Congress approves seven-state Colorado River deal addressing drought conditions

The House and Senate both approved a seven-state agreement Monday night designed to reduce use of water from the parched Colorado River by drought-stricken Western states. 

Sponsored by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyTrump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Gallego tapped as national campaign chairman for Swalwell presidential bid MORE (R-Ariz.), the bill gives approval to a deal that was crafted through years of negotiations and designed to manage a limited water supply in the dry but rapidly growing West. It passed by voice vote in both chambers. 

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The Colorado River is a water source for some 40 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. But reservoirs along the river are increasingly drying up: Lake Mead and Lake Powell sit below 40 percent capacity.

McSally praised the House and Senate for passing a bill on the same day that was just introduced Tuesday, saying urgent effort was required.

“Unfortunately the last 19 years have been the Colorado Basin’s driest on record,” she said, leaving water supplies for major cities at risk of reaching crisis levels.

Congressional and presidential approval is required for interstate compacts, and supporters stressed the deal's importance to avoid dire consequences.

Lake Mead currently sits just 15 feet above the mark of 1,075 feet above sea level that would trigger mandatory water restrictions already hashed out by a 2007 agreement. The goal with this year’s deal is to stave off those cuts with progressively severe cutbacks as the water level at the lake drops.

But more troubling than future restrictions is what would happen if Lake Mead, located outside Las Vegas, falls too low. At 950 feet above sea level, the water would no longer be high enough to supply electricity from the dam. And at 895 feet, water would fail to flow over the dam at all.

“The drought created by climate change in the Southwest has made our area more arid, made water more precious and more finite, and we have to deal with that question,” Grijalva said in a video explaining the bill’s expedited passage.

The Senate bill, identical to the measure passed by the House, was co-sponsored by each of the other 13 senators who represent states in the Colorado River Basin.

“Severe droughts will become more frequent in the West as our climate continues to change, so we have to be prepared by saving more water from the wet years for the dry ones,” Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks MORE (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

Many environmental groups were also supportive of the agreement, including the National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Declining reservoirs threaten water supplies that are essential to the economy, environment, and health of the Southwestern United States,” the groups wrote in a letter urging passage.

The agreement avoids what would have been a startling first: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation threatened to impose its own water restrictions on the states if they did not come to an agreement by the end of January.

Even so, the compact states needed a deadline extension in order to give Arizona and California time to work through issues.

Arizona required legislation to approve the deal and secured its passage with support from farmers between Phoenix and Houston, who may still have to leave 40 percent of farmland fallow with reduced access to water.

Another sticking point came from the Imperial Irrigation District, California’s largest user of Colorado River water, which demanded $200 million to help restore the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake. Feinstein said she would work with the Department of Agriculture to secure additional funds for conservation efforts for the lake.