of studying could take until the fall, Estevan López, the Upper Colorado River Compact commissioner for New Mexico, said. Upper-basin states will also study the proposal for themselves before fully signing off on it.

“We look forward to better understanding what enforceable, binding water conservation agreements the Lower Division States may be able to provide,” Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said. “While temporary solutions are beneficial, we must continue to focus on the long-term goal of sustaining the system.”

The 3 million acre-feet isn’t as much water as Reclamation had sought to conserve. But López noted that when it’s added to the other agreements in place, the measures amount to substantial water savings. The latest plan also includes language to protect critical water elevations at lakes Mead and Powell, the country’s two largest reservoirs, he said.

Upper-basin states aren’t facing any potential cuts under this proposal. Rather, the bulk of the savings would have to come from Arizona and California.

If the plan does move forward, then Larson noted that those two states — which draw the most water in the basin — would then have to find volunteers willing to sell their water, Larson said.

That most likely means farmers will either allow some of their land to lie fallow, or uncultivated, or switch to crops that consume less water.

Ultimately the supply for grocery stores across the country will change, probably amounting to higher food prices for Americans, Larson said.

Other water-saving strategies include enacting more effective efficiency standards for the agricultural industry, finding new ways to reuse and recycle water in cities across the West, and even phasing out non-native grass lawns, which consume substantial amounts of water.

However Arizona and California might save more water, Larson noted that the 3 million-acre-feet plan isn’t enough to bring the Colorado River back into balance.

Rather, this might be enough to last the American West until 2026, by which time the states must pass a broader water-use plan to span further into the future.

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