California, Arizona and Nevada have reached a consensus on how to conserve at least 3 million acre-feet of water until 2026, but the plan still needs to be approved by the Upper Basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Under the plan that Colorado River negotiators from the Lower Basin states detailed in a letter to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton on Monday, water users would be compensated for up to 2.3 million acre-feet of reductions with Inflation Reduction Act funding.
The letter did not state how much money users would be given in compensation, though the Washington Post reported Monday that the overall cost would be around $1.2 billion.
The remaining 700,000 acre feet or more of water included in the plan would either go uncompensated or be paid for using state or local funds.
Gridlock between the Lower Basin states previously held up discussions, with California and Arizona navigating long-standing feuds over water rights. California, one of the river's largest water users, offered to conserve 1.6 million acre-feet under the new plan, according to the Imperial Irrigation District.
"The Lower Basin Plan will generate unprecedented volumes of conservation that will build elevation in Lake Mead, make strategic use of the improved hydrology, and build upon partnerships within and among states, urban water agencies, agricultural irrigation districts, and Basin Tribes who rely upon and share the Colorado River," J.B. Hamby, California's Colorado River Commissioner, said in a release.
The Lower Basin announcement prompted the Interior Department, which previously threatened to "act unilaterally" to preserve Lakes Powell and Mead, to temporarily withdraw a draft Supplemental Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement analyzing two plans that would force the states to make cuts. The agency, in the meantime, will be analyzing the Lower Basin states' proposal under the National Environmental Policy Act, according to a press release.
President Joe Biden called the plan "an important step forward" in federal and state efforts to protect the Colorado River. Touton, in a statement, thanked the states for reaching an agreement.
"This is an important step forward towards our shared goal of forging a sustainable path for the basin that millions of people call home," she said.
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Negotiators from the four states in the Upper Basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — said they support Interior Department review of the proposal, though they do not yet endorse it. In a joint statement, negotiators from the four states said they have not yet reviewed or analyzed the proposal in detail.
"Even though we have questions about the details of the Lower Basin Plan, I am encouraged that the Plan could develop into a preferred alternative after analysis. We remain committed to reaching consensus around short-term solutions while also shifting immediately to the longer-term solutions that will be developed in the post-2026 operating guidelines," said Wyoming Colorado River commissioner Brandon Gebhart.
The plan would only last through 2026, which is when current drought contingency plans are set to expire. Post-2026 cuts will require another set of negotiations from states, which are set to begin next month, according to the Interior Department.
"This proposal protects the system in the short term so we can dedicate our energy and resources to a longer-term solution," Central Arizona Project General Manager Brenda Burman said. "New guidelines for operating the river system will be due by the end of 2026. There's a lot to do and it's time to focus."
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