As water in the Colorado River continues to dwindle, the region dependent upon it is scrambling to find ways to curtail its decline. Seven states rely on water from the river, the amounts governed by the Colorado River Compact and the Drought Contingency Plans. The plans expire in 2026, and negotiations are already underway to determine how to parcel out the river for the future; however, consensus regarding the best path forward has yet to be found as the states squabble over who should bear the brunt of the cuts.
In 2021, water levels in Lake Mead, one of two reservoirs on the river, decreased to such a point that a Tier 1 shortage was declared, triggering mandatory cuts that went into effect in January 2022 for the states of Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. This summer, when charged with the task of committing to deeper cuts for 2023, the seven states missed the deadline to produce a plan, leaving the federal government to step in. In August, the reservoir fell into Tier 2 which will trigger additional cuts for those same states and Mexico in January.
Delaying action for several years until a new water agreement can be crafted would be reckless given the speed at which the river is declining. Taking the initiative to encourage water savings, 30 water agencies in California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding to reduce ornamental grasses by 30 percent. The MOU marks the first time agencies have jointly agreed to address a particular category of water use, although it does not establish water reduction goals or set penalties for non-compliance. Cities account for only 20 percent of water use from the river, but any reductions can contribute to the bottom line. The MOU also commits to “more water reuse and recycling programs and implementing water efficiency strategies by sharing best practices.”
Many areas throughout the region have banned the addition of any new decorative grass and have encouraged the removal of already existing grasses. Other locations have cash incentives and fines in place to encourage grass removal and to prevent watering. In Las Vegas, a law was passed that all non-functional turf must be removed by 2026.
Although this agreement will produce water savings, it will not produce enough to counter the continuing decline of the river. Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of water use from the river, and there are no agreements forthcoming from that sector, leaving the federal government to continue its role as the water referee, forcing the states to face tough decisions.