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Our View: Lower basin states’ water reduction agreement a substantial start

Critics quickly dismissed the Colorado River’s lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada’s agreement to reduce water consumption by 3 million acre-feet – enough to supply about 6 million households for a year – between now and 2026 as not doing enough with future funding too uncertain.

It’s a temporary fix, they say, to a problem that requires a complex combination of government-backed incentives to conserve water across the entire basin, all trying to balance the needs of many users at the same time.

True, these efforts do not change the longstanding problem of overallocation of the Colorado River. But we see a brighter hue over this announcement on Monday. It’s a substantial start in conserving water and in decades-long talks that until now, have not been productive.

At its core, $1.2 billion in federal money will compensate users for 2.3 million acre-feet of water.

Scientists and water policy experts are among these critics who say that 3 million acre-feet is significantly less than the reduction of 4 million acre feet – annually – needed to bring the Colorado River’s flows and its usage into balance.

Federal support is the critical cushion and there’s no mention of where funding after 2026 will come from. But if the transition shows it’s working, funding will be justified, and continued.

Also unclear is how and where states will reduce 700,000 acre-feet of water as a result of other techniques.

The bounty of snowpack from this winter, now snowmelt feeding the Colorado River, is our good fortune. But we all know, it’s not near enough.

During the recent decade, plenty of conversations have focused on reduced snowpack, dry soils and reservoir evaporation that resulted in two-thirds of previous flows – flows already lacking – negatively impacting the drinking water of 40 million people, the irrigation of 5.5 million acres and electrical generation.

Less water-intensive crops, and urban water reuse programs and facilities put in place have been extensive research topics for years in southern California, Arizona and Nevada. Knowing about needed changes, farmers have been making plans. And, at least in southern California, significant reuse and double-use urban systems are in place.

Other efforts to reduce water have ramped up, including replacing dirt ditches with pipelines and concrete-lined ditches, installing drip irrigation rather than flooding fields, removing sod and using graywater in parks and gardens.

Habits do change slowly in agriculture, understandably, given how much is at stake in that highly capitalized one-opportunity-a-year-to-get-it-right business. But only two or three years of experience with lower water-use crops will put farmers on a track toward using increasingly less water.

Now, farmers account for 75% to 80% of water consumption from the Colorado River, much of it to grow hay and other fodder for livestock.

At the moment, emphasis is on lower basin states with their large populations. And, although, the upper basin states – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and the northwest corner of New Mexico – are taking some action, more will be needed.

In the coming months, detailed reports will be shared on how the federal funding will be put to use, how additional water will be saved. We’re looking for successful measures, even if steps are small toward solutions.

We’ll take them all as good news.