May 23, 2023 - 9:01 pm
California, Arizona and Nevada have reached a deal on Colorado River use. All it took was millions in payouts from Washington, D.C. Most Las Vegans will experience little disruption.
On Monday, the three states trumpeted to much fanfare an agreement to reduce their reliance on the Colorado over the next three years in an effort to stem falling water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell. But the accord is merely a stopgap measure intended to give all the parties more time to negotiate a long-term approach that would be implemented in 2026 and beyond.
“Clearly, this remains a Band-Aid on a gaping wound because the long-term problem of needing to reduce our use still remains,” said John Fleck, a water expert with the University of New Mexico.
Of course, that problem has existed more than a century. The Colorado River Compact, implemented in 1922, vastly exaggerated annual river flows, leading to over-allocation. Drought has compounded the problem, as has population growth in the Southwest.
With reservoir levels falling throughout the system, federal officials had threatened to step in and impose their own restrictions unless the states came to terms to leave more water in the river.
This deal will likely prevent such Draconian action in the near term.
Mother Nature also played a role. An unusually wet year left the Rocky Mountain snowpack at record levels and spring runoffs will help replenish the system to some regard.
Lake Mead’s water level has risen 3 feet in March and April. In the short term, this relieved pressure on basin states to reach a quick deal with painful cuts.
Under the proposal, Nevada agrees to store 285,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead over the next four years.
The state’s yearly allocation is 300,000 acre-feet — the smallest of all basin states — but, including return-flow credits, it currently uses only about 225,000 acre-feet annually thanks to stepped-up conservation efforts.
California and Arizona will undergo steeper cuts, with the former shouldering about half the overall burden.
The carrot will be millions in federal payments to farmers and tribes for using less water, likely idling more land.
“I do think this proposal gives us what we need over the next three years, which is critical,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. That’s good news, as far as it goes. But until the states can put aside the acrimony and pound out a more lasting agreement that provides the flexibility necessary to tackle future challenges, the victory lap is premature.