The Water Wars: Biden Administration Brokers Colorado River Deal

Introduced in a previous AlpInsider news story, the water wars are heating up all over the American West. In general, the western US is getting drier year over year. This trend, largely attributed to climate change, is threatening to dry up essential sources of water like the Colorado River. 

Up until recently, a plan for drastic cuts from the Federal Government looked like the best way to avert catastrophe on the dwindling river. However, a recent deal by California, Nevada, and Arizona could help course-correct.

The three lower basin states agreed to reduce their reliance on the Colorado River by 3 million acre-feet through 2026. The deal was brokered by the Biden Administration.

Brief History And Geography

The Colorado River provides water for over 40 million people as it winds over 1,450 miles from the high country of Colorado to the Bay of California. Recently, the river's output has been severely reduced by a series of bad winters (which provide critical snowpack) and overuse.

The water levels at the two biggest reservoirs on the river, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have been steadily dropping for years. If the trend continues, they’ll be reduced to dead pools. A dead pool is a body of water that lacks sufficient quantity to flow downstream within the basin formed by the lake. 

Seven states use water from the Colorado River and its tributaries, known collectively as the Colorado River System. The Upper Basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico) don’t draw as much from the river. The three lower basin states (Nevada, Arizona, and California) draw most from the river. 


The Colorado flows through the parched desert southwest. In many cases, it's the only source of fresh water available. States had been locked in a bitter dispute over how to manage the river, prompting the federal government to step in. The Biden administration released draft versions of a plan to cut water use if none of the states could reach a consensus. 

The agreement struck on Monday, May 21, 2023, means the states can reduce water use by a comfortable margin while exploring ways to continue reductions in the future.

Is The Deal Enough?

Due to a historic and above-average winter with snowfall totals breaking records in multiple places, the Colorado River will flow well this year. That reprieve, coupled with this deal, will buy communities critical time to prepare for a drier future. 

And while cutting use by 3 million acre-feet will undoubtedly ease pressure on the river, experts say it’s not enough. The plan is an important first step but not the end of the water-cutting strategies needed to make the Colorado River sustainable again.

It also must be noted that while the deal has a lot of support, it is not law yet. The proposal will be analyzed by the federal government and approved or denied later this year. 

The Nitty Gritty Of The Deal

3 million acre-feet of water will be reduced between now and 2026. Here’s the breakdown of where those reductions will come from.

  • 1.6 million acre-feet from California
  • 1.1 million acre-feet from Arizona
  • 285,000 acre-feet from Nevada

The proposed cuts would’ve been painful to swallow were it not for a historic Sierra Nevada snowpack that will ease pressure on California’s already strained water system. Ultimately, California will be forced to cut more if the drought resumes but for now, the states have agreed to the proposal in good faith. 

What Happens After 2026?

The 14% water reduction that this deal brokered is good but not enough.  The federal government is looking at completely revising how the river is managed by 2026. Simply put, this is a useful stopgap deal to get the states to 2026.

Critics are quick to point out that the previous federal proposals circled around a 30% reduction. The state's proposal is only a 14% cut, less than half of what is likely necessary to save the river. A permanent solution is still a long way off.

How Will This Affect Water Recreation In 2023?

Due to historic snowfall now melting into the Colorado River system, water enthusiasts should have themselves a good year. Lake Powell and Lake Mead will claw back some depth, and rafting will also be good, and in some cases extreme, following the deep winter snowfall.

Here are some of the most popular recreation areas along the Colorado River:

  • Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Lake, and Lake Granby near the river’s origin outside of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
  • Glenwood Canyon, Colorado
  • Grand Junction-Fruita area, Colorado
  • Moab area, Utah
  • Lake Powell, Utah
  • Grand Canyon, Arizona
  • Lake Mead, Nevada
  • Lake Mohave, Arizona/California 
  • Lake Havasu, Arizona/California
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*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.