The decision covers water conservation and allocation among the seven states that share water from the Colorado River - California, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado.
"This is the most important agreement among the seven basin states since the original Colorado River Compact of 1922," said Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, signing the agreement.
"This decision memorializes a remarkable consensus not only to solve current problems but also to prepare ahead of time for future droughts or surpluses rather than resorting to disruptive litigation, he said.
Signed at the Colorado River Water Users Association's annual meeting in Las Vegas, the Record of Decision activates a legal agreement among the basin states in which they commit to address future controversies on the river through consultation and negotiation before beginning any litigation.
"As the Colorado River navigates a 1,500 mile journey down mountains through canyons and across desert landscapes, you have navigated the shoals of history," Kempthorne told the meeting. "You have steered around the cataracts and sharp boulders of litigation and acrimony. You have found the serene waters of partnership and cooperation. "
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who represents Nevada, praised the state and federal partners. "I want to applaud the negotiators from the seven Colorado River Basin states and the Secretary of the Interior for successfully completing this important agreement which will govern how the states share water shortages," he said today.
"Unfortunately, it appears that this nine year drought may be the new norm and this agreement will ensure future cooperation among the states that rely upon the river to meet all our water needs," said Reid who hails from the arid desert town of Searchlight, Nevada.
The Colorado River at Hoover Dam with Lake Mead in the background (Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)
The new guidelines establish rules for water shortages, specifying who will take reductions and when they take them. This is essential for prudent water planning in times of drought.
The new operational rules for Lake Powell and Lake Mead will allow these two massive reservoirs to rise and fall in tandem, better sharing the risk of drought. The guidelines allos operation of the reservoirs to avoid the risk of water curtailments in the Upper Basin and minimize shortages in the Lower Basin.
The new guidelines establish rules for surpluses, so that if the basin has ample runoff in the future, the Department of the Interior will have rules in place to distribute the extra water.
The new rules will address the ongoing drought by encouraging new initiatives for water conservation.
"I am particularly impressed by the innovative approaches you have taken to conserve water, especially the construction project known as Drop 2," the Kempthorne told state leaders.
The Drop 2 project will be located in California, but it is being paid for by Nevada. It will create a reservoir to conserve additional water for Nevada's use over the next two decades. After that, the additional water will benefit all water users in the lower basin states.
Other conservation measures in the guidelines include an agreement allowing water users to obtain future credit for conserving water and leaving it in Lake Mead.
The Colorado River's source is La Poudre Pass Lake, located high in Rocky Mountain National Park, just west of the Continental Divide.
The natural course of the river flows into the Gulf of California, but the heavy use of the river as an irrigation source for the Imperial Valley has dried the lower course of the river in Mexico so that it no longer consistently reaches the sea.
Urban use of the Colorado River is primarily on Southern California's coastal plain from Ventura County to the Mexican border and inland as far as Riverside and San Bernardino counties. In addition to the large cities of Los Angeles, San Diego and Riverside, some 135 other urban areas, including Las Vegas, depend on the Colorado for at least part of their water supply.
The agreement sets up a framework to allow cities to contract with willing farmers to allow their fields to lie fallow in dry years so they would not need to irrigate them and the cities could use that water.
Specifics in the guidelines include the elevations in Lake Mead at which the secretary of the interior would declare shortages in the Lower Basin, as well as what those shortages would be.
Kempthorne said today's decision sets "an innovative example of cooperation among states."
As other states and other countries struggle to resolve their water issues in the coming decades, they will look to the cooperation among the Colorado Basin states as a way "to embrace consensus rather than conflict, to conserve and share water rather than fight over water, Kempthorne said. "To ensure that everyone walks away from the table a winner."
A full copy of the Record of Decision is here under "New Info."
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