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Officials hail U.S.-Mexico pact on allocation of Colorado River water

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WASHINGTON – Business and environmental groups both hailed an agreement Tuesday that will allocate more Colorado River water to the U.S. in exchange for helping Mexico repair earthquake-damaged irrigation canals, among other provisions.

The five-year deal signed Tuesday near San Diego will mean an additional one-time allocation of nearly 100,000 acre-feet of water to the U.S., of which Arizona would get 23,750 acre-feet.

That would mean more than 32.5 billion gallons of additional water, and 7.8 billion for Arizona, enough to serve as many  as 71,250 families in a year.

Besides bringing more water to the state, the deal could also lead to more tourism at Lake Mead as a result of higher water levels there, and could improve plant life and wildlife habitats along the river, officials said.

“The agreement is an incredibly important one for Arizona,” said Mitch Basefsky, a spokesman for the Central Arizona Project.

Under the deal, Mexico will get $21 million from the U.S. to repair canals, restore the river’s delta and for other programs. Water management agencies in California, Arizona and Nevada will pay $10 million – $2.5 million each from the Central Arizona Project and a Nevada agency, and $5 million from a California agency.

The $10 million will be used to fix canal linings that were damaged in a 2010 earthquake, Basefsky said.

The agreement will also allow Mexico to store portions of its allocated share of Colorado River water in Lake Mead, near Las Vegas and the Arizona-Nevada border.

Until now, if Mexico did not use its entire 1.5 million acre-foot allotment in a year it simply lost the water, Basefsky said. Now, it can continue to store the water in the lake and retrieve its share whenever it needs.

Basefsky said he thinks the new irrigation canal linings will help Mexico cut its demand for water from the river.

“They’ll be able to use their water more effectively,” said Basefsky, who called many of the current canals an unlined “ditch cut in the dirt,” absorbing and wasting river water.

“This agreement is going to result in more water in Lake Mead,” said Molly Mugglestone, the project coordinator for Protect the Flows, a coalition of businesses in communities along the Colorado River.

“An increase of 15 feet in Lake Mead is really going to help that area,” Mugglestone said.

The coalition estimates that more than 53,500 Arizona jobs are directly connected to Colorado River recreation, with a total of about $3.79 billion spent annually in the state on river recreation.

Besides boosting the economy along the river, this agreement will also improve the environment along the river, especially in the delta region, said Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River project director for the Environmental Defense Fund. She said the fund was directly involved in the negotiations on the pact.

The agreement requires that an additional 150,000 acre-feet over the five-year period go directly to the delta region, Pitt said.

“This is the first time there is any commitment to affirmatively deliver water to the river in its delta,” she said.

That is important because the delta has been rapidly drying up since the 1960s, Pitt said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said after Tuesday’s signing ceremony that the U.S. was proud to be part of “this very historic agreement.”

“The United States and Mexico are connected by our reliance on the Colorado River,” Salazar said in a conference call. “Together we can assure, to the best of our abilities, that the water will continue to flow and our economies to grow on both sides of the border.”

Although the agreement is only for five years, Pitt said the two nations would continue to work together and determine which policies worked best during that period.

“We’ll take the lessons learned and adjust the policies as needed in renewed agreements moving forward,” she said. “We are very pleased to see the United States and Mexico work together to improve water use along the river.”