Nevada, California, Arizona Agree on Water Cuts From Colorado River


Nevada, California, and Arizona have struck an historic deal to cut millions of gallons of Colorado River water usage over the next three years — about half of which would be completed by next year — in an effort to stave off a crisis at the nation’s largest reservoirs.

Decades ago, this boat sank to the bottom of Lake Mead. In July 2022, the water level at the  nation’s largest reservoir — which supplies 90% of Las Vegas’ water — reached its lowest point since it was filled in 1935. (Image: Getty)

The deal — announced Monday by the US Department of Interior — would conserve an additional 3 million acre-feet of water by 2026. It would also avoid the US Bureau of Reclamation having to step in to force cuts upon the three states — as it threatened to if a deal was not struck by May 30.

One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons. That’s enough water to cover an acre of land, about the size of a football field, one foot deep. It is also about the average annual water usage of 2.5 American households.

The Colorado River provides water to 40 million people in seven US states, parts of Mexico, and more than two dozen Native American tribes. It also provides Las Vegas with 90% of its water.

But decades of drought, overuse, rising demand, and climate change has brought the system to the verge of collapse — though heavy precipitation and snowpack this winter eased the emergency somewhat.

Who Cuts What

The bulk of the new cuts, 2.3 million acre-feet, will be achieved by paying Native American tribes, and some irrigation districts, to use less water with part of the $391 billion earmarked for climate change spending in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Monday’s announcement did not state how much money was spent for water rights from the tribes and districts, nor did it specify which tribes and districts accepted the deal.

In a separate press statement, California announced it would make up 1.6 million acre-feet, or more than half, of the 3 million acre-feet in cuts. No details were provided on how Arizona and Nevada would split the other 1.4 million acre-feet.

The agreement comes after months of intense negotiations between the three Lower Colorado River Basin states. Arizona and Nevada had argued that California should shoulder the brunt of any water cuts, since it draws much more water (4.4 million acre-feet per year) than any other state. California, and certain Native American tribes, had argued that their key role in US agriculture justifies their larger draw.

California has “senior rights” to water as specified in the Colorado River Compact, a century-old contract known as the “law of the river.”

Though the proposal was reached ahead of the US Interior Department’s May 30 deadline, it must still be approved by the federal entity.

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