LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Arizona, California and Nevada on Monday proposed a breakthrough deal to significantly cut their water use from the drought-stricken Colorado River over the next three years.

A proposal that seeks a $1.2 billion payment from the federal government would save 3 million acre-feet of water — about 20% of the water used by the three states — through the end of 2026. It’s a temporary solution that could break the stalemate between California and other states in the Colorado River Basin.

It’s been about a year since the federal government challenged the seven Colorado River basin states to come together and agree on a plan to save 2 to 4 million acre-feet each year. Today’s deal is the latest step in those states formulating a plan — or having the decision dictated by the federal government. It’s the first multistate agreement that California has signed after refusing to take part in an agreement signed by the other six states in late January.

In exchange for temporarily using less water, cities, irrigation districts and Native American tribes in the three states will be paid. The federal government plans to spend $1.2 billion, said Lauren Wodarski, a spokesperson to U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).

Though adoption of the plan isn’t certain, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton called it an “important step forward.” She said the bureau will pull back its proposal from last month that could have resulted in sidestepping the existing water priority system to force cuts while it analyzes the three-state plan. The bureau’s earlier proposal, if adopted, could have led to a messy legal battle.

“At least they’re still talking. But money helps you keep talking,” said Terry Fulp, former regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin region. He noted the agreement is a “short-term, three-year deal” and that because the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming didn’t face immediate cuts, they were not part of the pact.

The bottom line: millions of gallons of water will be left in Lake Mead. The lake level will not be allowed to dip below 1,000 feet. On Monday, the lake was at 1,052.70 feet. Lake levels are expressed as altitude above sea level.

Lake Mead reached its lowest level in July 2022 — about 1,041 feet. Since then, it has risen 12 feet due to the melting of the heavy winter snowpack.

“There are 40 million people, seven states, and 30 Tribal Nations who rely on the Colorado River Basin for basic services such as drinking water and electricity,” Secretary Deb Haaland said.

According to the proposal, the majority of the water savings, 2.3 million acre-feet, will be saved by compensating Native American tribes and some irrigation districts with money from the Inflation Reduction Act to use less water. The rest of the water savings will come from Nevada, Arizona, and California. An acre-foot of water is roughly enough to serve two to three U.S. households annually.

Cities, irrigation districts and Native American tribes in the three states will receive federal funding in exchange for temporarily using less water.

The first, or highest, water intake at Lake Mead has surfaced as Lake Mead’s water level has dropped. Feb. 6, 2023 (Photo: Duncan Phenix – KLAS)

The deal would assure that agricultural land in California, which uses the most water from the river, would not go dry.

The deal doesn’t say how much water usage each of the three states will cut. Nevada is already the smallest and most efficient water user.

Nevada is on pace to use 210,000 acre-feet this year, which is well below the state’s drought-adjusted allotment. If the state stays on that pace, usage will be down about 14,000 acre-feet compared to 2022.

President Joe Biden called the agreement “historic” and released the following statement;

Today’s agreement between the Department of the Interior and seven Colorado River Basin states on a consensus-based approach marks an important step forward in our efforts to protect the stability of the Colorado River System in the face of climate change and historic drought conditions. Thanks to my Investing in America agenda, we are deploying record resources to support water conservation and improve the Colorado River’s long-term sustainability.  This approach will benefit the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River Basin for agriculture, drinking water, and power, and is a critical step to building a sustainable, resilient future for states, Tribes and communities throughout the West.

President Joe Biden

The proposal was reached ahead of the May 30 deadline but must still be approved. A larger, long-term deal for the entire river still needs to be reached. The renegotiation of the Colorado River Compact — the “Law of the River” — needs to happen by 2026.

Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger called this a bridge to get to 2026 and a new deal.

The three Lower Basin states are entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet of water altogether from the river.

California gets the most, based on a century-old water rights priority system. Most of that goes to farmers in the Imperial Irrigation District, though some also goes to smaller water districts and cities across Southern California. Arizona and Nevada have already faced cuts in recent years as key reservoir levels dropped based on prior agreements. But California has been spared.

Under the new proposal, California would give up about 1.6 million acre-feet of water through 2026 — a little more than half of the total. That’s roughly the same amount the state first offered six months ago. It wasn’t clear why the other states agreed to a deal now when California didn’t offer further cuts. Leaders in Arizona and Nevada didn’t immediately say how they’d divide the other 1.4 million acre-feet.

The Imperial Irrigation District would account for more than half of California’s cuts. J.B. Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said the district has already taken measures to improve water efficiency and will need to do more. He said the district is working on a pilot summer idling program where farmers would sign up to turn off their water for 60 days for forage crops. During that time of year, yields are already down and more water is required, he said.

Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of California, which supplies water to 19 million people in southern California, said the wet winter means the state simply needs less water. His district is planning on leaving 250,000 acre-feet this year in Lake Mead, and won’t withdraw it until after 2026.

The district will also turn over to the federal government a program that pays farmers to fallow land that typically nets them about 130,000 acre-feet of water a year, he said. Metropolitan will save roughly $100 million over three years, he said.

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, stressed that the announcement is not a final deal.

“We agreed to a proposal. This is not an agreement,” Buschatzke said during a conference call with reporters. Buschatzke said the proposal still needs analysis and approval from the federal government, which will determine how much funding will be allocated for entities that give up water.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.