The Proposed Colorado River Deal: A Short-Term Band-Aid for a Long-Term Problem

The Colorado River conservation proposal from Arizona, California, and Nevada reduces diversions by 1 million acre feet a year. Is this enough to make river management sustainable?

Low water levels at Lake Mead on the Nevada–Arizona border on September 9, 2018.
Low water levels at Lake Mead on the Nevada–Arizona border on September 9, 2018.
Credit: Ricardo Frantz

Today, Arizona, California, and Nevada announced a proposal for modest reductions in water use from the Colorado River over the next three years. This proposal from the Lower Basin states to conserve an average of 1 million acre feet of water per year (MAFY) is substantially less than last year’s federal recommendation of 2–4 MAFY. It is also less than the January proposal from the six upstream states in the Colorado River Basin of approximately 1.5 MAFY. 

Functionally, if the Biden administration accepts the proposal, all major decisions on long-term reductions in water consumption from the Colorado River that are necessary to prevent a crisis will be deferred until 2026 (the date when the Colorado River interim management guideline and drought contingency plans expire), despite the federal government spending more than $1 billion of taxpayer money in the short term.

How did such an urgent water crisis turn into such a modest response from the Lower Basin states? The answer is that the Rockies had an extraordinary snow year, and we’ve already seen water levels at Lake Powell increase by more than 25 feet and Lake Mead by a dozen feet in just a couple of months. 

As a result, fears that water levels would drop so low as to stop production of hydropower (known as power pool) and stop releases from the reservoirs (known as dead pool) have dissipated for the immediate future. Last year, the Bureau of Reclamation demanded that the seven basin states conserve 2–4 MAFY to protect water supply and hydropower production from the Colorado River. Recently, the supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for Colorado River management included an analysis of alternatives at approximately 2 MAFY (not up to 4), but the SEIS was pulled back to add the new alternative proposed by Arizona, California, and Nevada.

In addition to modest cuts in water use, the lower states’ proposed agreement will utilize more than $1 billion in federal funds to largely be spent on temporary water use cutbacks through fallowing agricultural fields instead of permanent conservation and efficiency solutions. Federal infrastructure dollars should not simply compensate agribusinesses to fallow some of their lands, an action that provides fleeting conservation benefits, with all of the money benefitting landowners and none of it benefitting the farmworkers and communities who will be affected. 

A better approach would be to use federal infrastructure dollars to support permanent improvements that result in sustainable urban and agricultural water savings, such as transforming nonfunctional turf to climate-tolerant native landscapes, building water recycling facilities, and requiring water-efficient irrigation technologies for agriculture. 

Based on the details today, it is unclear if this closed-door agreement engaged tribes in the basin or Mexico, the home of the severely depleted and degraded Colorado River estuary. It is imperative that both tribes and Mexico have major roles in the management of the river moving forward, including for the next three years.

The last 23 years of drought have demonstrated just how vulnerable the Colorado River and the 40 million people in the basin are to a rapidly changing climate. Lake Mead water levels have dropped by more than 150 feet since 2000 and both Lake Mead and Lake Powell were recently below 30 percent capacity. Nearly all of the scientific work on the Colorado River has demonstrated that increasing temperatures have dramatically decreased flows in the river over the past few decades, and the climate crisis has dramatically increased the probability of major drought events in the future. So the fact that water allocations to the seven basin states greatly exceed river flows—by an average of 2–4 MAFY—is an ongoing crisis that today’s announcement does not solve. One year of beneficial snowpack in the Rockies should not lead to further delays in protecting the river and the communities it serves. 

We strongly urge the Biden administration to support a 2 MAFY conservation program similar in magnitude to the alternatives in the SEIS, but one that is much stronger on durable and permanent conservation measures, has greater inclusion in final decision-making from tribes, includes some cutbacks from Upper Basin states, and offers just transition opportunities for farmworkers who are vulnerable to job losses from fallowed fields. The need for sustainable management and stewardship of the Colorado River remains extremely urgent.

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