Biden administration announces new investments in Colorado River conservation

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The Biden administration on Wednesday announced additional steps to protect the stability of the Colorado River, just two days after basin states reached a pivotal consensus on system-wide conservation.

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The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation is finalizing eight new agreements in the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas that will save up to 393,000-acre feet of water in Lake Mead, the Colorado River’s largest reservoir, through 2025. 

Funded by the Inflation Reduction Act, these agreements will help finance system conservation and bolster reservoir storage volumes amid climate change-driven drought conditions, according to the agency.

“The Interior Department is committed to a continued collaborative, consensus-based approach to conserve water and increase the efficiency of water use in the Colorado River Basin,” Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said in a statement.

“These locally led conservation agreements reflect our sustained progress in increasing water conservation across the West,” he added.

Such a consensus-based approach drove the formulation of a landmark proposal for water consumption cutbacks, submitted on Monday to the Bureau of Reclamation by the states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

That proposal, which followed a year of heated debate, would commit those three states to collective conservation of at least 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water by the end of 2026, when current operating guidelines are set to expire.

Of the total reductions, 2.3 million acre-feet would be compensated with funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, if the proposal is approved.

The Colorado River, which serves about 40 million people, is divided into a Lower and Upper basin, which respectively include California, Arizona and Nevada, and Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico.

Each basin is allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of water, for a total of 15 million acre-feet. A typical U.S. suburban household uses about one acre-foot of water annually.

The additional measures announced on Wednesday will commit water entities in the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas to conserve up to 140,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead in 2023 and up to 393,000 through 2025, according to the Interior Department.

The parties participating in the agreements include the City of Phoenix, the City of Tucson, the Tucson-based ASARCO mining company, the City of Glendale, the City of Peoria, the City of Scottsdale, Metro Water District and the Town of Gilbert, per the announcement.

Separately, the Gila River Indian Community and the Ft. McDowell Yavapai Nation also recently entered into agreements to conserve water throughout the system, the agency noted.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton described the new funding mechanism — called the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program — as a “critical tool” to ensure system-wide stability.

“The projects funded under the program will help increase water conservation, improve water efficiency, and prevent the system’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations, threatening water deliveries and hydropower production,” she added.

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