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States sign short-term Colorado River drought plan, but global warming looms over long-term solutions

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The drought plan agreement is big step toward slowing the decline of Lake Mead and setting up a future of more sustainable water use in the Colorado River Basin./American Rivers Credit: Sinjin Eberle UT, Lake Powell

By Ian James | Arizona Republic 

The Colorado River just got a boost that’s likely to prevent its depleted reservoirs from bottoming out, at least for the next several years. 

Representatives of seven Western states and the federal government signed a landmark deal on Monday laying out potential cuts in water deliveries through 2026 to reduce the risks of the river’s reservoirs hitting critically low levels. 

Yet even as they celebrated the deal’s completion on a terrace overlooking Hoover Dam and drought-stricken Lake Mead, state and federal water officials acknowledged that tougher negotiations lie ahead. Their task starting next year will be to work out new rules to re-balance the chronically overused river for years to come. 

Figuring out how to do that will be complicated because the Colorado River, which supplies water for vast farmlands and more than 40 million people, is managed under a nearly century-old system of allocations that draws out more than what flows in from rain and snow in an average year.

The river’s reservoirs have fallen since 2000 during one of the driest periods in centuries, and global warming is cranking up the pressures by contributing to the declines in the river’s flow. 

 “Look at all we have accomplished by working together,” said federal Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, who signed the agreements alongside the states’ representatives. “All the states should be commended for finding a path forward.”

She called the deal historic and said it adds an important new chapter to the rules that govern the river. 

“But our work is not done,” Burman said. “We know we have even greater challenges ahead.”


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  • Published: 8 months ago on May 21, 2019
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