Colorado River deal between Arizona, California and Nevada won't solve the problem, some experts say

Lake Mead
Lake Mead, near Boulder City, Nev., showing serious water-level decline, Sept. 16, 2022. (David McNew/Getty Images)

A tentative agreement between Arizona, California and Nevada to reduce water use from the Colorado River by 3 million acre-feet over three years falls short of what is needed, according to some experts.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called the agreement, which was brokered by the Department of the Interior, an “important step forward,” despite previously advocating for much steeper cuts.

That has left some experts scratching their heads.

“If they're talking about reducing consumption by only 3 million acre-feet over three years, that’s not even close to what the Bureau of Reclamation said was needed,” Mark Squillace, a professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School, told Yahoo News.

The math

Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. (Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

In a Senate hearing last June, Touton said that Colorado River water use by the seven states that draw from it would have to be reduced by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet this year.

This agreement from the three “lower basin” states would use 3 million fewer acre-feet of water between now and the end of 2026 — so, roughly 1 million fewer acre-feet per year for the next three years. (An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land in a foot of water.)

“Current inflows average 12.4 million acre-feet this century, while consumption is around 14 million acre-feet,” Squillace noted. “Take 1 million off, and we’re at 13 million. It takes us in the right direction, but it’s not enough.”

The implications

Excessive consumption of water from the river, combined with a climate-change-linked 20-year mega-drought plaguing the West, have caused water levels to plummet at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, two man-made reservoirs on the river.

If levels drop much further at those reservoirs, they will not be able to produce electricity from their hydroelectric dams. The United Nations warned last August that millions of Americans could face blackouts as a result of hitting so-called dead pool levels.

A brief reprieve

Motorists drive through a flooded area of Vanowen Street in North Hollywood
Motorists navigate a flooded area of North Hollywood, Calif., Feb. 24. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Unusually heavy precipitation in California and parts of the Colorado River basin this winter means that the short-term risk of blackouts there due to the loss of hydroelectric power has abated.

“We’re in a much better position because of Mother Nature, not because of what these guys are doing,” Michael Cohen, a Colorado River expert at the Pacific Institute, a think tank focused on water issues, told Yahoo News.

But without bigger reductions, Cohen said, a return to dry conditions would bring us back to the danger zone.

“We have no idea what next year’s snowpack is going to be,” he said. “By 2026, it’s possible we could be back in the situation we were in last year, when it looked particularly dire.”

What the cuts will mean

If anyone feels the pinch from the new agreement, it will likely be farmers, since 79% of Colorado River water is used for agriculture.

That’s why the three states are asking the federal government for $1.2 billion of the $4 billion that the Inflation Reduction Act included for water conservation. Farmers can use less water by adopting high-tech systems that monitor dryness to more precisely use only as much as necessary, or they can be induced to leave land fallow or switch to crops that use less water — but bring lower profits — through direct subsidies, Squillace said.

The glass-half-full perspective

Lake Mead
Lake Mead along the Colorado River in Boulder City, Nev. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

The Department of the Interior celebrated Monday’s announcement as “historic,” and some observers say the political breakthrough is proof that a solution can be found.

“This demonstrates the capacity of these states to negotiate an agreement in less than one year,” Jeffrey Silvertooth, a professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona who has extensively studied the Colorado River, told Yahoo News. “That is rather phenomenal.”

The work that remains

The agreement includes only the three states that make up the lower basin of the Colorado River because they use the lion’s share of the water under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The four upper-basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — have not agreed to cuts because they already take only half as much as the other three.

The Department of the Interior is working on a proposal it will release later this year suggesting how to apportion water supply cuts starting in 2027.