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7 states that rely on the Colorado River are up against a deadline for water cutbacks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Seven states that rely on the Colorado River have to figure out how to use less water.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah, the river feeds Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Both are low after decades of drought, and the states face a deadline today to reach a new water sharing agreement or see the federal government impose one. Late yesterday, six states released a proposal to save water, but California did not join them.

INSKEEP: Alex Hager has been covering this long-running water crisis for our member station KUNC in Northern Colorado, which is one of the states affected. Hey there, Alex.

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: How close are the states to really agreeing?

HAGER: Well, the fact that six of them came together and put forth this proposal, that stands out. These states like to talk a big talk about collaboration, but we don't often see them put that mentality into action. You know, they're trying to meet the needs of cities and farms from Wyoming to Mexico, and that is not an easy task. But at the end of the day here, it is important to remember this is not a deal. It is just a proposal. It is a suggestion for how the federal government could proceed.

INSKEEP: Well, what is in that proposal?

HAGER: Well, they put out this proposal to conserve about 1.5 million acre feet of water. That is enough to supply millions of homes each year. So right now, the Biden administration is working on tweaks to the amount of water released from those big reservoirs over the next couple years - that's Lake Mead and Lake Powell. And they asked the states to send in a proposal to help guide those tweaks, one of which is accounting for evaporation. So here, they're saying, look, every year we release a certain amount of water from Lake Mead down to parts of Nevada, California and Arizona. But the amount of water drops even more just from evaporation. So if you just reduce the amount of water being released from Lake Mead by the amount that evaporates, that will help keep levels from falling even further. And that is pivotal here because if they keep dropping, they could get too low to generate hydropower that supplies millions of people.

INSKEEP: OK. I just want to be clear on something. You said 1.5 million acre feet of water. An acre foot of - is that enough water to cover an entire acre of land, one foot deep? That's how much water we're talking about here?

HAGER: That is correct. About the area of a football field, one foot deep.

INSKEEP: And 1.5 million of those. So a lot of water at stake here. Why did California say no to that plan?

HAGER: It's not exactly a shock that they are the lone holdout. California uses more Colorado River water than any other state, and their water rights are some of the oldest. So that means that when there's a shortage, they are going to be the last in line to lose their water. California grows a lot of the country's food. That takes a lot of water. It also has growing, thirsty cities. This proposal would cut back on the total amount of water that California receives. They responded by putting out a statement calling it inconsistent with the law of the river. And they said they would put out their own proposal for water cutbacks, one that is, quote, "practical, voluntary and achievable." But they didn't offer a timeline on when that will be out.

INSKEEP: OK. If they're putting out competing proposals, does the federal government need to solve the problem for the states?

HAGER: Well, it is likely that as part of this process, the federal government will step in. But, you know, it's understandable that no administration really wants to get stuck with that, telling people they have to give something up. Right now, they're looking for something that will hold together until 2026, when the current rules for the river expire. And they expect to come up with a more permanent rework of how the river's shared.

INSKEEP: Alex Hager of KUNC, thanks so much.

HAGER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Alex Hager