A new proposal for managing the drought-stricken Colorado River Basin through 2026 has been released by the Bureau of Reclamation and Lower Basin states.
The plan outlines major cuts in water use to address rapidly declining reservoir levels.
The proposal commits to conserving 3 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River over the next three years. The bulk of the reductions, 2.3 million acre-feet, would be compensated through $4.6 billion in federal funding allocated by the Inflation Reduction Act. The remaining conservation efforts would be voluntary or implemented by state and local governments.
How the States Were Affected
California would face the steepest cuts under the plan, followed by Arizona and then Nevada. These reductions build on previously agreed upon conservation efforts in the 2007 Interim Guidelines and 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. When accounting for all agreements, Arizona stands to see the largest overall decrease in its Colorado River water use.
Management of critical reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead would continue under existing protocols, unless water levels drop dangerously low. Below elevations of 3,490 feet at Powell and 1,000 feet at Mead, the dams’ ability to generate hydroelectric power would be impacted.
A Long-Term Drought Expedited Usage Cuts
The proposal comes after an extremely dry 22-year period left the Colorado River Basin reservoirs depleted. In 2022, Lake Powell and Lake Mead hit their lowest recorded levels, spurring the Department of the Interior to expedite planning for the post-2026 management of the river. An initial draft plan was released in April, but improved hydrology projections in June allowed for increased optimism in the latest proposal.
The Lower Basin states and Biden administration have celebrated the collaborative approach to the plan and federal investments in drought mitigation. However, some stakeholders have voiced concerns about the proposal. Tribes across the basin emphasized the need for meaningful consultation leading up to the 2026 guidelines. Environmental groups cautioned against overstating short-term optimism, given the gravity of long-term drought and climate impacts facing the Colorado River.
What To Expect in the Future
A 45-day public comment period on the proposal is now open. In 2026, the interim guidelines governing Colorado River management will expire, requiring negotiation of new operating rules. The Bureau of Reclamation has already initiated planning for the post-2026 guidelines, with a final decision expected in early 2026.
While the proposal attempts to address urgent short-term needs, uncertainty remains regarding long-term solutions. With climate change exacerbating aridification in the region, tough decisions lie ahead for the 40 million people dependent on the Colorado River. Achieving sustainability will require collaboration among all stakeholders in the basin.
Cover photo courtesy of: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center