New Colorado river water sharing deal A new breakthrough deal for sharing the over-promised Colorado River has been reached by the seven states that share it.

Colorado River states announce breakthrough water sharing deal

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First to a deal that impacts drinking water, electricity and food sources for tens of millions of Americans. Today the White House announced a major conservation deal on the Colorado River. Reservoirs are critically low after decades of overuse and drought brought on by climate change. And states that share the river have been negotiating for months, trying to come up with their own agreement so the federal government doesn't mandate water cuts for them. NPR's Kirk Siegler is covering the deal. Hey, Kirk.


SHAPIRO: After months, there appears to be a breakthrough. What's in the deal?

SIEGLER: Well, exactly. So this involves three states in the lower basin - Arizona, Nevada and California. They're voluntarily agreeing to a plan to use 3 million acre-feet less of water over the next three years. So what's 3 million acre-feet? For context, that's about a third of the traditional flow of the entire Colorado River. It's a lot but not as much as they'll eventually need to cut. But, you know, at least for now, it's going to hopefully keep the river's reservoirs from falling below a level that would endanger the water and hydropower supply, you know, for major cities here in the West, not to mention huge pieces of highly productive farmland that, of course, are critical to the food we eat. I mean, Ari, this is an extraordinary time. I mean, Lake Mead is dangerously close to what's known as deadpool. That's the level where no water would flow below the Hoover Dam to these states.

SHAPIRO: Sounds like this deal is only possible because the White House is offering more than a billion dollars to make it happen, though.

SIEGLER: Right. Yeah. This is a key point. In order to get these cuts, the Biden administration is doing things like paying farmers to fallow their fields. The government is also compensating irrigation districts, southwest Indian tribes to voluntarily keep some of their legally entitled water in Lake Mead, you know, in order to keep the nation's largest reservoir from literally going dry. This money is largely from the recent infrastructure and inflation reduction laws. So it's just temporary. And there's just - you know, there's another big thing that's making this deal possible, Ari. The West - we had an unusually snowy winter, and almost all of our water here comes from snow-fed reservoirs. I talked to Kathryn Sorensen about this deal today. She's the former manager of Phoenix Water and is now at Arizona State University's Kyl Center for Water Policy.

KATHRYN SORENSEN: The good snowpack kind of bought us the luxury of bringing forward a deal that wasn't quite as much as the federal government was hoping for. But it does buy us time.

SHAPIRO: The question is, how much time? As significant as this deal is, is it just a temporary fix?

SIEGLER: Well, it is significant. You know, we can't discount that. It's some of the largest reductions of water use in modern times, but it's only going to run through 2026. It's temporary. And that roughly $1.2 billion in federal relief is one time only. These conservation commitments are voluntary. But Kathryn Sorensen there at ASU says this is key, actually, because it will likely avert what many had feared across the river basin - that the federal government was going to come in as soon as this summer and start enforcing mandatory cuts across the basin unilaterally, you know, not even accounting for users who actually have done a lot to conserve water already.

SORENSEN: And that's important because the minute the federal government does that, someone's going to sue.

SHAPIRO: So is the fight going to be even bigger a few years from now, in 2026?

SIEGLER: I'd say it's highly likely. I mean, even if you didn't factor in climate change and the 23-year megadrought here in the West, this river is already way overpromised to so many users of its water. I mean, this has been a problem even when the river law was written a hundred years ago, back when they didn't have 40 million people living here and some of the biggest cities in the nation like Los Angeles and Phoenix. But, Ari, I have to say, as I've been reporting and it's taken me across the Southwest in the last few months, I've really noticed a growing kind of acceptance that the current rules just aren't working, the current law of the river. And everyone knows that saving this river is going to take a lot more. A lot bigger water restrictions could be coming for farms and cities across the Southwest.

SHAPIRO: But now that the deal has been reached, what are the immediate next steps?

SIEGLER: Well, this deal is going to, for now, immediately halt an emergency environmental plan that the government had been about to implement in the coming days. And presumably this is going to give the states more time to continue these even longer-term negotiations. You know, it's interesting. California had for months been a holdout, refusing to agree to a conservation plan that the six other states in the basin had agreed to. So they appear to, at least for now, Ari, be at the table.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Kirk Siegler. Thanks a lot.

SIEGLER: You're welcome.

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