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States missed a federal deadline for Colorado River cuts. What now?

Light at sunset illuminates a "bathtub ring," a white band of mineral deposits showing previous water levels on Lake Mead along the Colorado River in Boulder City, Nevada.
Light at sunset illuminates a "bathtub ring," a white band of mineral deposits showing previous water levels on Lake Mead along the Colorado River in Boulder City, Nevada.

As climate change ravages the water supply in the west, the federal government is forcing states to cut back on the water they take from the Colorado River. Or, at least, it’s trying.

Seven states and Mexico have a water-sharing agreement dating back 100 years that says how much water they each can take from the Colorado — an agreement that left out Native American nations entirely despite tribes having a right to as much as a quarter of said water. 

These seven states were supposed to have a plan to cut at least 15 percent more of their water use by this week. They all missed the deadline.

“The solution to our challenges relies on the bedrock of a century of collaboration and partnership in the Colorado River Basin,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton in a press release Tuesday. “But as water stewards, it is our responsibility to protect the system and the millions of Americans who depend on it.”

How much power does the federal government have to get the states to an agreement? And what happens if they don’t cut back?

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Amanda Williams