The upper basin of the Colorado River as seen from Lees Ferry, Arizona, on May 29, 2021.Ross D. Franklin/AP
after more than a year After intense negotiations, states along the Colorado River have reached an agreement to resolve one of the most complex water crises in American history. The solution to this byzantine conundrum is deceptive in its simplicity: Pay farmers—who collectively use 80 percent of the Colorado River’s delivery—to give up their water.
Representatives from Arizona, Nevada and California announced Monday that they have agreed to reduce their states’ collective water use by more than 3 million acre-feet over the next three years. This equates to nearly a trillion gallons, or about 13 percent of the states’ total water use. Under the terms of the deal, cities and irrigation districts in these so-called “lower basin” states would receive about $1.2 billion from the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, in exchange for using less water. Most of the reductions are likely to come from agricultural operations.
Many had hoped for a more torturous resolution to the crisis. Instead of making mandatory cuts and losing billions of dollars from crop sales, irrigators in the Southwest will get millions of dollars to reduce their water use for just three years – and half the final demand by federal officials. Usage less than Rs. Year.
These cuts are larger than any river states have ever implemented – but they are temporary.
This happy outcome is only possible because of a wet winter, which has covered the river basin with snow and stabilized water levels in its two main reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, Thanks to substantial runoff, states can reduce their targets enough that the federal government can compensate them for almost all of them.
This deal also solves a key Dispute between Arizona and California, the two largest water users on the river, who have clashed over how to respond to water shortages. California has argued that Arizona should take the largest cut as the most junior user on the river, while Arizona argued that the cut should be spread more evenly among all states. Negotiations dragged on for months due to disagreements, and it was only thanks to payments from the federal government that they reached an agreement.
These compensation cuts are larger than anything the riverine states have ever implemented before, but they are temporary, a Band-Aid. crisis that won’t go away anytime soon, When the three-year agreement expires in 2026, the states will have to come back to the table and address the elephant in the room: If water use is increasing, and the size of the river is shrinking, some people Will have to make do with less—not temporarily, but for good.
“It’s a step in the right direction but a temporary solution,” said Dave White, a professor at Arizona State University who studies sustainability policy. “This deal does not address long-term water sustainability challenges in the region.”
The basic blueprint of the deal is not new. Federal and state agencies in the Colorado River Basin have previously tried to pay farmers for using less water, but they have had difficulty scaling up these compensation measures. This is partly because many farmers see these measures as a disservice to their industry, even when they are compensated. When a group of states in the river’s upper basin revived a dormant conservation program earlier this year, offering farmers money to leave their fields unplanted, just 88 water users in four states signed up. ran away.
The other issue is that water conservation is expensive. To persuade farmers to sow fewer acres, officials need to pay them more money per acre-foot of water than they would earn selling crops on a given farm. In California’s Imperial Valley, the “salad bowl” region that grows nearly all of the nation’s winter vegetables, irrigation officials have paid growers to invest in technology that makes their farms more efficient. But farmers in the Valley have balked at the idea of taking money for leaving their fields unsown, especially when vegetable prices remain high.
In the last two years, a once-in-a-millennium drought has almost emptied the river’s two main reservoirs.
“Water is a valuable asset, and I think people are terrified of parting with it, because it kind of suggests that you don’t really need it,” said George Frisvold, an extension specialist at the University of Arizona. Those who study agriculture. Policy. “I think the real concern is that it’s voluntary now, but it could come back and bite you.”
The Biden administration has resolved those issues for the time being by offering very generous prices for protection under the new deal. Compensation in the new deal averages out to about $521 per acre-foot – three times the price in the Upper Basin pilot program and nearly double the conservation rate in the Imperial Valley program.
Frisvold says it will be hard to sustain these payments over the long term. “We have a bunch of IRA money to pay for it right now,” he told Grist. “But will it be a consistent thing? It’s kind of up in the air.
Until recently, these experimental conservation programs were just that—experiments. But in the past two years, a once-in-a-millennium drought has nearly emptied the river’s two main reservoirs, prompting riverine states to cut their water use and stop draining the river. It is almost impossible to do this without using less water for agriculture.
The Biden administration started the scramble last summer by issuing ultimatums to the river states. Testifying before Congress in June, a senior US Bureau of Reclamation official ordered states to cut their water consumption by 2 to 4 million acre-feet, or a third of the river’s normal annual flow. Administration threatened to unilaterally cut water If the states cannot reach a deal on their own.
States wrestled for months over who should bear the burden of reducing water use. The so-called upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico point the finger at Arizona and California, which together consume most of the river’s water. Meanwhile, California representatives insisted that legal precedent Saves Golden State from getting cut And Arizona must bear the pain. (It is unclear whether the other four states will make any similar cuts on the river’s upper basin.)
In the end it was a very wet winter rather than a diplomatic success that helped ease tensions between the states. Thanks to historic snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, it is likely that water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead will stabilize this summer, even if only for a few months. This abundant runoff has greatly reduced the worst-case consequences for the river and given states some breathing room to negotiate smaller cuts.
The new target was small enough to make voluntary protection viable with money from the Inflation Reduction Act: In the final hours of debate on the bill last year, Senator Kirsten Sinema of Arizona called for a $4 billion tranche for the “drought response.” Had a conversation , That money will anchor the deal for the next three years, but it’s unclear whether the payments will continue after that.
The big question now is what will happen at the end of 2026, when the conservation agreement expires and when states and tribes gather to negotiate the long-term future of the river. At that point, the river’s water users will once again debate the big questions that the deal has allowed them to raise: How much water can a shrinking river use? Who should use less water to make up for river degradation? How can the government make complete tribal nations that still do not have water,
Even amid the relief from Monday’s deal, some water officials were already looking ahead. “This proposal protects the system in the short term so that we can devote our energy and resources to long-term solutions,” said Brenda Berman, manager of the Central Arizona Project Water Authority. Press release. “There’s a lot to do and it’s time to focus.”