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3 states and Washington agree to keep more water in Lake Mead amid dropping levels

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Two decades of drought, driven by climate change, means that reservoirs on the Colorado River are critically low. Forty million people in the Southwest depend on the river for their water supply. Now three states and the federal government have agreed to a $200 million deal in response. Alex Hager with member station KUNC in Colorado has been following this. And, Alex, we should explain - the new agreement is specifically designed to preserve Lake Mead, and that's the big reservoir on the Colorado River that was created by the Hoover Dam.

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: That is correct. Nevada, Arizona and California rely on Lake Mead for both drinking water and also irrigating crops that end up on kitchen tables across the country. They've reached this agreement to try and keep more water in Lake Mead over the next couple of years, and the way they're going to do it is to pool their money and pay for some groups to use less. So that includes farmers, water agencies and Native American tribes. It's a pretty notable deal for a few reasons. It is an unprecedented agreement that shows the scale of this unprecedented challenge. And because states on the Colorado River are often competing for water, those relationships can be pretty tense. It's not every day that these states agree on how to manage water or, in this case, decide to sacrifice and conserve some of it.

BLOCK: Yeah, and so the idea, as you mentioned, is that they will pay people to use less water to try to keep Lake Mead from dropping further. It's an incentive program. Is that going to work?

HAGER: Well, it kind of depends on the drought that's lasted for over two decades now and how much longer it's going to last. But the experts I talked to say this is not at all a silver bullet. It's really a Band-Aid measure to hold things together for a few years until there's a more permanent set of rules. Eric Kuhn is a retired water district manager from Colorado. He's been following these issues for more than 40 years.

ERIC KUHN: I'm certain that everyone sort of understands that this is - sort of call it the low-hanging fruit. It buys us time, but it doesn't solve the long-term problem.

HAGER: And the people who signed the deal, they were candid about the fact that it is not the be-all and end-all. They made a point that the collaboration behind this agreement, it's symbolic of the kind of spirit they're going to need going forward.

BLOCK: Yeah, symbolic but even so, given the impact of climate change and how many people depend on this river, still a really important deal.

HAGER: Yeah. It's an important first step, but it's in the face of this monumental challenge. Climate change is making the region hotter and drier, and it's doing that quickly. At the same time, there's ever-growing demand on the shrinking water supply. Becky Mitchell runs the state of Colorado's tap water agency.

BECKY MITCHELL: We have no choice but to get there. It may be an ugly road. It may be bumpy. There may be some issues along the way. But that is the only option.

HAGER: Mitchell was one of the people I talked to at a big annual conference of water users in Las Vegas last week. And there was a real tone of urgency there. The stakes to find a solution here are really high. They are figuring out how to divvy up a river that supplies homes and farms and businesses, from Wyoming all the way down to Mexico. And even though there are some promising signs of collaboration in this agreement, the conference made it obvious that everyone is still trying to protect their individual interests. And there was some finger-pointing, too.

BLOCK: And, Alex, what is the role of the Native American tribes who depend on this river?

HAGER: Well, they don't specifically have a role in formulating this deal. And among the 30 federally recognized tribes that rely on the Colorado River, many have long complained that even though no one has been using it longer than they have, they've often been excluded from discussions about how to share it, and now with some big negotiations coming up in the next few years, they are making it clear that they expect a seat at the table.

BLOCK: OK. That's reporter Alex Hager, who covers the Colorado River for member station KUNC. Alex, thanks so much.

HAGER: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIANTS' "WHILE THE AGES STEAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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