The states along the Colorado River — a vital source of water and electricity for the American West — reached an agreement with the Biden administration to conserve an unprecedented amount of their water supply in exchange for $1.2 billion in federal funding, state and federal officials said Monday.
After nearly a year of negotiations and multiple missed deadlines, the deal is a temporary solution intended to protect the country’s largest reservoirs — Lake Powell and Lake Mead — from dropping to critical levels over the next three years. These reservoirs have fallen dramatically as the warming climate and the past two decades of drought have reduced the river’s natural flow by about 20 percent.
To stabilize the river, the three states that make up the Lower Basin — California, Arizona and Nevada — have agreed to voluntarily conserve 3 million acre-feet of water over the next three years, which amounts to 13 percent of these states’ total allocation from the river. The Biden administration has committed to compensating the states for three-quarters of the water savings — or 2.3 million acre-feet — which would amount to about $1.2 billion in federal funds, the people familiar with the talks said. The money from the Inflation Reduction Act would pay farmers, Native American tribes, cities and others who voluntarily forgo their supplies.
“There are 40 million people, seven states, and 30 Tribal Nations who rely on the Colorado River Basin for basic services such as drinking water and electricity,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement Monday. “Today’s announcement is a testament to the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to working with states, Tribes and communities throughout the West to find consensus solutions in the face of climate change and sustained drought.”
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The Colorado River drought, explained
Why the Colorado River is important
The Colorado River runs through seven states and supplies more than 40 million people with water, and is a major resource for agriculture in the western U.S. But the river has been drying up for decades, and water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead — both reservoirs on the river — hit historic lows in the past year.
What’s causing the Colorado River to dry up?
A combination of chronic water overuse and historic drought, accelerated by a warming climate, is draining the river. Snow has been abundant in California this year, and while the snowpack helps replenish the reservoirs, it won’t solve the Colorado River crisis or reverse the effects of a 23-year drought.
What’s being done to save the Colorado River?
It’s complicated. States could agree to cut back on their water use, or the federal government could step in. But cuts could affect the farming regions that keep supermarkets stocked with fresh produce in the winter months, or populations of cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles, or both. If nothing is done, experts fear the impact could be even worse.
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The deal, which was first reported Monday by the New York Times but whose outlines The Washington Post detailed last week, came together over the past month in conference calls among state and federal officials and meetings in cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix. It was pushed along by the publication last month of Interior’s environmental review of reservoir operations — which outlined two alternatives for how to distribute cuts in water usage among the Lower Basin states.
Neither of those alternatives were particularly palatable to the states, which nudged them toward compromise. The timing of that federal process also forced the issue, as the states had until May 30 to issue formal comments on the Interior Department alternatives. As part of the new deal, Interior plans to suspend the comment period and instead analyze the new proposal in the federal environmental review process. The goal is to sign a record of decision that revises the 2007 rules that govern operations at both lakes.
Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s commissioner to the Colorado River talks, emphasized on Monday that the deal did not represent a final outcome and that the parties have agreed to a new proposal to be analyzed by the Interior Department in the months ahead.
“It is important to note that this is not an agreement — this is an agreement to submit a proposal and an agreement to the terms of that proposal to be analyzed by the federal government,” Buschatzke told reporters. “That is a really critical point for everyone to understand.”
Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs (D), California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo (R) sent a letter to Interior supporting the plan to scrap the draft environmental impact statement published last month and instead analyze the new deal.
“We have been informed that under almost all modeling conditions, the Lower Basin States consensus proposal would result in greater protections for Lake Mead and Lake Powell than either of the alternatives analyzed” in the existing environmental impact statement, the governors said.
The Colorado River is a major source of drinking water for some of the country’s largest cities, including Los Angeles and Phoenix. The river irrigates farmland that keeps U.S. supermarkets stocked with vegetables in winter. And it provides cheap hydropower to millions of people in the West.
But by early last year, Biden administration officials became increasingly concerned that the lakes’ water levels could soon drop so low that hydroelectric dams would have to shut down. The paltry amounts of runoff reaching these lakes — even in years when the Rocky Mountains got a decent snowpack — added to fears that “dead pool” was on the horizon, when the reservoirs might fall so low that dams would effectively block the river from flowing out.
In June, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton testified before the Senate that states needed to stop using 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water — up to one-third of the river’s annual average flow — or the federal government would step in to protect the river.
The last time the basin states — Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico — had negotiated cutbacks in their usage, it had taken nearly six years. This time, Touton gave the states two months to reach a deal.
That launched intense negotiations that blew through two deadlines and at times involved bitter disputes between the parties. One central tension was between Arizona and California, the two states that pull the most from Lake Mead. If the cutbacks in water use followed the legal priority system, Arizona would be hit hard, risking the water supplies of Phoenix and Tucson. If the states deviated from the priority system and distributed cuts equally among the Lower Basin, California and its powerful farming regions such as the Imperial Valley stood to suffer a major blow.
The new deal among the states would require the Lower Basin to conserve at least 3 million acre-feet by 2026, with at least half of that coming this year. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, what it would take to cover an acre of land with a foot of water.
Arizona, California and Nevada are still finalizing where all these water savings will come from within their states, but some of the outlines have emerged. California plans to contribute 1.6 million of the 3 million acre-feet over three years, according to a statement by the Colorado River Board of California. California is the largest user of the Colorado River, with an allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet per year.
“California’s water users will work quickly to implement conservation that will protect the system in the near term,” JB Hamby, the chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said in a statement.
Nevada has pledged to conserve 285,000 acre-feet through 2026, according to John Entsminger, the Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager and state’s commissioner to the negotiations.
Entsminger said this amount would be saved in Lake Mead and would be uncompensated by the federal government. That’s because Nevada, which has a small allocation of 300,000 acre-feet per year from the river, wants to preserve the chance of getting some of that water back post-2027.
“For the state with a legal entitlement to 1.8 percent of the river, the water is more valuable to us than the federal money,” Entsminger said in an interview, adding that “there’s very solid comfort that this is going to be implemented.”
An Arizona official said the state was planning to conserve 1.1 million acre-feet of water between now and 2026.
The deal comes with emergency provisions if the reservoirs fall farther than expected in the next three years. The states would take additional action to protect reservoir elevations of 1,000 feet above sea level at Lake Mead and 3,500 feet at Lake Powell.
The heavy rain and snow that fell on Western states during winter helped ease the crisis on the Colorado and provided time and space for negotiators to reach a deal. With spring runoff, the reservoirs have started rising and dire predictions about reaching critical thresholds have receded, for now.
The 3 million acre-feet in reductions over three years is less than some of the plans laid out in the federal government’s environmental review. But state and federal officials have said they are comfortable that these reductions will be enough to protect the reservoirs until 2026, when the states and the federal government have been planning a major renegotiation of how Colorado River water is shared.
As part of this week’s agreement, the parties expect to formally start the 2026 process soon.
The fact that much of the water conservation could take place this year and next — as opposed to starting in 2024 under the alternatives outlined in the draft environmental impact statement — makes it a more appealing alternative that will leave reservoirs at higher levels, Entsminger said.
“We think it’s good policy,” he said. “But there are more steps to ultimately make this binding and enforceable.”
Entsminger said it was also a major step forward for protecting a vital water source for the West.
“This is probably the largest conservation plan in the history of the river,” he said.
Drought and the Colorado River
What is the Colorado River? Running southwest from the Rocky Mountains to Mexico’s Gulf of California, the river runs through seven states in the American West. It powers agricultural land and urban areas, serving roughly 1 in 10 Americans.
Why is the river drying up? A combination of chronic water overuse and historic drought conditions are creating chaos. The dry period has lasted more than two decades, draining the major reservoirs along the river. The amount of water being used far exceeds what’s actually available.
What’s being done? The Biden administration is pushing to cut 2 to 4 million acre-feet in water usage, and is in negotiations with the seven states affected. California, despite using more water than any state, is the remaining holdout. It has offered its own plan to conserve water.
Colorado River deal. California, Arizona and Nevada reached a short-term deal that would help stop the drought-strained Colorado River from running dry — for now.What states have rights to Colorado River water? ›
The Colorado River flows for approximately 1,450 miles and provides water to seven states in the Western U.S. that are part of the Colorado River Basin. Divided into two regions; the Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming; and the Lower Basin includes Arizona, California, and Nevada.Did the US say drought stricken Arizona and Nevada will get less water from Colorado River? ›
US states agree breakthrough deal to prevent Colorado River from drying up. California, Arizona and Nevada have agreed on a plan to take less water from the drought-stricken Colorado River, a breakthrough that comes after months of fraught negotiations and several missed deadlines.What is the Colorado River Agreement? ›
After nearly a year of intense negotiations, California, Nevada and Arizona reached a historic agreement today to use less water from the overdrafted Colorado River over the next three years. The states agreed to give up 3 million acre-feet of river water through 2026 — about 13% of the amount they receive.What states are involved in the dispute over the usage of the Colorado River? ›
Seven states—Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, California, Nevada, and Arizona—count on the river for water. The government proposed three measures to halt the decline of the river's water flow affecting the three so-called Lower Basin states—California, Nevada, and Arizona.Who owns the Colorado River and controls the water? ›
Colorado River water was apportioned, with California receiving 4.4 maf, Arizona 2.8 maf and Nevada 300,000 af, with each state also awarded all the water in their tributaries.What state uses the most Colorado River water? ›
California — with the largest allocation of water from the river — is the lone holdout. Officials said the state would release its own plan. The Colorado River and its tributaries pass through seven states and into Mexico, serving 40 million people and a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry.Which states are least likely to run out of water? ›
By this scoring system, the most vulnerable states are Oklahoma, Montana, and Iowa, while Delaware, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California are least vulnerable to drought.Which state in USA has most drought? ›
California. On average, over 20 years, about 60% of California's land and population have experienced significant drought conditions. The percentage reduces along with the severity of the drought.Which U.S. states have worst drought? ›
- #8. New Mexico. ...
- #7. Idaho. ...
- #6. Oklahoma. ...
- #5. Kansas. ...
- #4. Nebraska. ...
- #3. California. - 58 of 58 counties (100%) experienced drought conditions during March 2022-March 2023. ...
- #2. Nevada. ...
- #1. Utah.
Only about 10 percent of all the water that flows into the Colorado River makes it into Mexico and most of that is used by the Mexican people for farming.Did the US declare a shortage on the Colorado River? ›
In August 2021, Washington declared the first-ever water shortage in the Colorado River basin, and discussions are ongoing among the many stakeholders – cities, states, farmers and Indigenous communities – on how to dramatically cut water use.What is the 6 state Colorado River proposal? ›
The proposal by the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — aims to protect the major reservoirs in Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling below critical levels, such as when the dams would no longer be able to generate electricity or at “dead pool,” when water would effectively be ...What happens if the Colorado River dries up? ›
Without water from the Colorado River, Arizona's gross state product would drop by more than $185 billion in a year and the state would lose more than 2 million jobs, the 2015 report found.How can we save the Colorado River and the American West? ›
The water going to grass, swimming pools, and golf courses will have to be cut. New housing will have to be denser and much more water efficient. More than half of Colorado River water currently irrigates crops fed to animals—a lot of those crops will have to go, reducing the amount of land and water in agriculture.What three major cities are fed by the Colorado River? ›
The Colorado River is an important water resource for areas outside of the basin, including Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, and San Diego for public (municipal) supply, and the Imperial Valley in California for agricultural water supplies.Who owns the most water rights in USA? ›
Let's put this criminalization in perspective: Billionaire T. Boone Pickens owned more water rights than any other individuals in America, with rights over enough of the Ogallala Aquifer to drain approximately 200,000 acre-feet (or 65 billion gallons of water) a year.What percentage of Colorado River water goes to California? ›
California derives more than 15% of its surface water supplies from the Colorado River. The Colorado River was the last major American river to yield to full exploration.Does California get water from other states? ›
In addition, most southern California cities obtain some of their drinking water from the Colorado River, which originates in the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado, and then passes through and drains portions of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada until it reaches Lake Havasu, on the border between Arizona and ...Who takes the most water from the Colorado River? ›
Agriculture uses approximately 80% of the Colorado River's water, using it to irrigate 15% of the nation's farmland, and produce 90% of the winter vegetables.
What happens if Lake Mead dries up forever? If Lake Mead were to run out of water, the Hoover Dam would no longer be able to generate power or provide water to surrounding cities and farms. The Colorado River would essentially stop flowing, and the Southwest would be in a major water crisis.How many states depend on Colorado for water? ›
Although it pales in size compared to the Mississippi and Ohio, it is the principal source of water for the seven states through which it runs—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming (the Upper Basin states) and Arizona, California, and Nevada (the Lower Basin).What is the best state for water security? ›
The top-scoring state — the state with the most advanced policies on water efficiency, conservation, sustainability and accessibility — was California, according to the scorecard. Trailing California were Texas, Arizona, Georgia, Washington, New York, Nevada, New Hampshire, Colorado and Minnesota.Which US city will run out of water? ›
Coalinga, California, is expected to run out of water by December. Coalinga City Councilmember Adam Adkisson told NewsNation's Ashleigh Banfield on Wednesday night that the only workaround will be extremely costly.Which state wastes the most water? ›
States that receive more rainfall and precipitation logically have lower water usage. California is the largest consumer of water in the US.Where is the best place to live for water supply? ›
According to Arcadis, cities in North America tend to outperform other world cities when it comes to water quality. In fact, Toronto, Chicago and Philadelphia rank in the top three North American and global cities for ensuring a healthy and clean water supply.Why is so much of the US in drought? ›
In other words, climate change is responsible for about 40 percent of the intensity of the current drought. Drier conditions are mainly driven by increased evapotranspiration from rising temperatures and snowpack melting earlier in the season, creating longer dry periods.What are the 7 drought states? ›
The seven states directly affected by the drought are Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. Let's start with Arizona. Find a Solar Energy partner near you. What is this?Will there be no water in 2050? ›
Five billion people, or around two-thirds of the world's population, will face at least one month of water shortages by 2050, according to the first in a series of United Nations reports on how climate change is affecting the world's water resources.What is the driest place in Colorado? ›
The low-elevation areas both north and south of the Palmer Divide and directly east of the Rockies are the driest. Most of this precipitation falls in the form of widespread soaking rains in April through early June or as intense bursts from thunderstorms in June through August.
In contrast, the Midwest and eastern Central Plains saw degradations and look warm and dry in the short-term. As of May 23, 2023, 16.05% of the U.S. and Puerto Rico and 19.20% of the lower 48 states are in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.How much water does Las Vegas get from the Colorado River? ›
Southern Nevada gets nearly 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, which begins as snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains. The snowmelt travels through a series of tributaries into the river, which winds its way south for 1,450 miles and empties into the Gulf of California in Mexico.How much water does Las Vegas use from Colorado River? ›
Of the seven basin states, Nevada has the smallest allocation of Colorado River water, at 300,000 acre-feet per year. But that allocation is crucial for the state, and particularly the Las Vegas area, where about 90 percent of its water comes from the river.Why is the Colorado River no longer going to the ocean? ›
Eventually, between 1960 and 1980, as Lake Powell began to fill behind Glen Canyon Dam, the Colorado River stopped flowing regularly to the sea. In the popular imagination, the Colorado River was broken, and its delta was dead.Will the Colorado River ever fill up again? ›
The Colorado River is overused and shrinking. Inside the crisis transforming the Southwest. “They're not going to refill. The only reason they filled the first time is because there wasn't demand for the water.How many Americans rely on the Colorado River? ›
It also ensures Reclamation has the tools to protect continued water deliveries and hydropower production for the 40 million Americans who rely on the Colorado River. “The Colorado River Basin provides water for more than 40 million Americans.How many Americans depend on the Colorado River? ›
The Colorado River provides drinking water to more than 40 million people in the seven Western states - Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona and California.What states need the Colorado River? ›
The Colorado River is a critical resource in the West, because seven basin states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) depend on it for water supply, hydropower production, recreation, fish and wildlife habitat, and other benefits.How much of the Colorado River does each state get? ›
|Upper Basin, 7.5 million acre·ft/year (293 m³/s) total|
|Colorado||51.75%*||3.86 million acre·ft/year (150.7 m³/s)|
|California||58.70%||4.40 million acre·ft/year (172 m³/s)|
|Arizona||37.30%||2.80 million acre·ft/year (109 m³/s)|
|Nevada||4.00%||0.30 million acre·ft/year (12 m³/s)|
On November 24, 1922, representatives of the seven Colorado River basin states—Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming—gathered in Santa Fe, N.M., to sign the Colorado River Compact, cementing into law a regime for dividing the river's water.
The gist: Pay people not to use water or to use less. Or hike the price of water to encourage less use. Could it work? Finding ways to reduce demand for water across the Colorado River Basin encompasses many other strategies and has been described as the way of the future.How long until the Colorado River runs dry? ›
Climate models suggest that if warming continues, the river's flow could be reduced by 30 per cent by 2050 and 55 per cent by the end of the century.Where does 90% of the water in the Colorado River come from? ›
About 85–90 percent of the Colorado River's discharge originates in melting snowpack from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming. The three major upper tributaries of the Colorado – the snow-fed Gunnison, Green, and San Juan – alone deliver almost 9 million acre-feet (11 km3) per year to the main stem.What are three solutions to saving the Colorado River? ›
The good news is there are things we can do to help the Colorado River Basin. These strategies include reducing water use, modernizing infrastructure, improving forest health, utilizing natural landscapes to minimize flood damage and purify and store water, and improving stream and river health.How can we fix the water shortage in Lake Mead? ›
A lot of people ask me about Lake Mead. The Lake Mead problem could be resolved by draining Lake Powell and storing the water in Lake Mead. More than 5% of the water in the Colorado River evaporates off the surface of Lake Powell - which never should have been built.Who benefits from the Colorado River? ›
The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, supply water to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of land, and is the lifeblood for at least 22 federally recognized tribes, 7 National Wildlife Refuges, 4 National Recreation Areas, and 11 National Parks.What is the Biden plan for the Colorado River? ›
States will be required to conserve 3 million-acre-feet of water through 2026. The Biden administration has reached a landmark deal with states dependent on the Colorado River to conserve water amid the decadeslong drought.Is Las Vegas in a water shortage? ›
Current condition: Tier two water shortage
The continued decline of Lake Mead water levels prompted the federal government to declare a tier two shortage in August 2022, further limiting the amount of water Southern Nevada is allowed to withdraw from the Colorado River at Lake Mead beginning January 2023.
California gets the most of any state
The Colorado River and its tributaries cut through seven U.S. states and Mexico, from the river's headwaters in Colorado and Wyoming to where it trickles toward — though rarely actually reaches — the Gulf of California.
The Colorado River supplies drinking water to 40 million Americans in seven states as well as part of Mexico and irrigates 5.5 million acres of farmland. The electricity generated by dams on the river's two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, powers millions of homes and businesses.
California is entitled to 4.4 million acre feet of water annually, more than any other single state in the Colorado River basin. California's rights also are among the most secure. Shares of water for California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico come from Lake Mead.What states are most likely to run out of water? ›
- Colorado. The Colorado River Basin and its two reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have hit historic lows in the past few years. ...
- 2. California. ...
- Nevada. ...
- New Mexico. ...
- Utah. ...
California has had a very wet few months, and the rain has certainly helped, but the drought that has drawn down the Colorado River Basin will require the seven states that depend on the river — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — to conserve water.What state has the most access to water? ›
Alaska has the most water
Alaska contains approximately 12,000 rivers, 3 million lakes larger than 5 acres, and numerous creeks and ponds, accounting for more than 14% of the state's total area.
The Major Issues with the Colorado River Compact
Drought conditions reduce the amount of water available. Also, climate change decreases snowpack in the Rocky Mountains that feed the Colorado River. Additionally, increased evaporation in reservoirs leads to even lesser supplies of water.
The current management framework for the Colorado River system—a regime that implements the Compact in modern times—is set to expire in 2026. Between now and then, domestic and international negotiations will take place to develop the next management framework for the river system.What percentage of the Colorado River does each state get? ›
|Upper Basin, 7.5 million acre·ft/year (293 m³/s) total|
|Colorado||51.75%*||3.86 million acre·ft/year (150.7 m³/s)|
|California||58.70%||4.40 million acre·ft/year (172 m³/s)|
|Arizona||37.30%||2.80 million acre·ft/year (109 m³/s)|
|Nevada||4.00%||0.30 million acre·ft/year (12 m³/s)|
At the lowest levels, it would mean a cut of nearly 1 million additional acre-feet larger for Arizona, leaving the state with only 600,000 acre-feet of water from the river. Arizona's allotment from the river is 2.8 million acre-feet.Does California get any of the Colorado River water? ›
California is allocated 4.4 million acre-feet of water per year out of the Colorado River, more than any other state. Most of that water is earmarked for the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California.Does Mexico receive water from the Colorado River? ›
Only about 10 percent of all the water that flows into the Colorado River makes it into Mexico and most of that is used by the Mexican people for farming.
Some 80 percent of the state's water originates in Western Slope rivers, but more than 80 percent of Colorado's population lives on the Eastern Slope. This mismatch between water supply and population lies at the heart of many of the state's long-running water conflicts and hard-won compromises.Does Los Angeles get water from the Colorado River? ›
The Colorado River Aqueduct can deliver 1 billion gallons of water per day to cities in Southern California. In order to conserve the Sierras snowpack, more water is being imported from the Colorado River. About half of Los Angeles' water flows from the Colorado River via the Colorado River Aqueduct.What cities rely on the Colorado River for water? ›
The Colorado River is an important water resource for areas outside of the basin, including Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, and San Diego for public (municipal) supply, and the Imperial Valley in California for agricultural water supplies.