California will get $295 million from feds to use less Colorado River water. Here’s why some Utahns aren’t happy.

The federal government is paying the Golden State to use less water, but Utah’s water experts worry the model isn’t sustainable.

(John Locher | AP file photo) A bathtub ring of light minerals shows the high water mark on the shore of Lake Mead along the border of Nevada and Arizona in March 2023. On Wednesday, California agreed to conserve 643,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water in Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country.

California just agreed to significantly cut its Colorado River water use, but the deal might not be the conservation boon that it seems.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration agreed to divert $295 million in water infrastructure funds to California. In exchange, California, which gets more Colorado River water per year than any other state, will conserve 643,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead through 2025.

California’s water cuts are part of an agreement solidified in May between the Lower Colorado River Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — to cut their water use by at least 3 million acre-feet through the end of 2026.

According to that agreement, the Lower Basin states will be compensated with funding from the Inflation Reduction Act for conserving 2.3 million acre-feet. The remaining 700,000 million acre-feet of water will be conserved voluntarily.

California’s recent water cuts are a positive sign of cooperation and a step in the right direction, Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“But one of my concerns, from a Utah perspective, is an over-reliance on compensated conservation,” she said. “This money is going to go away. So, what do we need to do to be prepared for in the way of reductions after 2026? And what happens if some of those reductions are not compensated?”

Haas referred to the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding. Those laws provided billions of dollars for water infrastructure projects, but eventually, that funding will run out.

The current agreements that govern the use of Colorado River are set to expire at the end of 2026. The seven states of the Colorado River Basin are currently working to determine new guidelines, a process that includes a multi-year environmental assessment.

Utah has yet to see mandated Colorado River water cuts. The Beehive State’s share of water comes not from reservoirs but from the river itself, which has suffered an approximate 20% decrease in flows compared to the beginning of the 20th century.

“Mother Nature cuts us every year, and we’re not compensated,” Haas said. “We have to actively manage our water and live within our means.”

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, has struggled in the recent years of extreme drought in the Southwest.

As of Dec. 14, the reservoir is about 34% full of water, similar to Lake Powell, which is approximately 35% full, even after the previous year’s record-breaking winter.

“[The water cuts are] predicated on the unspoken assumption that this whole reduction in flows is temporary, that this is a drought and we’re going to get out of it, so let’s just spend some money to overcome it,” Zachary Frankel, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council, told The Tribune.

“But this is not a temporary drought,” he continued. “Federal taxpayers paying these communities to use less water is a temporary solution that is unsustainable. We can’t keep paying people to not use water that doesn’t exist.”

Wednesday’s agreement follows on the heels of a deal made last week between the Biden administration and California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which receives 3.1 million acre-feet of Colorado River water each year.

The federal government will send $77.6 million worth of new investments to the district, and the district will cut 100,000 acre-feet of its Colorado River water in 2023.

“At the end of the day, from an Upper Basin standpoint, we’ve got to make sure that conservation is really going to happen,” Haas said.