California, Arizona, and Nevada developed the Colorado River Plan

Two and a half years after signing a deal aimed at averting a devastating crisis along the Colorado River, water officials from California, Arizona and Nevada are discussing plans to take less water from the shrinking river and leave it in Lake Mead in an effort to prevent the reservoir from falling to dangerously low levels.

Water authorities from the three states said they are working to confirm details of a deal that would leave an additional 500,000 acres of water in the reservoir next year, and the same amount again in 2023 — about twice the amount of water used. annually via Las Vegas and the rest of southern Nevada.

For California, the deal means participating in water cuts before Lake Mead reaches levels that would otherwise lead to mandatory cuts.

Talks became urgent this summer after federal projections showed the risks of Lake Mead dropping to extremely low levels, despite plans for mandatory cuts across the Southwest that states agreed to in 2019.

With the reservoir in short supply for the first time ever and these cuts still not enough, water management officials have settled on a goal of leaving an additional half a million acres of water in the reservoir rather than sending it to farms, cities and tribal lands. The stored water would be approximately 1.5 million single households used on average per year.

“We have to prove the lake with this plan,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. He said representatives from California, Arizona and Nevada developed the framework for the deal in about two months after seeing forecasts showing increased risks of Lake Mead dropping to lower levels that would lead to larger water cuts in all three states.

“I think getting together in that short amount of time is an indication of the urgency we feel to do more,” Buchatzky said. “If the lake continues to fall, the cuts will be deeper and deeper and deeper. So I think it is an indication of the risks.”

The deal would nearly double cuts to water supplies planned next year between the three countries beyond those already planned under the 2019 agreement, called the Drought Contingency Plan. This new proposal, called 500+ planIn part, it will include securing money to pay some water users to voluntarily give up water.

“We estimate that we’ll need $100 million over those two years out of the three states,” Buchatzky said. And while it’s unclear how much might be available from the federal government, Buschatzke and others said they hope to see a similar amount donated from Washington, with money available through newly signed infrastructure legislation.

The water will come from various sources, including farmers who will pay to let parts of their land dry, tribes who will contribute to the water supply, and water agencies who will leave some of the water in Lake Mead instead of taking it out as planned.

Negotiations are continuing on the details, and officials from California and Arizona said they hope the comprehensive agreement will be ready to be signed next month at a conference in Las Vegas.

Arizona pledged $40 million for the deal. Members of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s board of directors are scheduled to consider approval up to $20 million In this week’s contributions.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s board of directors is due to consider the proposed agreement next month.

If the proposal details were put together as planned, 500,000 acres of water over two years would translate to water levels nearly 16 feet higher in Lake Mead.

The reservoir, the largest in the country, has fallen to just 34% of its full capacity, the lowest point since it was filled in the 1930s with the construction of the Hoover Dam.

For now, the talks have focused on mobilizing money and water for two years. But Buschatzke said it was meant to be a five-year plan, running until the current agreement expires at the end of 2026, at which time states will need to negotiate new rules to deal with the shortage.

If winter brings heavy snow to the Rockies, it can still help alleviate the shortage. But district water managers said they decided to plan for more of the dismal runoff they had seen in the watershed over the past two years from extreme temperatures and dry conditions.

If this severe drought continues for another year or two, the Mead could end up at levels so low that reductions become “unmanageable,” said Bill Hassenkamp, ​​MWD’s director of Colorado River Resources.

“By taking action proactively now, we can reduce the risk of getting to those levels and having to make these unpredictable big cuts,” Hasenkamp said. “You’d better do it sooner than you need to, so you can have more control.”

Without that plan, he said, if nothing is done and the reservoir continues to fall, the entire region may have to deal with much larger cuts.

“Then it cannot be controlled. It is time for suit and fight,” Hassenkamp said. “So a more cooperative approach has always been our preference. We believe it is time to move forward.”

Word of the proposal came as California water officials announced that State-level preservation efforts It was “regressive”. Despite Gov. Gavin Newsom urging state residents to voluntarily reduce water use by 15%, urban areas statewide reduced water use by just 3.9% in September compared to the same month last year. The drop in water use was less than in August, when Californians used 5% less.

Buschatzke said officials from the three states together identified 500,000 acres of water that could be released in 2022 and 2023. He declined to elaborate, saying negotiations are ongoing and that those contributing water could include farmers, tribes, cities and others. destinations.

“It basically pays people for not using the water they used in the past,” he said, adding that participants would voluntarily and temporarily give up water in exchange for payments.

Such deals have been tried on a smaller scale in recent years. In California, MWD recently expanded a deal to pay farmers in the Palo Verde Irrigation area. leave part of their land Dry and frothy. In Arizona, the chieftains of the Indian tribes were in the Colorado River as well Leave some of their farmland dry In a similar deal.

“We’ll look at mixing and matching water and money to come up with the plan that works,” Buschatzke said. “The key is to put the agreement on paper in an actionable way so we know that conservation will happen in 2022.”

The Colorado River has always been chronically intenseWith so much water diverted to supply farms and cities, Mexico’s once vast delta turned into a stretch of desert, with few wetlands remaining. Most of the water diverted – about 70% It is used for farming.

While much of the water will likely be purchased through resting farmland, participants in the talks said some of the water will also come from other sources, including urban agencies that leave water in Lake Mead rather than sending it through its canals.

For example, California’s Imperial Irrigation District has been below its allotment in recent years. This “downstream” of water usually ends up going free to MWD, which is the next entity in the priority system.

That unused water is expected to total about 95,000 acres this year, and likely a similar amount next year, said JP Hamby, IID’s vice president.

“All of this water that we don’t use or oversave in a year, instead of going to the Metropolitan, the Metropolitan agreed not to consume it and leave it in the river, which is a huge advantage,” Hamby said. “This is kind of a big transformation.”

Hamby said it was encouraging that the three countries came up with the plan in just a few months.

Others agreed that quick negotiations bode well for further cooperation in dealing with the worsening shortage. With Lake Mead at such low levels, the need for rapid action is clear, said Kathryn Sorensen, director of research at Arizona State University’s Kiel Center for Water Policy.

“If we go through another bad year or two, you know, things look really terrible. So I think the speed is proportional to the nature and scale of the crisis,” Sorenson said.

When Buschatzke testified at a congressional hearing on the Colorado River last month, he noted that snow mass in the Colorado River basin peaked at 89% of average this year, but that runoff in the watershed was only 33% of average.

Buschatzke said in his book written testimony. “This trend is one that water managers must consider as we plan for the future of the Colorado River.”

Poschatzky told senators that options for immediate action include additional mandatory water cuts or voluntary conservation of more water in Lake Mead, and interstate talks have focused on the voluntary track.

Since 2000, the Colorado River has ravaged a series of mostly dry years exacerbated by global warming with burning fossil fuels. At that time, the flow of the Colorado River was about 20% lower than the 20th century average.

Scientists estimated that about Half the decrease in runoff In watersheds since 2000 due to unprecedented warming. This heat-induced drought is expected to worsen dramatically as temperatures continue to rise.

Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, recently compared it to Planned water cuts Under the current deal to a canopy – one that’s very small and is opening close to the ground.

“This new plan gives us more umbrella and we will publish it sooner,” Udall said. “So hopefully we’ll have a softer landing.”

Given the alarming decline in the river’s reservoirs, Udall said, the flaw in the parachute analogy is that the end of the story will place the parachutist safely on the ground.

“We’re going down the edge of a cliff, if you will. And there’s still more falls. We need another parachute here,” Udall said.

Hopefully the next canopy will be ready before 2027, he said, when the current rules are up and the Southwest needs long-term plans to adapt to hotter, drier watersheds and a river that produces less water.

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