Lake Mead as seen from Hoover Dam

Tomorrow is the deadline for a deal among the seven states that share water from the Colorado River, and one state, Arizona, is holding out.  The water plan agreed to by the other states back in December, confronts the long-running drought in the region, the resulting dwindling supply of water from the River, and how the states can ensure river water does not get overused.  Arizona was the only state that required the plan be approved by its Legislature, which according to the Associated Press, has made the negotiations on the drought contingency plan more complex. What if Arizona does not meet the deadline?  Then the Department of Interior will allegedly ask the other states for their views on how to divide the limited pool of water, and then the federal government will rule unilaterally.  

  • A shortage of water is predicted to hit in August — the plan is needed to deal with the immediate shortage and shortages in the future
  • The Colorado River supplies water to 40 million people across Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California
  • The settlement is not mandatory — the federal government has the authority to take action to address the shortage of water
  • Under current rules, Arizona would be the most disadvantaged state because they are the most downstream — have the lowest “priority” water rights under traditional water law
  • The trigger for drought plans is when Lake Mead that stores the water behind its famous Hoover Dam, which sits on the border between Arizona and Nevada, falls below 1,075 feet of water level.

The AP reported that under the plan, Arizona must reduce its use of Colorado River water by up to 700,000 acre-feet, which is a tall order – that is more than twice Nevada’s yearly allocation. An acre-foot is enough for one to two households a year. Arizona lawmakers have introduced legislation but they are still working out the details, including some dealing with tribal water rights.  The agreement is actually international — Mexico also has agreed to cutbacks in the water it can expect to draw from the Colorado River.

Why This Matters:  The situation for water in the southwest will only get worse due to climate change.  Arizona is over a barrel, literally, and some of the other states are starting to take pre-emptive action in the event that Arizona does not sign on to the deal.  The stakes for the region could not be higher.  The federal government has largely been able to take a back seat and let the states come together around a deal, but the Interior Department will be under pressure to cut back on Arizona’s water deliveries soon unless they can agree.  If it falls apart at the last minute, one thing is certain, there will be litigation.  And water shortages all around.

To Go Deeper:  Listen to a six-part podcast on the Colorado River water shortage by the Climate Assessment for the Southwest here.

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