I-Team: 7 Western States Sign Historic Water Agreement - 8 News NOW

Mark Sayre, Investigative Reporter

I-Team: 7 Western States Sign Historic Water Agreement

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Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne held up the signed agreement. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne held up the signed agreement.

Thursday was the day that has been nearly a decade in the making. Here in Las Vegas -- seven western states signed an historic agreement governing the use of water from the Colorado River.

SLIDESHOW: Lake Mead

This is a case where every state gives up something -- but every state also gets something.

Clark County draws 90-percent of its water from Lake Mead. And while Nevada could actually give up some supply under the worst-case drought scenario, it also gains a valuable water banking agreement.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne held up the signed agreement and representatives of the seven states got a standing ovation. The deal adopts four key elements for managing the Colorado River.

It establishes rules for both shortage years and surplus years, encourages new conservation, and will ensure lakes Mead and Powell rise and fall in tandem to better share the drought risk among the states.

"This is the most important agreement among the seven basin states since the original 1922 compact act which was an extraordinary achievement. It was not easy reaching this day," said Secretary Kempthorne.

Right now -- Lake Mead is just 37-feet short of the first official "shortage" level that is addressed under the agreement. During severe conditions, Nevada could give up some of its Lake Mead allotment but would then be allowed to recoup that, and more, by drawing on a water "banking" deal with Arizona.

The head of Arizona's water resources department says it is good for both states. "It's challenging," said Herb Guenther. "Nevada is challenged because they don't really have the aquifers to store that kind of water and then recover it. So we have plentiful aquifers, we have room in those aquifers, and there is surplus water available, so we are able to work with Nevada to accommodate them. They pay us to bank the water and recover the water."

California earlier stopped using more than its allotted share of river water. But now, it will be allowed to store surplus water in Lake Mead over time rather than the current "use it or lose it" policy.

"The significance of us being able to store a million and a half acre feet in Lake Mead is immense. That's twice as big as our largest reservoir, and that's going to give us a lot of flexibility," said Timothy Brick, of California's Metropolitan Water District.

For all states, the new agreement means water "certainty" in the years ahead as mother nature delivers an uncertain water supply to the Colorado River.

Shari Buck of Southern Nevada Water Authority said, "It just underlies the importance of conservation, of taking care of it. It is not an infinite resource."

Water managers say Lake Mead could reach the first drought stage as soon as 2009. At this point, there is no end in sight to the ongoing drought in the west nor any real idea how long it could last.

The terms of this agreement took effect just as soon as the Interior Secretary signed the documents Thursday at Caesars Palace.

Email your comments to Investigative Reporter Mark Sayre.

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