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Colorado River Is on Life Support, and 40 Million People Depend on It for Water

Vulnerable communities may be at risk of reduced water supply under a new Colorado River agreement.

A twisted Colorado River snakes across Kawuneeche Valley scarred by the East Troublesome fire near the headwaters of the Colorado River on May 13, 2023, in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Water rights negotiators from California, Arizona and Nevada announced earlier this month that they have reached an agreement to reduce their draw of water from the Colorado River by 3 million acre-feet between now and 2026. That translates to the amount of water that several million households use in a year, and it represents a 14 percent reduction in water usage. Slightly over half of that amount will come from California; the rest will be divided between Arizona and Nevada.

The May 22 agreement was reached after the federal government grew so worried about the state of the river that it threatened to impose a water-saving settlement on the squabbling states unless they could get their own act together and come up with a workable solution.

This has been a known problem for years. Hydrologists throughout the last decade-plus of drought (a mega-drought only partially relieved by this year’s wet winter) have been warning that the Colorado River is on life support, its waters overused by rapidly growing cities, by agriculture and by industry. Indeed, as water levels fall, the river’s once-vaunted hydroelectric dams now risk becoming more like corks blocking up the flow of a disappearing colossus. Yet for years, states have kicked the can down the road, preferring instead to overdraw on water sources — river supplies and groundwater reserves — that can only replenish extremely slowly.

Before this epic winter dumped dozens of feet of snow in the mountains and trillions of gallons of rain onto the lowlands of the American West, the federal government was warning the seven states that draw on the river’s waters that the entire ecosystem could collapse within just a handful of years. This winter has provided a reprieve, but likely only a brief one. Were the river to die, it would be an environmental calamity at least as devastating as the Dust Bowl of nearly 90 years ago.

The California-Arizona-Nevada agreement is a vital first step to saving a river that is both iconic and absolutely essential to sustaining the urban and agricultural infrastructures of the American West: The water systems based around the river provide water to 40 million people, including members of 30 tribal nations. But reaching an agreement in principle is very different from actually working out the specifics of how such cuts will be implemented.

If the Bureau of Reclamation approves the agreement, then the hard work of actually divvying up how the water reductions will fall within the states begins. In 2012, California codified the right to safe and secure supplies of drinking water via what water rights activists hailed as a landmark piece of legislation. Since then, the state has invested billions of dollars in upgrading water systems, connecting off-the-grid regions that have historically been reliant on well-water to larger water districts. The state has also established water boards that are more inclusive of locals’ needs than the old, industry-dominated boards used to be. Despite this, during the most recent drought numerous wells ran dry, and some off-the-grid communities ended up having to truck in water so that residents could, at great expense, continue to take showers, flush toilets and wash their dishes.

In Arizona and Nevada, by contrast, there is no codified right to water; it is, in fact, perfectly legal, in both those desert states, to deny water access to someone in desperate need. Both states grant water rights on a seniority basis — as, too, does California, though its system has been somewhat modified by the legislation granting a right to secure supplies of water — meaning those with the oldest claims have the most access to diminishing water supplies.

In order to avert mass distress within their populations, all three of these states will now have to divvy up the water usage reductions in ways that minimize the harm to individuals. Nevada has aggressively accelerated its water conservation efforts in recent years — after Las Vegas came within 50 days of running out of drinkable water — and hydrologists say the state should now be able to absorb these cuts without huge changes in people’s daily lives. Yet, the state is by no means out of the woods. Over the last couple months, faced with the realization of permanently reduced water sources, the state legislature has been debating imposing annual water usage-caps on single family homes.

As water becomes ever scarcer in the American West, water rights groups such as California’s Community Water Center are pushing to protect water access for the most vulnerable. But, despite this activism, there is a huge risk that powerful lobbies, such as agribusiness, will succeed in shifting the brunt of the cuts onto poorer, more marginalized communities.

In Arizona, for example, nearly half the members of the Navajo Nation have no access to running water. They already survive by trucking in water, at huge expense, over great distances. Economically impoverished and lacking the political clout of other water users, these communities have long been at the forefront of debates over how to allocate water resources. They remain particularly vulnerable now that less water can be drawn from the Colorado River.

Indeed, throughout the Colorado River basin, tribes have for decades been subject to use-it-or-lose-it mandates; if they don’t use all their allocated waters (not because the need isn’t there, but because building the infrastructure to access that water and pipe it into homes has long been neglected), the excess is considered forfeit and used by industry. Now, with significant water cuts coming, those big businesses will be all the more aggressive in asserting rights to whatever waters they can get their hands on.

In Arizona, farmers in the western part of the state have seniority rights for Colorado River water usage; but users in the central region of the state, including many tribes, and many cities, have far less protection and will likely bear a bigger brunt of the cuts.

The Biden administration has been working to protect at least some particularly at-risk communities. Under the terms of the three-state agreement, the federal government will kick in $1.2 billion in grants to help communities — including tribes — and businesses adapt. From other federal funding sources $233 million has been made available to develop water conservation strategies for the Gila River Indian Community. Tens of millions of dollars more have been earmarked for irrigation improvements, rainwater harvesting and groundwater storage systems.

These are all good starts. But they should be seen as just that — beginnings of a process, rather than the end result, aimed at promoting equitable water access in a time of escalating ecological stresses. The Colorado River’s difficulties represent a moment of stunning danger for the American West. But if the current crisis leads elected officials to reform centuries-old water rights systems so as to protect the most vulnerable members of the community, then perhaps something good might yet come out of this ecological debacle.

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