Six Western states that rely on water from the Colorado River have agreed on a model to dramatically cut water use in the basin, months after the federal government called for action and an initial deadline passed. 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. Some of the largest cities in the country—including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, and Las Vegas—two Mexican states, Native American tribes and others depend on the river that's been severely stressed by drought, demand, and overuse.
States missed a mid-August deadline to heed the US Bureau of Reclamation's call to propose ways to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre feet of water. They regrouped to reach consensus by the end of January to fold into a larger proposal Reclamation has in the works. Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming sent a letter Monday to Reclamation, which operates the major dams in the river system, to outline an alternative that builds on existing guidelines, deepens water cuts, and factors in water that's lost through evaporation and transportation. Those states propose raising the levels where water reductions would be triggered at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are barometers of the river's health.
The modeling would result in about 2 million acre-feet of cuts in the Lower Basin, with smaller reductions in the Upper Basin. Mexico and California are factored into the equations, but neither signed on to Monday's letter, the AP reports. Nothing will happen immediately with the consensus reached among the six states. However, not reaching a consensus carried the risk of having the federal government alone determine how to eventually impose cuts. The debates over how to cut water use by roughly one-third have been contentious. The Upper Basin states of Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah have said the Lower Basin states—Arizona, California and Nevada—must do the heavy lifting. That conversation in the Lower Basin has centered on what's legal and what's fair.
Monday's proposal included accounting for the water lost to evaporation and leaky infrastructure as the river flows through the region's dams and waterways. Federal officials estimate more than 10% of the river's flow evaporates, leaks or spills, yet Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico have never accounted for that water loss. The six states argued that Lower Basin states should share those losses—essentially subtracting those amounts from their allocations—once the elevation at Lake Mead sinks below 1,145 feet. The reservoir was well below that Monday.
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