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U.S. prods Colorado River Basin states for water conservation agreement

With Colorado River Basin states in disarray, the government said on Tuesday it would work with the seven states for an agreement on huge reductions in water usage from the river. In the interim, the Interior Department said it would release less water next year to Arizona and Nevada as well as to Mexico, in response to the 23-year drought that has dried the basin.

This past June, federal officials gave basin states 60 days to write a plan that would reduce water usage by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet annually — a drastic cut, considering that the state of Colorado alone annually draws around 2 million acre-feet from the river. A 2018 report estimated that annual withdrawals were an average of 17 million acre-feet from 1985 to 2010. Agriculture was the largest user.

Population growth and drought have strained the capacity of the river.

“In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced,” said Tanya Trujillo, Interior’s assistant secretary for water and science, as the department pledged “continued engagement” with states and tribes. “Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency.”

Interior Department officials said during a news conference that they would prefer to see a consensus among basin states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — while leaving on the table the possibility of unilateral federal action. “There’s still time for that [consensus]. That said, we stand firm in the need to protect the system,” said Interior deputy secretary Tommy Beaudreau.

The Interior Department declared a Tier 2 shortage in Lake Mead. To maintain water levels in the reservoir, it said it would reduce allotments in the lower basin by 21 percent for Arizona, by 8 percent for New Mexico and by 7 percent for Mexico. Those reductions, totaling 721,000 acre-feet, were the result of agreements already in place. No water savings were required from California. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons and enough water for one or two households a year.

“Today’s Colorado River projections are undoubtedly a dire warning for the American West to eliminate rampant corporate water abuse before it’s too late,” said the consumer group Food and Water Watch. It said California should cut down on water use in agriculture and oil production.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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