Jeniffer Solis

(States Newsroom) A robust water year for the Colorado River has given states that rely on the mighty waterway a few more years of stability as climate change takes its toll, federal officials said Wednesday.

Last year, federal officials gave western states two options to protect the over-allocated Colorado River from the effects of a two-decade megadrought: Either reach a consensus to voluntarily reduce water use or be forced to by the federal government.

California, Arizona and Nevada agreed to collectively reduce water use by at least 3 million acre-feet through the end of 2026, when the Colorado River’s current operating guidelines are set to expire.

Federal officials believe those voluntary conservation efforts, largely supported by federal funds, will be enough to keep the river basin stable over the next three years, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of the Interior released Wednesday.

Based on the latest hydrologic data, federal water managers concluded the three Lower Basin states’ plan to reduce water use by millions of acre-feet is sufficient to keep major reservoirs from reaching critically low levels and prevent additional water cuts — at least temporarily.

The Bureau of Reclamation — the federal agency that manages the Colorado River basin — said wetter conditions and an above-average snowpack in the Rocky Mountains this year substantially reduced immediate risks to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two key reservoirs.

Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau praised ongoing conservation efforts by states in the Colorado River Basin to keep the reservoirs “from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production.”

States in the West were able to avoid drastic cuts to their allocations of Colorado River water this year, thanks to an unusually wet year, but will still need to agree on a long-term plan to conserve the river’s water beyond 2026, said federal officials.

Federal officials have said Colorado River water use needs to be cut by about 15% to 30% per year to ensure the long-term viability of the river amid a drier future exacerbated by climate change.

The river’s two largest reservoirs remain at significantly low levels, despite hefty runoff from this year’s snowpack. Lake Mead is currently 34% full, while Lake Powell sits at 37% of capacity.

Still, Wednesday’s announcement is a vast improvement from last year when U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton called for a reduction of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year to address the unresolved water shortfall.

“The Colorado River Basin’s reservoirs, including its two largest storage reservoirs Lake Powell and Lake Mead, remain at historically low levels,” said Touton. “Today’s advancement protects the system in the near-term while we continue to develop long-term, sustainable plans to combat the climate-driven realities facing the Basin.”

The draft environmental review and analysis released Wednesday will inform the federal government’s ongoing efforts to set interim operating guidelines through the next three years.

A key component of the Biden administration’s next steps to protect the stability of the Colorado River is to increase near-term water conservation using funds from the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, said federal officials.

The federal government plans to spend a total of $15.4 billion for drought resiliency programs over the coming years, mostly for large-scale projects for water storage and recycling but also to pay people to use less water.

The temporary Colorado River water-sharing agreement that Arizona, California and Nevada announced in May alone depends on an injection of $1.2 billion from the federal government.

“Today, the Biden-Harris Administration is taking another key action to bolster water resilience in the Basin States, leveraging historic investments from the President’s Investing in America agenda to build a more sustainable and equitable future for communities across the West,” said White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi.

But water experts and conservation groups warn that paying people to conserve isn’t a long-term solution, and argue that the federal government must make long-term investments and rethink water-sharing agreements if the Colorado River is to survive.

Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said that “a generous 2023 water year from mother nature must not obscure the fact that the Colorado River is in crisis.”

Conservationists also warned states not to be distracted by good water modeling for the next few years and to continue preparing for the challenges ahead.

“Let’s not lose sight of what we have already lost and what we will continue to lose. Despite the bolstered reservoir levels, we’ve already lost 16 percent of what 2023 gave us. Let that be a warning,” said John Weisheit, conservation director for Living Rivers-Colorado Riverkeeper.