Interior Department, water suppliers pitch in $11M to try to conserve Colorado River basin

Water providers from four western states and the federal government announced an $11 million agreement Thursday to fund projects meant to counteract critically low water levels in the Colorado River basin, which supplies water to about 40 million people in seven states.

The Interior Department said Thursday that local water providers in Arizona, California, Nevada and Colorado will take part in the deal.

It aims to create several small pilot programs in 2015 and 2016 that would provide incentives and compensation for conservation by cities, farmers and industry, according to a statement announcing the agreement. The programs that work best can then be expanded, extended, or both.

The move was called very necessary, though only a beginning with the severe shortfall threatening to challenge the region's long-term water supply.

"This is a critically important first step," U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor said in a statement. "I applaud the far sighted municipal water providers for beginning to address the imbalance in supply and demand on the Colorado River that could seriously affect the economy and the people who rely upon the river."

The project's partners include the Central Arizona Project, Denver Water, The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Southern Nevada Water Authority and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The agreement comes a week after the release of a new study by researchers from NASA and the University of California, Irvine whose authors said the results showed a shocking depletion of groundwater.

Since 2004, researchers said, the Colorado basin has lost 53 million acre feet, or 17 trillion gallons (64 trillion liters), of water. That's enough to supply more than 50 million households for a year.

Three-fourths of those losses were groundwater, which unlike reservoirs and other above-ground water sources can become so depleted they may never refill, the study found.

The basin supplies water to about 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland in seven states — California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — and parts of Mexico.