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Arizona, California and Nevada have agreed to take less water from the drought-stricken Colorado River, a successful agreement that, for now, prevents the river from falling so low that it can no longer supply water for major western cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles. will put in danger. As well as some of the most productive agricultural land in America.

The agreement, announced Monday, calls for the federal government to pay nearly $1.2 billion to irrigation districts, cities and Native American tribes in three states for temporarily using less water. The states have also agreed to make additional cuts above that amount to generate the total reductions needed to prevent the river from collapsing.

Taken together, these reductions would amount to about 13 percent of total water use in the lower Colorado Basin—among the most aggressive the region has ever experienced, and are likely to require significant water restrictions for residential and agricultural uses.

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. Electricity generated by the dams on the river’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, powers millions of homes and businesses.

But drought, population growth and climate change have reduced the river’s flow by a third in recent years compared to the historical average, threatening to incinerate. a water and power disaster across the west.

California, Arizona and Nevada get their share of water from Lake Mead, which is created by the Colorado River at Hoover Dam and controlled by the federal government. The Bureau of Reclamation, an agency within the Department of the Interior, determines how much water each of the three states receives. Other states dependent on the Colorado receive water directly from the river and its tributaries.

The agreement struck over the weekend only runs until the end of 2026, and still needs to be formally adopted by the federal government. At that point, all seven states that rely on the river — including Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — could face a deep reckoning, as its decline is likely to continue.

The conversation on the Colorado was prompted by a crisis: Last summer, water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs along the river, dropped so much that officials feared the hydroelectric turbines they powered could soon shut down .

There was even a risk that the reservoir level would drop so low, water would no longer reach the intake valves that control the flow of the lakes – essentially drying up the river downstream.

Faced with that prospect, the Interior Department last June told seven states find a way To reduce its water use by two to four million acre feet of water per year. (An acre-foot is roughly as much water as two to three homes use in a year.) The states failed to reach an agreement, even as water levels in two reservoirs reached dangerously low levels. remained less than

That inertia prompted the federal government to lay the groundwork for making unilateral cuts on those states, Adding to the pressure, the department said last month that it might disregard a centuries-old rule governing which states should bear the brunt of the cuts and instead come up with a different formula.

The federal government gave states until May 30 to take a position on the possibility of unilateral cuts. But behind closed doors, the Biden administration was negotiating with states to reach an agreement and avoid cuts that would surely face legal challenges and delay any action.

Under the agreement announced Monday, most of the cuts – 2.3 million acre-feet – would come from water districts, farm operators, cities and Native American tribes taking less water to qualify for federal grants offered under 2022 inflation. had agreed. Scarcity Act. Those payments would total about $1.2 billion.

Another 700,000 acre-feet will come from California, Nevada and Arizona, which agreed to cut among themselves in the coming months. If they don’t, the Interior Department said it will stop the water — a move that could face legal and political challenges.

Together, the reductions will save three million acre-feet over the next three and a half years, above and beyond existing agreements. That’s far less on an annual basis than what the federal government asked for last summer.

The Interior Department was able to negotiate less drastic reductions thanks to the unusually wet winter, which provided snowpack levels in the Colorado Basin that were well above average, especially in california, This is expected to significantly increase the amount of water in the river, at least temporarily.

The terms of the deal were described to The New York Times by a senior Interior Department official who was involved in the negotiations, and who spoke on condition that he not be identified by name. Washington Post reported elements of the deal last week,

The structure of the agreement allows the Biden administration to avoid for the time being the problem of which states will bear the brunt of the cuts.

The Interior Department declined to provide a breakdown to show how much of the 2.3 million acre-feet voluntarily cut by the federal government would be deducted from each state. And, locating the additional 700,000 acre-feet remains a problem for the three lower-basin states to solve at their own pace.

As a result, what until recently looked like a state-against-state cage match has produced an outcome that is more tolerable for the states involved, if not actually welcome.

The rules governing the river, which date back to 1922, state that much of Arizona’s supply from the Colorado River will drop to almost zero before California experiences cutbacks. Although Arizona will still see a significant reduction in its water supply, the deal effectively removes the threat of drastic cuts.

California’s performance is also better than otherwise. increased the possibility of the Department of the Interior cut each state’s supply equally, as a share of its total usage. Because California uses more water from Colorado than any other state, it would have lost the most — a blow to farmers in Southern California as well as cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. Relying largely on voluntary deductions gets around that concern.

The deal is also a victory of sorts for the Biden administration, which has at times appeared unsure how to respond to the growing crisis. In the last one year, it twice set deadlines for states to come to an agreement, which they failed to meet. The department said the agreement shows the state is capable of working closely with the federal government to address the challenge of Colorado’s decline.

That assumption will also soon be tested. The Interior Department has said its next step will be to study the effects of the agreement reached by the states before deciding whether to proceed. Meanwhile, the next round of talks on what to do after 2026 is set to begin next month.

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