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Western States Agree to Water-Sharing Pact

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 9 - Facing the worst drought in a century and the prospect that climate change could yield long-term changes on the Colorado River, the lifeline for several Western states, federal officials have reached a new pact with the states on how to allocate water if the river runs short.

State and federal officials praised the agreement as a landmark akin to the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which first outlined how much water the seven states served by the river - California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming - would receive annually.

The new accord, outlined by federal officials in a telephone news conference Friday, spells out how three downriver states - California, Arizona and Nevada - will share the impact of water shortages. It puts in place new measures to encourage conservation and manage the two primary reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which have gone from nearly full to just about half-empty since 1999.

The accord is expected to forestall litigation that was likely to have arisen as fast-growing states jockey for the best way to keep the water flowing to their residents and businesses in increasingly dry times. It would be in effect through 2026 and could be revised during that time.

Some environmental groups said the pact did not go far enough to encourage conservation and discourage growth. But federal officials said they took the best of several proposals by the states, environmental organizations and others and emphasized the importance of all seven states agreeing with the result.

"I think for the first time in 85 years we are on the same page," said Herb Guenther, the director of water resources in Arizona, which had initially balked at some terms of the agreement and was threatening legal action over it.

But with water levels in reservoirs dropping, a record eight-year drought, the prospect that climate change could bring more dry spells and new scientific analyses suggesting the West could be drier than has been traditionally believed, the states were pushed to act.

These factors "forced the issue to the head and we decided to do something unique and different," Mr. Guenther said.

The agreement, the product of two-and-a-half years of negotiation and study, establishes criteria for the Interior Department to declare a shortage on the river, which would occur when the system is unable to produce the 7.5 million acre-feet of water, enough to supply 15 million homes for a year, that the three downriver states are entitled to.

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