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Officials urge Colorado River states to reach water-sharing agreement

Lake Powell, which is in the Colorado River Basin, could reach critical levels in a few short years. The Bureau of Reclamation retained 480,000 acre-feet of water in the lake in 2022. File Photo by NASA/UPI
1 of 2 | Lake Powell, which is in the Colorado River Basin, could reach critical levels in a few short years. The Bureau of Reclamation retained 480,000 acre-feet of water in the lake in 2022. File Photo by NASA/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Federal officials and Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly have urged Western states to reach a water-sharing agreement amid a historic "megadrought" along the Colorado River.

Kelly, a Democrat, as well as members of the Biden administration pleaded for a deal during a meeting of the Colorado River Water Association in Las Vegas on Friday, warning that one could be imposed on them from Washington as the drought deepens.

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The meeting was intended to provide a forum where states can negotiate an outline for water distribution policy.

Dwindling water supplies and drought led the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the allocation of water from the Colorado River Basin, to retain 480,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell this year.

Officials warn that low water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead could soon reach critical levels. The reservoirs could need to be completely emptied by 2024 if nothing is done, one Arizona water regulator told the gathering.

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The Biden administration has cautioned it could step in as soon as next summer to mandate reductions if an agreement isn't reached. Prolonged drought and low runoff conditions accelerated by climate change are responsible for the situation, it says, with urgent action needed to protect the system.

The river basin "grows over 100 million tons of vegetables and forage every year, from Colorado to Yuma to the Imperial Irrigation District... as our population grows, the importance of protecting the system grows too," Kelly told attendees.

"Moving water, protecting our fragile ecosystems, and learning to live and prosper during drought are not mutually exclusive futures for our Basin. Building that future for the Colorado River starts here," he said.

The appropriation of water from the Colorado River Basin is governed by the Bureau of Reclamation under a number of frequently updated agreements between the seven states who use the water source, as well as Mexico.

States are at odds over multiple contentious issues. For instance, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah have normally been taxed for water lost to evaporation in federal reservoirs, while Arizona, California and Nevada haven't been required to account for evaporation.

The Bureau of Reclamation guarantees the lower basin states their water allocation, even if this means drawing on reserves intended to supply upper basin states.

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Additionally, Native American nations have been urging participants to give them more resources and agency over water supplies.

"The river has a much longer history, a history of drying up and flooding, and my people have had the resilience to overcome those obstacles," said Amelia Flores, chair of the Colorado River Indian Tribal Council.

Kelly also bemoaned the lack of resources for Indian nations.

"I spent time with the Colorado River Indian Tribal Council community last November, visiting some of their farmland. I saw how water escapes their system," he said. "in some spots, seepage from canals bleeds into idle farmland packed with salt cedar, an invasive species. With limited resources, the tribe can't recapitalize or modernize its water system."

"It is a 23-year drought, so let's adjust to the reality of the situation and operate the system that sustains the 40 million who depend on it," Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Toulon told KTNV-TV.

The association adopted a number of resolutions urging the Bureau of Reclamation to bring the Yuma Desalting Plant to operational status, to control the flow of water near the Imperial Dam, and to negotiate adequate resources with Native American nations.

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