In summary

Wet weather and planned cuts by California, Arizona and Nevada averted declines that could have threatened water deliveries and power production — but long-term threats to the Colorado River remain.

California, Nevada and Arizona’s historic pact to cut their use of the Colorado River’s overtapped supplies should be enough to keep the basin’s massive reservoirs from hitting dangerously low levels — for now, a federal analysis reported today. 

With the release of its revised environmental assessment today, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is poised to move forward with the three-state plan to give up about 13% of water they receive from the Colorado River through the end of 2026. Next comes 45 days of public comment on the assessment, which is expected to be finalized in early 2024. 

At stake is a water supply for 40 million people, seven states, 30 federally recognized Tribal Nations, and 5.5 million acres of agriculture. A combination of an ample Rocky Mountain snowpack, wet weather and the states’ planned cuts averted imminent declines that could have threatened water deliveries and power production, federal officials say. But they warned that long-term threats to the vital supply remain. 

“The Colorado River Basin’s reservoirs, including its two largest storage reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, remain at historically low levels,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in a statement. “Today’s advancement protects the system in the near-term while we continue to develop long-term, sustainable plans to combat the climate-driven realities facing the Basin.” 

It’s a major milestone for fraught negotiations that began in the summer of 2022, as a megadrought parched the already-overdrafted Colorado River and federal officials called for massive cuts to water use. 

The Colorado River basin states squared off. Deadlines came and went, the states failed to cut a deal, the federal government threatened its own cuts, and a wet winter granted a temporary reprieve to a vital water source in crisis. 

In May of 2023, California, Nevada and Arizona reached an agreement: Together, they would cut their water use by at least 3 million acre-feet through the end of 2026 in exchange for compensation for farmers and other water users. It’s enough water to supply 9 million households for a year. 

Mark Gold, director of water scarcity solutions with the Natural Resources Defense Council, called these cutbacks modest, and said the bureau’s positive assessment was “akin to them calling for a fair catch after the states punted on making the cuts needed to protect the Colorado and build back storage in Lake Mead.”

“The last 23 years of drought in the Basin have demonstrated that even modest cuts in water allocations are not enough to build climate resilience into the system,” Gold said. 

What exactly the plan means for California, though, remains to be seen. Last year, the state committed to conserving 400,000 acre-feet of water per year through the end of 2026 — about 9% of the state’s yearly allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet.  

“How we get there is a little soft right now, but we will get there,” said Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources for the Southern California water import giant, the Metropolitan Water District. “It’s just we don’t have firm numbers from each agency.” 

Growers in the Imperial Valley are expected to weather the bulk of California’s cuts. But the three-page plan that the three states released in May remains light on details. 

Much hinges on funding from the federal government, which set aside $4.6 billion on measures to tackle drought across the West through the Inflation Reduction Act. But the amount going to Colorado River users still hasn’t been finalized, with most in California still awaiting final contracts to fund conservation programs. 

Now, even before plans for the next three years are locked in, attention is shifting to how to manage the Colorado River’s water long term, after key agreements expire at the end of 2026. That, said Jay Weiner, an attorney representing the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe that borders California, Arizona and Mexico, “is now really the big enchilada.”

Here’s what to know. 

A tipping point delayed, but not avoided

Last summer, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton warned that the basin of the iconic Colorado River, which flows through the Grand Canyon, was “approaching a tipping point.” 

With a decades-long megadrought parching the region, the basin’s massive reservoirs Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the largest in the country — had reached historically low levels. Touton called on the seven basin states to cut their water use by about 2 to 4 million acre-feet per year — more than 7 times the amount Nevada receives in a year. 

As the states haggled over a deal and the federal government proposed its own cuts, nature intervened. 

Now Lake Powell is 37% full, and Lake Mead 34% — after having fallen to a quarter of their capacity this time last year.

“This deserves a big whoop dee doo dah,” agreed Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University. “It buys us some time, but it doesn’t solve any of the overarching problems we have. The reservoirs are still really, really low.” 

The Bureau of Reclamation reported that the chances of the reservoirs dropping to critically low levels has dropped to 8% at Lake Powell and 4% at Lake Mead through 2026. 

“However, elevations in these reservoirs remain historically low and conservation measures like those outlined by (California, Arizona and Nevada’s proposal) will still be necessary to ensure continued water delivery to communities and to protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System,” a bureau statement said. 

Demand has long outpaced the river’s supplies, and flows are projected to continue dwindling — reduced by increased temperatures and dry soils that drink up critical runoff as climate change fuels the long-term drying of the region. 

The 3 million acre-feet of water that California, Arizona and Nevada have pledged to conserve through the end of 2026 should be enough for now, Udall said. The states have reported record conservation collectively anticipated to reach more than 1 million acre-feet by the end of year, aided by wet weather and plentiful supplies from Northern California reservoirs.  

But Udall and other experts agree that more durable cuts will be needed to protect supplies long term

“I think we’ll get to 2026 without any undue panic about the level of the reservoirs, but wow, this system continues to throw us big years followed by lots of dry years,” Udall said. “And that’s been part of the problem.”

Dropping the ‘F-word’ in the Imperial Valley

The lower basin states’ plan calls on the federal government to compensate growers and other water users to conserve water in order to achieve three-quarters of the promised cuts. The rest would either be paid for locally or by the state, or go uncompensated. 

But contracts are still in the works, including for farmers in the Imperial Valley — the biggest Colorado River water users in the state. 

The Imperial Irrigation District is entitled to more than two-thirds of the state’s allocation from the Colorado River. Most of the water supplies half a million acres of alfalfa, grasses, wheat, winter vegetables and other crops as well as a handful of communities in the southeast corner of the state. 

The district initially pledged 1 million acre-feet in conservation by the end of 2026, contingent on federal money and growers voluntarily conserving. But without finalized funding, and as growers faced deadlines to make crop decisions and renew leases, that number has declined,  according to water department manager Tina Shields.  

A field of spinach is irrigated with Colorado River water in Imperial Valley on Dec. 5, 2022. Photo by Caitlin Ochs, Reuters
A field of spinach is irrigated with Colorado River water in Imperial Valley on Dec. 5, 2022. Photo by Caitlin Ochs, Reuters

A year later, the 1 million acre-foot pledge has dropped to 800,000. “That’s still within reach. But the longer it takes to check off all of those boxes in order to get started, then that number gets smaller.” Shields said. “There’s certain windows that, as we miss them, the potential for our conservation declines.” 

Possible measures include amping up incentives for conservation on farms, such as by switching to drip irrigation or leveling fields to slow the flow of irrigation water. Another strategy is to compensate growers of certain crops like alfalfa for pausing summertime irrigation for periods of 45 to 60 days — stressing the crop, but not killing it, Shields said. 

The goal is to avoid a full fallowing program. “Politically, I always call it the ‘F-word’ down here,” Shields said. “It’s just not something we want to do to our community unless we have to.”

‘An awkward place right now’

The rest of California’s cuts will come from Coachella Valley Water District, Bard Water District, Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe, Palo Verde Irrigation District, and the Metropolitan Water District, which delivers imported water to 19 million people in six Southern California counties. 

Coachella Valley Water District has already struck a deal with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The water district receives 444,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water — about 10% of the state’s allocation — every year to irrigate crops and golf courses, and to refill groundwater stores that supply drinking water to about 270,000 people mostly in Riverside County. 

Under the agreement, the district will forgo about 35,000 acre-feet a year for three years that would otherwise be used to refill groundwater stores — leaving the water in Lake Mead instead. The federal government will reimburse $400 for every acre-foot. 

But reducing groundwater replenishment can only be a temporary measure, said spokesperson Lorraine Garcia. She said the district hopes that other conservation programs they have requested funding for — including fallowing and irrigating crops with recycled water — will help offset the drain on groundwater stores. 

Still awaiting deals are the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe, whose reservation spans the Colorado River, and the Palo Verde Irrigation District, headquartered in Blythe. 

“We’re in kind of an awkward place right now because we’ve already started fallowing, assuming we would have a contract with the feds,” said Dana “Bart” Fisher, president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District’s board of trustees and a farmer who grows melons and winter vegetables. “I’m certain we’re going to end up with a contract. It’s just happening at a much slower pace than we ever anticipated.” 

Metropolitan Water District will be the backstop ensuring that the state meets its 1.6 million acre-foot target, said Metropolitan’s Hasencamp. But he said he doesn’t anticipate any impacts for residents in the coming years. 

Between the wet year, water conservation, and the highest water allocation from Northern California reservoirs since 2006, the district is on track to store roughly 300,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead this year and has pledged to keep it there through 2027, Hasencamp said. 

“It’s like an IRA with a penalty for early withdrawal, but we’re not going to withdraw it early,” Hasencamp said. “We’re ahead of the game already.” 

‘There’s going to be pain’

After 2026, a whole host of agreements governing reservoir operations, drought shortage plans, and international agreements with Mexico are set to expire. Basin states and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are gearing up to craft replacement guidelines that could shape water management in the basin for decades. 

The current guidelines, the bureau wrote in the Federal Register, are not “sufficiently protective of the resources dependent on the Colorado River,” and new ones must better address tribal interests and the long-term drying of the basin. 

The update will take years, with a final environmental assessment expected in late 2025 and a decision in early 2026. And California water users are preparing for even more challenging negotiations ahead. 

“There’s going to be pain associated with the new post-2026 guidelines,” said Fisher. The Colorado River’s supply is notoriously over-allocated, and there are few other sources of water in the desert. 

“You start getting into emotional territory, where people are unwilling to give up their rights but recognize that they must conserve something,” Fisher said. “It’s a delicate dance that the states are going to have to conduct.” 

Metropolitan’s Hasencamp said it will be critical for the states to reach an agreement on long-term operations and not let fighting force the courts or Congress to intervene. 

“It’s always hard when the pie is shrinking, and you have to figure out how are we going to live with less water? And who’s going to step up? And how are we going to fund it?” he said. “We’d much rather have the seven states and the water users in the states chart our future.” 

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Rachel Becker is a journalist reporting on California’s complex water challenges and water policy issues for CalMatters. Rachel has a background in biology, with master's degrees in both immunology and...