Peace in the Colorado River Basin

Cody Good
Colorado River dam
Courtesy of the Smithsonian

The story of the Colorado River facing its historic megadrought and interstate disagreements took a 180-degree turn thanks to atmospheric rivers literally and the IRA figuratively making it rain in the region.

Background: The Colorado River is a vital resource of drinking water, farmland irrigation, and hydroelectricity to millions of people across the southwest US and part of Mexico. Concern for the state of the Colorado River understandably stems from the region experiencing its driest period since at least the year 800.

And now: Arizona, California, and Nevada—the lower Basin States along the river—reached a historic agreement on Monday to cut their collective water consumption by 2026. The reduction will be at least 3 million-acre-feet of water or 13 percent of total usage, less than what the federal government had previously asked be cut but still welcomed.

  • 1 acre-foot works out to roughly the annual water needs of three average urban California households, so roughly 9 million homes in total.

New developments led to success where past attempts had failed

The massive amounts of precipitation in California and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) are to thank for the states agreeing to make cuts. Atmospheric rivers helped fill the reservoirs while the IRA will be filling the pockets of those impacted by the water cuts.

  • The IRA will provide $1.2 billion in grants to compensate water districts, cities, and indigenous communities for making the cuts.

Bottom line: The agreement is only a temporary fix. The Interior Department will be studying the effects of the new cuts while the seven US states and 30 Tribal Nations along the Colorado River still need to determine their plan for beyond 2026.

Given that atmospheric rivers and federal funding may not be available by then, all parties agreeing may be far more difficult.