May 22, 2023

Colorado River Basin states reach an agreement on cutting water use

The Glen Canyon Dam is pictured in May 2022 in Page, Arizona.

The seven Colorado River Basin states have come to a consensus on a plan to address dwindling water supplies.

On Monday, the states submitted a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announcing this consensus.

In a press release, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said 40 million people, seven states and 30 Tribal nations rely on the Colorado River to provide drinking water and electricity. 

The letter comes after the Lower Basin states—California, Arizona and Nevada—reached an agreement to conserve an additional three million acre feet of water by the end of 2026 and at least half of that will be conserved by the end of 2024.

The Bureau of Reclamation has been pushing the states to reach a consensus for nearly a year and has threatened to take unilateral action should the states fail. 

While the Upper Basin states—Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico—have not had time to fully evaluate the Lower Basin’s plans, the letter represents an endorsement of the Lower Basin agreement. This is because the Bureau of Reclamation is wrapping up public comments on their proposal for the Colorado River. The Upper Basin states have already submitted their plan for water conservation to the Bureau of Reclamation.

“For over a century, Reclamation has led with solutions grounded in partnership and collaboration. The agreement today continues in this tradition,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in a press release. “I am proud of the Reclamation team’s work and thank our partners across the basin and the Basin states representatives for reaching this moment. This is an important step forward towards our shared goal of forging a sustainable path for the basin that millions of people call home.”

After the Bureau of Reclamation learned of the consensus agreement, it withdrew the draft supplemental environmental impact statement that has been out for public comment. This document outlined steps for managing the Colorado River.

By withdrawing the federal document, the Bureau of Reclamation will be able to evaluate the new consensus agreement under the National Environmental Policy Act. This allows the Bureau to look at its economic and environmental impacts.

An updated draft EIS will be published once that analysis has been completed.

The basin has been plagued by decades of drought. This spring and winter moisture has brought some welcome relief, but does not remove the need for conservation efforts.

“The Seven States recognize that having one good winter does not solve the systemic challenges facing the Colorado River,” the letter states.

The Inflation Reduction Act that passed last year helped the states reach consensus on water conservation efforts. The law will provide compensation for about 2.3 million acre feet of water in the Lower Basin.