California, Arizona and Nevada announced an agreement on Monday to cut their use of the Colorado River by another 14% in exchange for $1.2 billion in federal grants. The landmark agreement, which lasts through 2026, would avert mandatory cuts set by the federal government to keep the crucial Colorado River basin from collapsing in the face of chronic overuse and a long drought exacerbated by climate change.
The 1,450-mile-long Colorado River provides drinking water to 40 million people in seven U.S. states, part of Mexico, and several Native American tribes. It also irrigates 5.5 million acres of productive farmland.
The Interior Department needs to sign off on the pact before it takes effect. Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation, called the agreement "an important step forward toward our shared goal of forging a sustainable path for the basin that millions of people call home."
The three states agreed to reduce their Colorado River consumption by 700,000 acre-feet over the next three years, while local water districts, farm operators, cities, and Native American tribes would cut their usage by 2.3 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water used by two to three households in a typical year.
The voluntary cuts are about half of what the federal government said were needed last year, but an exceptionally wet winter and unusually bountiful snow pack gave the seven states that use the Colorado River a reprieve. The two dammed reservoirs on the river, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have risen 7 feet and 26 feet, respectively, since April, after falling to crisis levels in 2022. Lake Mead is now 30% full and Lake Powell 27%.
Arizona, California and Nevada draw their Colorado River allotments from Lake Mead while four Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — use water directly from the river and its tributaries. All seven basin states still have to reach a longer-term arrangement for use of the dwindling Colorado River after 2026. Monday's agreement is "a great start," Jack Schmidt, director of the Utah State University's Center for Colorado River Studies, tells the Los Angeles Times. "It's about 25% of where we ultimately need to get."