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States Battle Over Colorado River Water

The Colorado River has defined the rise of the American Southwest over the last century. Over five million acres of farmland and forty million people are supported by the river’s waters. It is essential to the economy and lifestyles of the people of seven Southwestern states and northern Mexico. 


However, the Colorado River is in crisis. Although it is the sixth-longest river in America and has a watershed that covers 8% of the continental United States, overestimations of the river’s size when the Colorado River Water Compact was ratified in 1922 have meant that the Southwest has taken more water than the river can support.  


After decades of destructive water management policies and a decades-long “megadrought”, storage levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell are decreasing. Lake Mead’s water level has decreased by approximately 170 feet since the year 2000, while Lake Powell’s water level fell below its critical level of 3,525 feet above sea level in 2022 and is projected to reach its lowest point yet in April 2023. 


Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Las Vegas all rely on water provided by the Lower Colorado River, but the river already faces a one million acre-foot deficit. Scientists estimate that the river’s flow will further decrease by 10 to 30% due to climate change. 


The precipitous decline of the river’s flow has prompted the Interior Department for the seven Southwestern states, including California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, to come up with a collective plan to cut the amount of water they glean from the Colorado River by January 31, 2023. 


Decreasing water use is complicated by the Colorado River Water Compact, which promised now non-existent waters on paper. The agreement also benefits the states with the oldest water rights. 


In light of this, negotiators believe that the probability of the seven states drawing up a collective agreement voluntarily before the deadline is slim. It would be the second time in six months that states have missed a deadline imposed by the federal government to create a consensus on water cuts. 


Without an agreement put in place by the Southwestern states, the Interior Department will be tasked with imposing the cuts, which will most likely embroil the administration in lengthy legal challenges


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