Biden administration backs short-term Colorado River water savings plan

The Biden administration announced its support on Tuesday for a consensus-based, short-term proposal that will promote significant water conservation efforts across the Colorado River basin.

The plan, which involves at least 3 million acre-feet of system-wide usage reductions, serves to tide the region over until current operational guidelines expire at the end of 2026, according to the Department of the Interior.

The administration said it will be harnessing up to $670.2 million in Inflation Reduction Act funds to support more than 1.58 million acre-feet of that total 3 million acre-feet of water conservation.

“President Biden made a promise to the American people to invest in communities, bolster climate resiliency, and protect our nation’s natural and cultural resources,” Acting Deputy Secretary Laura Daniel-Davis said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Our collective efforts to protect the stability of the Colorado River System reflect significant efforts to uphold that promise,” she added.

These considerable cutbacks — proposed by the Colorado River’s seven basin states in May 2023 — were selected by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation as the “preferred alternative” in a final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) released on Tuesday.

The May 2023 submission, drafted by the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada, was the result of a year of heated disputes over temporary water usage reductions.

All seven states — also including the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — began negotiating reductions after Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton asked in June 2022 that they find a way to cut annual consumption by 2 to 4 million acre-feet.

For reference, each basin is allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of water, for a total of 15 million acre-feet, while Mexico also receives 1.5 million acre-feet. A typical U.S. suburban household uses about one acre-foot of water annually.

Such reductions would serve to bolster the dwindling Lake Mead and Lake Powell reservoirs, until new long-term guidelines are in place. Renegotiations of those rules, created in 2007 and expiring at the end of 2026, are currently underway.

While the Bureau of Reclamation had given the seven states a January 2023 deadline for submitting a unified, short-term proposal, what ended up materializing were initially two competing offers.

The first was a joint document from six states that sought to distribute evaporation losses across the basin, while the second was a proposal from California, which centered on the state’s status as a senior water rights holder.

Lacking a consensus-based agreement, the Bureau in April 2023 released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement with its own alternatives.

But a month later, with the support of all seven states, California, Arizona and Nevada submitted a unified proposal to the federal agency.

“Reclamation is grateful to our partners across the basin,” Touton said in a Tuesday statement, citing the “unprecedented level of collaboration” among state officials, tribal nations, water managers and farmers and other stakeholders.

“We will continue working collaboratively to ensure we have long-term tools and strategies in place to help guide the next era of the Colorado River Basin,” she added.

Due to a combination of conservation efforts and improved hydrological conditions, Lake Mead levels have currently reached 1,075 feet, their highest since May 2021, when they were at 1,073 feet, according to the Interior Department.

As part of the total anticipated water use reductions, the administration announced on Tuesday that it will be investing about $160 million in three new System Conservation Implementation Agreements in California, which will save up to 399,153 acre-feet water in Lake Mead through 2026.

The agreements involve up to 30,000 acre-feet conserved in the Coachella Valley Water District, up to 351,063 acre-feet in a joint deal between Palo Verde Irrigation District and Metropolitan Water District and up to 18,090 acre-feet in a partnership between Bard Water District and Metropolitan Water District.

With the addition of these three collaborations, the Inflation Reduction Act will be providing up to $670.2 million for 24 conservation agreements across California and Arizona — with the expectation of saving up to 1.58 million-acre-feet of water.

Alongside the domestic conservation efforts, the Bureau of Reclamation and the International Boundary and Water Commission are working with Mexico on additional savings measures that could be implemented through 2026, according to the Interior Department.

The Department said it anticipated that the countries would finalize the language of an official agreement on the matter by mid-March — detailing such savings, which include “those enabled by U.S. federal investments.”

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