California, Arizona and Nevada agree to voluntarily cut back Colorado River water use amid ‘megadrought’

The first-ever water shortage in history was declared this summer on the Colorado River amid a prolonged drought that is a consequence of the climate crisis

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent, New York
Thursday 16 December 2021 00:33 GMT
Major California reservoirs still far below normal

Arizona, Nevada and California officials came to an agreement on Wednesday to voluntarily reduce the amount of water being used from the Colorado River to prevent mandatory cutbacks in the coming years.

In August the US government declared the first-ever water shortage in history on the river amid a prolonged “megadrought” in the US West that is a consequence of the climate crisis.

Water agencies, together with the Department of the Interior, announced a $200m investment over the next two years to keep the Colorado River’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, from dropping to critically-low levels.

The so-called “500+ Plan” aims to add 500,000 acre-feet of additional water to Lake Mead in both 2022 and 2023.

The additional water, enough to serve about 1.5 million households a year, would add about 16 feet total to the reservoir’s level, according to a release.

Lake Mead fell below 1,075 feet (327 metres) above sea level this year, already triggering a round of mandatory cuts for the three states in 2022. All had signed on to a drought contingency plan in 2019, and agreed to contribute water to Lake Mead to keep it from reaching critically low levels.

The Colorado River serves at least part of the water supply for 40 million people and sustains more than 3.5m acres of farmland.

The pact was signed on Wednesday at the Colorado River Water Users Association annual meeting in Las Vegas.

Arizona will allocate $60m, Nevada $20m and California $20m which, with the federal match, brings the total to $200m.

The money will fund water use reduction and efficiency projects for the three states located in the river’s lower basin. Some specific conservation programmes have already begun while others are still being identified across both urban and rural communities.

Among them are crop fallowing on farms to save water, including the recent approval of a short-term programme in California.

“In Arizona we store water underground for the future and for drought protection, and we're going to stop doing some of that,” Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke told The Independent. “In some cases, water was going to be taken out of Lake Mead that was previously conserved from historical use. Now that water will stay in Lake Mead.”

Existing guidelines to manage the Colorado River, and an overlapping drought contingency plan, are set to expire in 2026. While work continues on a long-term plan, the severe declines this summer meant that hammering out a short-term strategy took precedence at the Vegas gathering.

“This has been mostly about digging ourselves out of this hole for the time being so we can get to that other work,” Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke told The Independent.

He also added: “It’s amazing that work of this magnitude, sensitivity and expense could come together in this amount of time.”

Mr Buschatzke called getting the plan together in under four months a “huge lift”.

“But it is indicative of the serious nature of the declining levels of Lake Mead,” Mr Buschatzke said. “I see this as yet another building block, on top of previous agreements that we've entered into, for the sustainability of the river and for Lake Mead and Lake Powell.”

The 85-year-old Hoover Dam, which hold back Lake Mead produces hydroelectric power for more than a million people across the three states.

With less water, the dam now is running at 75 per cent capacity. If Lake Mead falls below 950 feet (289m), the dam’s turbines cease to turn.

Lake Mead, which straddles the Nevada-Arizona line, was at 1,065ft (324m) today.

Next year marks the centennial of the Colorado River Compact, a 1922 agreement among seven states in the river basin governing the allocation of the water rights.

Associated Press contributed to this report

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