Arizona, California and Nevada reached an agreement to cut their use of Colorado River water in exchange for massive federal payments.
The deal will save 1.5 million acre-feet of water use through 2024 and a total of 3 million acre-feet through 2026, with provisions for the feds to step in if those reductions aren’t enough to keep important dams above safe water levels.
Water users who agree to leave behind water they’re entitled to could collect a total of hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government through funds set up by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.
The agreement will result in more modest water reductions than proposed by the Bureau of Reclamation in a pair of options outlined last month.
Still, officials said the deal is a significant step towards preventing the Colorado from running dry and keeping lakes Mead and Powell from dropping to “dead pool” levels.
“Thanks to the partnership of our fellow Basin States and historic investments in drought funding, we now have a path forward to build our reservoirs back up in the near-term,” said Gov. Katie Hobbs, in an emailed news release that also featured quotes from the governors of California and Nevada, the other two Lower Basin states that agreed to the deal.
Arizona, California and Nevada form the so-called Lower Basin states that draw water from a series of dams, lakes and canals, including Mead and Powell.
“This proposal protects the system in the short term so we can dedicate our energy and resources to a longer-term solution,” Central Arizona Project General Manager Brenda Burman said in a news release.
Critical details of the plan, like which water users will take cuts and how much, weren’t made public on Monday.
Of the three million acre-feet of anticipated cuts, about 2.3 million will be subject to federal “compensation.” Under guidelines published last year, the government will pay different rates for conservation deals on different timelines: $330 per acre-foot for one-year deals, $365 per acre-feet for two-year deals and $400 per acre-foot for three-year projects.
An average family in the Phoenix area uses approximately one-third of an acre-foot of water per year, according to estimates from the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Annually, Arizona consumes about 7 million acre-feet of water, with more than 2 million of that coming from the Colorado River.
Major water rights-holders like the Gila River Indian Community have already announced plans to take federal payments in exchange for foregoing water use. The additional 700,000 acre-feet of water conserved under the deal won’t be compensated by federal dollars but could be paid for by other sources.
In 2026, the final year of the deal outlined on Monday, the Colorado River states must come up with new rules to govern water use because a set of guidelines developed in 2007 will expire. Negotiations that began in 2022 were largely aimed at finding a way to prevent a catastrophic decline in water levels before that date.
The agreement came after a series of missed deadlines and increasing federal pressure on the states.
Last year, the federal government ordered basin states to come to an agreement by August for making additional cuts to water use. But the states blew through that deadline without a deal and, after the federal government set a new deadline in January, the states missed that date as well.
Then, last month, the Bureau of Reclamation published two separate plans illustrating how it might impose water cuts if the states weren’t able to reach an agreement on their own. One of the plans called for reducing water use based on seniority of water rights. The second plan would have cut allocations by a uniform percentage across the lower basin states.
“Either of the two action alternatives have very negative impacts on water users in Arizona,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, in an interview last month.
The goal was to prod the states into action, and the agreement published on Monday suggests the plan worked. But the agreement doesn’t call for as much conservation as contemplated in prior plans.
The BOR plans published last month would have reduced water use by 2.1 million acre-feet in 2024 alone. And last year, the federal agency had asked the states to come up with a deal for cutting 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water use per year.
The federal government still needs to formally accept the states’ proposed agreement but is expected to do so.