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A breakthrough water sharing deal is announced by Colorado River states


California, Arizona and Nevada are proposing new cutbacks to their use of the drought-stricken Colorado River to keep it from running dry.


The river is vital for tens of millions of people across the Southwest, and some of America's most productive farms rely on it, too. Drought and population growth and climate change have all contributed to the water crisis. Now, in a proposal released on Monday, states that use the Colorado for essentials like drinking water and generating electricity at dams, agreed to reduce their take of the river in exchange for more than $1 billion in federal payments.

MARTIN: Reporter Luke Runyon from member station KUNC in Colorado is with us now to explain the latest. Luke, thanks so much for being here.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I understand that this new deal is a temporary fix. It's only through 2026. But I still want to know what's in it, and who takes these water cuts?

RUNYON: The bulk of the cutbacks would come from Arizona and California. And those states' leaders have said that they're ready to start relying on the river less but want federal funds to ease some of the economic burden that comes with using less water. They're prepared to conserve 3 million acre-feet over the next 3 1/2 years. And just to put that in perspective, one acre-foot generally supplies about two households in the Southwest for a year. Farmers will use less. Tribes have said they'll conserve as well, even the greater Los Angeles area. And some of the cutbacks will be incentivized. States will split $1.2 billion in federal funds, but it's unclear now exactly how that money will be split up.

MARTIN: So these new cuts come after federal officials last year threatened to intervene and force deeper water cutbacks if the states could not come to an agreement. What's been the reaction from officials in those states?

RUNYON: Right. Last summer, the situation on the Colorado River was much more dire. Its biggest reservoirs were threatening to dip low enough that they would lose the ability to generate hydroelectric power. Then came this very wet winter that we just went through here in the Rocky Mountains, and that eased up the pressure that everyone was feeling. What the states are agreeing to now is significantly less than what federal officials said was needed last year. What state leaders are saying right now is that these are the cuts that they can live with for the next few years while we negotiate a much more robust agreement to go into place after 2026. Here's Brenda Burman. She runs the Central Arizona Project. That's a canal system that delivers water to the Phoenix and Tucson areas.

BRENDA BURMAN: I would say this is a short-term deal, right? This is a short-term deal to build stability and to prepare us for 2026. We know we are going to have to learn to live with a smaller river.

RUNYON: Because these reductions aren't the top-down mandatory cuts that people were really worried about, they're a bit more palatable to farmers and city leaders. And because they come with a lot of federal money attached, that makes the news go down a little bit easier, too. What I'm hearing from people is that this is one more step in the right direction but that the region still has a long way to go before it balances its water demands to match the shrinking river.

MARTIN: So, Luke, is this the kind of thing that tells us what is coming? Like, is it indicative of the kinds of future arguments among the states that we can expect as natural resources become scarce in this era of climate change?

RUNYON: I do think its story fits into a broader discussion about what it's going to take to adapt to climate change. It's likely going to be very expensive and potentially very painful to learn to live with less water in the Southwest, same as it will be to learn to live with rising seas, more destructive natural disasters. But this gives us a glimpse at what the coming challenges are going to look like in real time.

MARTIN: That's Luke Runyon of member station KUNC. He's the host of the podcast Thirst Gap about the Colorado River Basin. Luke, thanks so much for sharing this reporting with us.

RUNYON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.