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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Lower basin states sign deal to put water back in Lake Mead amid dropping levels

500 + signing
Alex Hager
Representatives from lower Colorado River basin states, the federal government and tribes sign the new 500+ plan. The deal, formalized at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas, allocates millions of dollars to help put water back into Lake Mead.

Water agencies in three Southwestern states and the federal government signed a deal to keep more water in Lake Mead. The new agreement — involving Arizona, Nevada, California and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — is seen as a way to preempt mandatory water use cutbacks by taking voluntary conservation measures before they kick in.

The deal was announced Wednesday at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas, an annual meeting of scientists and decisionmakers who track and shape the fate of a river that supplies 40 million people throughout the Southwest. The signing is framed by the grim backdrop of a dry future — attendees grappled with questions about how to share a river that is rapidly shrinking due to climate change.

Adel Hagekhalil, general manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and one of the plan’s signers, said the new plan should be seen as an example of the extraordinary measures needed during a period of unprecedented drying.

This is a wake up call for everyone,” he said. “For all of us. We are facing a new normal when it comes to climate change. Don't be fooled if we get rain.”

In August, the federal government officially declared the first-ever water shortage for the Colorado River basin, triggered when levels dropped below a certain threshold in Lake Mead. Should levels dip even further, as climate scientists predict they will, more mandatory cutbacks will be issued.

The agreement, called the “500+ plan,” aims to add 500,000 acre-feet of additional water to Lake Mead in both 2022 and 2023. That’s enough water to serve about 1.5 million households for a year. The reservoir, which acts as a water bank for millions of people, as well as households and farms below it, is already at all-time low levels.

The water additions are designed to keep Lake Mead from dropping even further, below 1,025 feet, and triggering steeper cutbacks.

Each state would contribute millions of dollars over the next two years — $60 million from Arizona, $20 million from Nevada and $20 million from California with federal matching dollars. That spending will be used to incentivize farmers, water agencies and tribes to reduce their total water use, freeing up more water for return into the reservoir.

“The bigger problem is that there's overuse in the basin and this is a temporary solution to get us past this crisis,” said Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River District who has attended the water conference in Las Vegas for more than four decades.

“We need to turn that into a permanent reduction,” he said. “The investments that we're making need to last for decades. I think that's the next challenge. I'm certain that everyone sort of understands that this is sort of the low hanging fruit. It buys us time, but it doesn't solve the long term problem.”

The 500+ plan is seen by some as a band-aid measure while the Colorado River’s water users work to establish new guidelines for how to share its dwindling supply. The current set of rules expires in 2026. The rules in place today also include measures from a 2019 drought contingency plan.

Officials at the signing ceremony for the new 500+ plan said their 2019 efforts were designed to make room for additions down the line.

“What you're seeing is (the drought contingency plan) actually operate in exactly the way it was planned to,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Hagekhalil said these efforts on Lake Mead are “a start.”

“I think it's symbolic to the need for collaboration and partnership,” he said. “We can't do it alone. Also, what I think to solve the issues around the new normal around the Colorado River — we need multiple solutions, not one single solution.”

This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.

Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.
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