A groundbreaking deal to keep the Colorado River from drying up -- for now (2023)


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Aided by a wet winter and a $1.2 billion federal payment, the deal to cut production is set to expire at the end of 2026.

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A groundbreaking deal to keep the Colorado River from drying up -- for now (1)

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(Video) 40 Million People Rely on the Colorado River, and Now It's Drying Up

Reporting from Washington

Arizona, California and Nevada have agreed to reduce water withdrawals from the drought-stricken Colorado River, a ground-breaking deal that currently prevents the river from falling to the point that it threatens supplies to major western cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles. and some of the most productive farmland in the United States.

heprotocolThe federal government is being asked to pay about $1.2 billion to irrigation districts, cities and Native American tribes in three states if they temporarily reduce water use, it was announced Monday. The states also agreed to additional cuts beyond the cuts associated with federal payments to achieve the overall cuts needed to prevent the river from collapsing.

Collectively, these reductions would equal about 13 percent of total water use in the Colorado Basin, one of the most aggressive on record for the region and likely requiring severe restrictions on residential and agricultural water use.

The Colorado River provides drinking water to 40 million Americans in seven states and parts of Mexico and irrigates 5.5 million acres of agricultural land. The electricity generated by damming the river's two main reservoirs (Lake Mead and Lake Powell) powers millions of homes and businesses.

However, drought, population growth and climate change have reduced river flows by a third compared to historical averages in recent years, threatening towater and energy destructionthrough the west.

The Colorado River is shrinking. See what all that water is used for. Insider tip: It's not as long a shower as it is for dinner.

The states of California, Arizona, and Nevada draw their water from Lake Mead, which was formed by the Colorado River at Hoover Dam and is controlled by the federal government. The Bureau of Reclamation is an agency within the Department of the Interior that determines how much water each of the three states receives. Other states that depend on the Colorado River draw their water directly from the river and its tributaries.

"This is an important step toward our shared goal of creating a sustainable development path for the watershed that millions of people call home," said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Kamil Kalimlin Tu. Camille Calimlim Touton said in a statement.

The deal reached over the weekend only runs until the end of 2026 and has yet to be formally ratified by the federal government. At that point, the seven states that depend on the river, including Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, could face a deeper toll as its decline continues.

The Colorado River negotiations were sparked by a crisis: Last summer, water levels in the two largest reservoirs along the river, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, dropped enough that officials worried the hydro turbines they provided would soon stop. to work.

There is even a risk that the reservoir level will drop so much that water can no longer reach the intake valves that control the lake's flow, causing downstream rivers to dry up.

Faced with this prospect, the Ministry of the Interior told seven states last JuneThink of ways toReduce water use from 2 to 4 million acre-feet per year. (An acre-foot is about the amount of water used by two or three households in a year.) The states failed to reach an agreement even though water levels in two reservoirs remained dangerously low.

(Video) Native American tribes plea for help as Colorado River dries up


This inaction led the federal government tounilaterally imposed cuts on these countriesAdding to the pressure, the Home Office said last month it may ignore the century-old rule that states bear the brunt of spending cuts and instead come up with a different package.

The federal government has given states until May 30 to take a position on the prospect of unilateral cuts. But privately, the Biden administration is negotiating with states to reach a deal that would avoid implementing cuts that would surely face legal challenges and ultimately delay any action.

Under the agreement announced Monday, most of the 2.3 million acre-feet of cuts will come from water districts, farmers, cities and Native American tribes that agreed to reduce water use to receive inflation-adjusted federal grants until in 2022. removal. These payments total approximately $1.2 billion.

Another 700,000 acres will come from California, Nevada and Arizona, which have agreed to process the cuts themselves in the coming months. (Under the terms of the agreement, up to 200,000 acre-feet of this logged area would be eligible for reimbursement through other federal programs, but those arrangements have not yet been determined.)

If states don't make additional cuts to the 700,000 acres, the Interior Department said it would shut off the water, a move that could face legal and political challenges.

The emissions reductions will save 3 million acre feet over the next three and a half years, on top of existing agreements. That's far less than what the federal government asked for last summer.

The Interior Department was able to negotiate less drastic cuts as an unusually wet winter brought well-above-average snowfall to the Colorado Basin.especially in CaliforniaThis is expected to significantly increase the amount of water in the river, at least temporarily.

A senior Interior Department official involved in the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the terms of the deal to The New York Times. Washington PostThe content of the agreement was reported last week.

The structure of the deal allows the Biden administration to avoid, for now, the question of which states will be hit hardest by the cuts.

The Interior Department declined to provide a breakdown showing how much of the 2.3 million acre-feet of voluntary reductions reimbursed by the federal government came from each state. Finding an additional 700,000 acre-feet remains an issue for the three lower watershed states.


(Video) The Colorado River Is Dying - And It Could Crash The Economy | Answers With Joe

Thus, what until recently looked like the outcome of a cage fight between states was a more acceptable, if unpopular, outcome for the states involved.

Rules governing the river dating back to 1922 stipulate that most of Arizona's supply from the Colorado River will be reduced to near zero before California suffers a reduction. While Arizona's water supply will still be significantly reduced, the deal effectively eliminates the threat of deep cuts.

"I'm very happy with the proposal," Tom Busatsk, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the state's lead negotiator for the negotiations, said Monday. "I think there's a lot of justice in that."

Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University's Center for Water Policy, called the agreement a positive step, but only a stopgap. "Before 2026, we could be back in that danger zone," he said.

California is also doing better than it actually is. The Ministry of Interior has proposedCut each state's supply equally, as part of its overall usage. Because California uses more Colorado River water than any other state, it loses most of it, a blow to farmers in Southern California and cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. A heavy reliance on voluntary reductions avoids this concern.

Bill Hasencamp, director of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said the deal could provide several years of stability for Los Angeles, San Diego and other California cities that depend on Colorado water.

The biggest challenge will be reaching a deal after 2026, when the federal government won't be willing to provide as much money for water conservation and states can't count on more rainy and snowy winters. "We know the future will be drier than the past," Hasenkamp said.

The deal is also a victory for the Biden administration, which has at times seemed unsure how to respond to the growing crisis. Twice last year he set deadlines for states to reach an agreement, which they failed to meet. The Interior Department said the agreement shows states can work with the federal government to address the challenges posed by Colorado's decline.

This idea, too, will soon be put to the test. The department said the next step would be to study the impact of agreements entered into by states before deciding how to proceed. Meanwhile, the next round of negotiations on what happens after 2026 is set to begin next month.

Jack Healy contributed reporting from Phoenix.

Fixed in

May 22, 2023


(Video) Unrelenting drought leaves millions who rely on Colorado River facing an uncertain future

An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. That's Tom Buschatzke, not Buschaztke.

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Christopher Flavelle is a New York Times climate correspondent in Washington, focusing on how people, governments and industry are struggling to deal with the effects of global warming. @cflav

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(Video) Tipping Point: The Colorado River Basin - A PBS NewsHour Special


A groundbreaking deal to keep the Colorado River from drying up -- for now? ›

Today, the federal government reached an agreement on cuts, aided by a wet winter and $1.2 billion in federal payments, that will expire at the end of 2026 in hopes that it will prevent what was feared to be the drying up of the nearly 1,500 mile long river.

How can we save the Colorado River? ›

The water going to grass, swimming pools, and golf courses will have to be cut. New housing will have to be denser and much more water efficient. More than half of Colorado River water currently irrigates crops fed to animals—a lot of those crops will have to go, reducing the amount of land and water in agriculture.

Will the Colorado River ever fill up again? ›

The Colorado River is overused and shrinking. Inside the crisis transforming the Southwest. “They're not going to refill. The only reason they filled the first time is because there wasn't demand for the water.

What will happen to Hoover Dam if Lake Mead dries up? ›

What happens if Lake Mead dries up forever? If Lake Mead were to run out of water, the Hoover Dam would no longer be able to generate power or provide water to surrounding cities and farms. The Colorado River would essentially stop flowing, and the Southwest would be in a major water crisis.

What is the main reason that the Colorado River is drying up? ›

The Colorado River is drying up due to a combination of chronic overuse of water resources and a historic drought. The dry period has lasted more than two decades, spurred by a warming climate primarily due to humans burning fossil fuels.

What are three solutions to saving the Colorado River? ›

The good news is there are things we can do to help the Colorado River Basin. These strategies include reducing water use, modernizing infrastructure, improving forest health, utilizing natural landscapes to minimize flood damage and purify and store water, and improving stream and river health.

Will the heavy snow help Lake Mead? ›

Snow runoff could help Lake Mead water levels, giving it a slight boost.

What happens if the Colorado River dries up completely? ›

Without water from the Colorado River, Arizona's gross state product would drop by more than $185 billion in a year and the state would lose more than 2 million jobs, the 2015 report found.

How much longer will Lake Mead last? ›

It largely depends on weather patterns in the next few years, and what policies are put in place to save the lake. It is likely that 2023 will bring more of the same for Lake Mead. A projection from the Bureau of Reclamation estimates that there is a 47 percent chance water levels could reach below 1,020 feet in 2023.

Where will Las Vegas get water if Lake Mead dries up? ›

Without Lake Mead, Las Vegas would lose access to 90 percent of its water sources. If Lake Mead were to reach dead pool, it would technically still be able to supply drinking water to Las Vegas. But there will not be enough water for agricultural activities.

How long will it take for the concrete in the Hoover Dam to cure? ›

Columns of blocks were linked in alternating and interconnecting arrangements. The Hoover Dam concrete would cure in 125 years by conventional or natural methods.

What state uses the most water from the Colorado River? ›

California — with the largest allocation of water from the river — is the lone holdout. Officials said the state would release its own plan. The Colorado River and its tributaries pass through seven states and into Mexico, serving 40 million people and a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry.

Where does 90% of the water in the Colorado River come from? ›

About 85–90 percent of the Colorado River's discharge originates in melting snowpack from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming. The three major upper tributaries of the Colorado – the snow-fed Gunnison, Green, and San Juan – alone deliver almost 9 million acre-feet (11 km3) per year to the main stem.

How long will the Colorado River last? ›

Water resource officials say some of the reservoirs fed by the river will never be full again. Climate change will likely decrease the river's flow by 5 to 20 percent in the next 40 years, says geoscientist Brad Udall, director of the University of Colorado Western Water Assessment.

How to fix the water crisis in Colorado River? ›

Running ocean water through a desalination plant can filter out its dangerously high salt content, bacteria and other impurities to make it safe for use. Could it work? The technology is already in use but no plants in existence can replace the amount of water the Colorado River is losing.

Can we fix Lake Mead? ›

In the case of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, desalinating seawater from California or Mexico is possible, albeit extremely expensive. Lund said the desalination process costs between $2,000 and $3,000 per acre foot, which "greatly exceeds the economic value of most water uses."

How do you solve Lake Mead problems? ›

“By upgrading unused grass to water-smart landscaping, we can save more than 9.5 billion gallons of water annually, which represents about 10 percent of our total annual water supply from the Colorado River at Lake Mead,” said John Entsminger, General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

How many years would it take to refill Lake Mead? ›

Lake Powell and Lake Mead are unlikely to refill for another 50 years - and would need SIX consecutive years of deadly atmospheric rivers to replenish.

Could the Mississippi fill Lake Mead? ›

Experts we spoke with agreed the feat would be astronomical. Still, it's physically possible. “As an engineer, I can guarantee you that it is doable,” Viadero said.

Will snow melt help Lake Mead? ›

The bad news. When asked if when Mt. Charleston snow melts, how much of it will eventually end up in Lake Mead, the answer from the LVVWD is a definitive “none.” The news also isn't great for a small amount of water seeping into the ground.

Will Yellowstone rain help Lake Mead? ›

While the wet weather has had some short-term benefits, it is unlikely to help the dire situation of Lake Mead's water levels.

Will the flooding in Las Vegas help Lake Mead? ›

Rain in the Las Vegas valley does help with Lake Mead's water levels. However, it is more like a drop in the bucket compared to the contribution from the snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin in E Utah, W Colorado, & SW Wyoming.”

Will all the rain help Lake Mead? ›

While the rain and snow impact positively, it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with Lake Mead. The lake's water level has been declining in the past two decades partly due to climate change and has dropped 170 feet.

Does Mexico get water from the Colorado River? ›

Only about 10 percent of all the water that flows into the Colorado River makes it into Mexico and most of that is used by the Mexican people for farming.

What states rely on the Colorado River? ›

The three Colorado River lower basin states -- California, Nevada and Arizona -- will be required to conserve an unprecedented 3 million-acre-feet of water through 2026, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced in a press release Monday.

Who owns the water rights to the Colorado River? ›

The Imperial Irrigation District provides water to Southern California farmers and has a senior right to Colorado River water – a priority claim because it was established before other districts' and states' rights.

What happens if Hoover Dam shuts down? ›

If the Hoover Dam shuts down, it will have a ripple effect in the states of Nevada, Arizona, and California. There will be less water to go around, power will have to come from less clean sources, and all industries will be impacted some way or another.

What was the last year Lake Mead was full? ›

The last time Lake Mead was at maximum capacity, reaching an elevation of about 1,220 feet near the dam, was in 1983 and 1999, NASA notes.

Is the rain in California helping the drought? ›

The rains have helped replenish reservoirs, many of which have quickly returned to their historical averages, or surpassed them. Snow has built up snowpack levels statewide to the highest they've been in decades — more than three times what they were at the same time in each of the last three years.

Is there an aquifer under Las Vegas? ›

Groundwater in the Las Vegas Valley comes from three major aquifer zones, generally situated from 300 to 1,500 feet below land surface. This drinking-water supply is protected from surface contamination by a layer of clay and fine-grained sediments throughout most of the valley.

Where will Vegas get water? ›

While the water from the Colorado River is mainly taken from Lake Mead, groundwater is pumped from the underground rivers and aquifers.
  • Colorado River. 90% of the water used in Las Vegas, both by its residents and the visitors, comes from the Colorado River. ...
  • Groundwater. ...
  • Recycling.
Jul 28, 2022

Does Nevada get their water from Lake Mead? ›

Most of Nevada's share of Colorado River water is withdrawn directly from Lake Mead to meet requirements for the Las Vegas Valley, but Nevada does have additional diversions downstream of Hoover Dam. Discharge from Hoover Dam occurs at elevations of 895 ft and 1,045 ft above mean sea level (msl).

What percentage of Lake Mead water does Las Vegas use? ›

Southern Nevada depends on Lake Mead for 90 percent of its water. Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, by which the water is divided, California gets 4.4 million acre-feet of water per year.

Why does California need water from Lake Mead? ›

Lake Mead provides water to the states of Arizona, California, and Nevada as well as some of Mexico, providing sustenance to nearly 20 million people and large areas of farmland.

What states are affected by Lake Mead water shortage? ›

This means that the surrounding lower basin states, including Nevada, Arizona, California and Utah, are using water faster than it can be replenished. As a result, Lake Mead's water levels are rapidly declining.

Could an earthquake destroy Hoover Dam? ›

The dam is considered to be an engineering masterpiece. That doesn't mean it is indestructible. But shaking from a distant quake isn't a major threat.

Is Hoover Dam the largest dam in the United States? ›

Many other rock and earthfill dams have surpassed Hoover in height. There is one dam in the United States taller than Hoover Dam, and that is the Oroville Dam on the Feather River in California. It stands 770 feet (235 meters) tall, but it is an earthfill dam, not a concrete structure like Hoover.

How long would it take the Hoover Dam to harden if we hadn t invented the ice water pipes? ›

With the high amount of concrete used to build the Hoover Dam, it would have taken approximately 125 years for the concrete to cool if engineers would not have created a faster solution — an incredibly large refrigeration system capable of producing an average of 1,000 tons of ice each day.

Who is the largest user of the Colorado River? ›

Farmers in the Imperial Valley are the biggest users of Colorado River water. The Imperial Irrigation District announced today that it will reduce usage at farms by roughly 250,000 acre-feet per year, about 10% of its average amount.

Why does California get so much of the Colorado River water? ›

California, Arizona and Nevada get their share of water from Lake Mead, which is formed by the Colorado River at the Hoover Dam and is controlled by the federal government. The Bureau of Reclamation, an agency within the Interior Department, determines how much water each of the three states receives.

What is the 4.4 plan in California? ›

California's Colorado River Water Use Plan (known colloquially as the 4.4 Plan) intends to wean the state from its reliance on the surplus flows from the river and return California to its annual 4.4 million acre-feet basic apportionment of the river.

Does any water from the Colorado River make it to the ocean? ›

Answer and Explanation: The Colorado River stopped reaching the ocean after the 1960s, after the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. The last time it reached the sea was once in March 2014.

What is Las Vegas doing about the water shortage? ›

Through one of the nation's most progressive and comprehensive water conservation programs, Southern Nevada has reduced its Colorado River consumption. The community used 27 billion gallons less water in 2021 than in 2002, despite adding more than 745,000 residents during that time.

What happens to Las Vegas if Lake Mead dries up? ›

Without Lake Mead, Las Vegas would lose access to 90 percent of its water sources. If Lake Mead were to reach dead pool, it would technically still be able to supply drinking water to Las Vegas. But there will not be enough water for agricultural activities.

Why should we save the Colorado River? ›

The Colorado River is a major source of drinking water for some of the country's largest cities, including Los Angeles and Phoenix. The river irrigates farmland that keeps U.S. supermarkets stocked with vegetables in winter. And it provides cheap hydropower to millions of people in the West.

What happens if the Colorado River dries up? ›

Without water from the Colorado River, Arizona's gross state product would drop by more than $185 billion in a year and the state would lose more than 2 million jobs, the 2015 report found.

What states need the Colorado River? ›

The Colorado River is a critical resource in the West, because seven basin states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) depend on it for water supply, hydropower production, recreation, fish and wildlife habitat, and other benefits.

Who uses the most of the Colorado River? ›

California — with the largest allocation of water from the river — is the lone holdout. Officials said the state would release its own plan. The Colorado River and its tributaries pass through seven states and into Mexico, serving 40 million people and a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry.

Does Colorado rely on the Colorado River for water? ›

Colorado receives 40% of its water supply from the Colorado River.

Is California allowed to take water from the Colorado River? ›

It is thus entitled to one-third the flow of the river, meaning it can continue to draw water from the Colorado even if Lake Mead reaches dead pool. California derives more than 15 percent of its surface water supplies from the Colorado, delivered via two huge aqueducts, the California Aqueduct and the All-American ...

Can you drink Colorado stream water? ›

Never drink water from a natural source that you haven't purified, even if the water looks clean. Water in a stream, river or lake may look clean, but it can still be filled with bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can result in waterborne diseases, such as cryptosporidiosis or giardiasis.

Can anything save Lake Mead? ›

"More than 5% of the water in the Colorado River evaporates off the surface of Lake Powell—which never should have been built." A lot of people ask me about Lake Mead. The Lake Mead problem could be resolved by draining Lake Powell and storing the water in Lake Mead.

How long will it take for Lake Mead to recover? ›

But while Lake Mead has filled up slightly since its low point of July 2022, the Bureau of Reclamation anticipates that the water levels will start to decline again come spring. A Bureau of Reclamation study published in January predicted that Lake Mead could reach a new all-time low in 2023.


1. How We Destroy the Colorado River
(Innovative Techs)
2. Western Megadrought Shrinks The Colorado River, Bringing Multi-State Consequences | Nightly Films
(NBC News)
3. 60 Minutes climate archive: Running Dry
(60 Minutes)
4. The Vanishing River: USA's Mega Drought | Foreign Correspondent
(ABC News In-depth)
5. What Will Life Look Like as MAJOR Rivers Run Dry?
(PBS Terra)
6. The PERFECT Plan to Refill the Colorado River & Save America‘s Lakes | Earth Explained!
(Terra Mater)


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