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The Colorado River deal won't be enough to save the river long term, experts say

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

People who rely on this shrinking Colorado River are still assessing the consequences of a landmark deal that the Biden administration says will avert a major crisis. It looks like a win for produce farmers in the Southwest, but some experts say no one should be celebrating. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: About 90% of North America's winter produce is grown along a sun-scorched stretch of the Colorado River on the California/Arizona border. Up to 2,000 refrigerated semitrucks a day can leave Yuma's cooler row bound for Safeway, Costco, Subway with leafy greens.

There must be like 30, maybe 40 huge semitrucks at this intersection alone by the Dole packing company.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

SIEGLER: This is a huge part of the national food system dependent wholly on the Colorado River. So farmers here were relieved to learn about a deal struck by the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada to keep 3 million acre-feet of water in the river for the next three years. So at least here in Yuma, it's mostly status quo. Farmers won't be getting a mandatory across-the-board cut to their water. Attorney Meghan Scott's family has farmed here for three generations.

MEGHAN SCOTT: You know, knowing that we'll be OK for the next couple years allows our growers to kind of continue to do business without that extra stress.

SIEGLER: Farmers had been worried they'd lose 20% or more of their water and right in the middle of growing season. Scott says the deal brings some economic certainty and more time to negotiate.

SCOTT: The other sense of relief comes from - let's get through this lower basin plan, you know, flush those things out, get everything in place so that we can start to have the hard conversations that are going to be necessary.

SIEGLER: Across the Southwest, though, some farmers are going to fallow some of their fields, and the federal government is paying them a lot under this three-year deal to not plant crops. Jack Schmidt runs Utah State University's Center for Colorado River Studies.

JACK SCHMIDT: It is hard to imagine that agriculture would have ever been willing to make these cuts in the absence of this massive amount of federal money being delivered to agricultural districts to fallow those fields.

SIEGLER: This is temporary aid money, about $1.2 billion, coming out of the recent infrastructure and inflation reduction laws, and no one expects it to be renewed. It's also unlikely the West will have another unusually snowy winter like this last one, which has bought some time. Schmidt says the celebrations come with an asterisk.

SCHMIDT: Everyone is so relieved that the state's made any agreement at all and didn't go to court. And we should celebrate it, but we should temper this.

SIEGLER: Experts say the deal is just a stopgap. Cutting just 3 million acre-feet of water won't be enough to save the Colorado River long term. But Kathryn Sorensen at Arizona State University's Kyl Center for Water Policy says it's at least a start.

KATHRYN SORENSEN: I'm optimistic that these conversations will continue in good faith, and the conversations about what happens after 2026 in particular will be very, very difficult. But look, failure's just not an option.

SIEGLER: Failure is not an option because even if you don't factor in climate change, the shrinking Colorado River is already overpromised to agribusiness, hydropower producers and some of the nation's fastest-growing cities. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.