Bob Leal

LAS VEGAS (CN) — California, Arizona and Nevada announced Monday they have come up with a plan to save 3 million acre-feet of water by 2026 to help bolster the dwindling Colorado River and lakes Mead and Powell, which 40 million people in the West depend on for water.

Water managers have been busy negotiating the plan because the Colorado River, which feeds Mead in Nevada and Powell in Arizona, can’t keep up with the thirsty West due climate change and too much demand.

Both reservoirs, the largest in the nation, sit at about 30% full. In addition to providing water, the reservoirs’ two dams, Glen Canyon at Powell and Hoover at Mead, generate hydroelectric power.

Despite a hefty snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, it’s not nearly enough to fill the reservoirs after two decades of below-average snowfall. Water managers concede that without cuts, both lakes have miniscule chances of filling.

The consensus plan calls for the three states to save 1.5 million acre-feet by 2024.

The Biden administration also announced Monday that 2.3 million acre-feet of water savings will be compensated through funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, to prevent the Colorado River system’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. The remaining system conservation for sustainable operation will be achieved through voluntary, uncompensated reductions by the lower basin states.

“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. 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,” said Deb Haaland, secretary of the Interior.

The Department of Interior announced that it is temporarily withdrawing the draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Study published last month so that it can fully analyze the effects of the states' water-saving proposal. An updated draft SEIS will then be published. The original May 30 deadline for the submission of comments on the draft SEIS is no longer in effect. Interior will  finalize the SEIS process later this year.

Despite the progress, water managers say now is not the time to break out the party balloons.

“The plan set forth by the lower basin states is not a panacea for the river, but rather a consensus solution that will help manage near-term water demands while serving as a bridge to negotiate the post-2026 operating criteria,” said John Entsminger, Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager, in a statement.

“The Colorado River Basin has a warmer and drier future ahead and reducing water use, increasing water efficiency, and maximizing water recycling and reuse is paramount to a sustainable future for the 40 million people that depend upon this critical water supply,” he said.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which ultimately controls the river and reservoirs, initially informed the states they had to come up with a voluntary reduction of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water in 2023.

That’s on top of the reductions that have already been identified under the 2007 guidelines and the drought contingency plans. If that can’t be achieved, the bureau will take off its gloves and mandate action.

The negotiations between the states have been packed with politics and haven’t been without controversy.

California receives the most Colorado River water at 4.4 million acre-feet. Colorado is next (3.8 million acre-feet), followed by Arizona (2.8 million acre-feet), Utah (1.7 million acre-feet), Wyoming (1.04 million acre-feet), New Mexico (0.84 million acre-feet) and Nevada (0.30 million acre-feet). Mexico gets 1.5 million acre-feet and various Indian tribes also have rights to the water.

In February, all the basin states but one came up with a plan. It was based on states cutting a percentage of their water allotment. California was not on board, claiming it has senior water rights because of a compact enacted a century ago.

Of California’s share, nearly 90% goes to farmers in the southern part of the state. It’s used to grow fruit and vegetables during the winter and for forage crops such as alfalfa to feed beef and dairy herds.

“California has more senior rights on the river, and according to the system we use to govern the Colorado River, seniority is really important,” Elizabeth Koebele, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, who focuses on environmental policy, said in February.

“The collaborative nature of this proposal continues to be the path forward to successful management of the basin,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona Department of Water Resources, in a statement.

“This proposal provides robust protection for Lake Powell and Lake Mead and will help bolster storage volumes in these two critical reservoirs.”