Breaking down the"breakthrough" Colorado River deal
It's big news, but probably won't be enough to save the river system
The News: Arizona, California, and Nevada have come up with a landmark agreement to slash their consumption of Colorado River water by 3 million acre-feet in coming years. The Colorado River and its reservoirs are saved!
The Buzzkill: Nope. Not quite.
Yes, the three Lower Basin states came up with an agreement to cut water use substantially. Yes, it’s a breakthrough (as any such agreement would be). But no, it won’t be enough to save the Colorado River if the climatic conditions of the last couple decades persist or worsen. Plus, the proposed cuts are only for the next few years. What then?
The Background: For those who may have forgotten, the 1922 Colorado River Compact divvied up the river between the Upper and Lower Basin states (Mexico was included in the 1940s). The problem: The 16.5 million acre-feet pie they parceled out was bigger than what actually existed—even back then. They assumed the river carried about 20 million acre-feet each year, on average. In fact, it was more like 14 million acre-feet, so they were already in debt to reality when the Compact was signed. Oof.
In the decades since, the population of all of the states burgeoned and water consumption also increased. Meanwhile, after the wet and wild 1980s, long-term drought and warmer temperatures diminished the river and the reservoirs that were supposed to carry the users over during dry years. Last summer it looked like Lake Powell might drop below minimum power pool, or the level needed to allow water to flow through the hydroelectricity-generating turbines, within a couple of years. Losing hydropower is one thing, but losing the ability to release water through the penstocks is another, with its own dire ramifications.
That prompted federal water officials to call on the states to cut consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, or else they would implement the cuts themselves. The states blew past deadlines without an agreement until finally, last month, the Bureau of Reclamation presented two alternatives:
Cut Lower Basin use according to the concept of priority (meaning Arizona would take the biggest cuts); or,
Cut a flat percentage of each state’s water use (meaning California would take the biggest cuts).
The prospect apparently was enough to scare the bejeezus out of the states, pushing them back to the negotiating table where they came up with this week’s deal. Details so far are sketchy, but here’s what we know:
The Lower Basin states together will cut consumption by 3 million acre-feet over the 2023-2026 period, with at least 1.5 million acre-feet in cuts coming by the end of 2024 (there is no indication of how these cuts will be distributed across the states, but the Washington Post reports California will bear about half the cuts);
Up to 2.3 million acre-feet of those cuts will be federally compensated by about $1.2 billion in Inflation Reduction Act funds. Most likely this means that farmers will be paid not to irrigate their crops.
So what’s wrong with this deal? I’ll admit that when I first read the stories on this, I was pretty damned impressed: 3 million acre-feet is good! Thing is, all those cuts are spread out over three years, meaning it’s only about 1 million acre-feet per year. That’s only half the minimum amount of cuts the feds say are needed to shore up the river system and its reservoirs. It just won’t cut it, so to speak, if the drying trend continues.
Furthermore, the deal clearly is meant only to be temporary — a stopgap, a band-aid — that runs out in three years. What happens then? Even if the agreement were to be extended, where would the billions of dollars come from to keep paying the farmers not to irrigate? What if the Republicans’ obstructive ways nix the payments? And what about the additional 700,000 acre-feet of cuts promised? Where will they come from? Or will that require a whole new round of negotiations?
I don’t want to be a party pooper. It’s great that the states came to an agreement and, yes, it is a solution, of sorts. But it’s not the sustainable, permanent one that’s necessary.
But who knows? Maybe this past wet winter and huge runoff isn’t an anomaly. Maybe it’s the new normal and big rains and snows will come regularly over the next 20 years, filling up the reservoirs, saturating the soil, and swelling the Colorado River into the muddy monster of yore. Maybe we won’t need these cuts after all. But I sure as heck wouldn’t bank on it.
Jonathan, thanks so much the coverage on the Colorado River. I’ve been mulling over some related sidebars I haven’t seen much coverage on … including what’s going to happen when farmers in the lower basin have to fallow thousands of acres of dry fields as their water gets cut back more and more. Anyone remember what caused the “worst hard times” in the Kansas, Oklahoma, eastern Colorado and the Texas panhandle plains?
Also, as I understand it, the electricity that the dams produce is used to power the water-delivery systems themselves, not to provide electricity for cities, etc. Without it, the water cannot be moved across the dry lower basin states to thirsty cities and farms. Recent coverage appears not to make this interesting distinction.
Finally, there’s been little background reported in the media on how the two reservoirs provide different purposes in the system. Powell is a storage facility for the Upper Basin states, and Mead is the same for the Lower Basin states. I’d love to learn more on how that distinction comes to bear in terms of the bargaining game between the states.
I very much appreciate all your articles! Thanks.