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Tucson signs deal with Bureau of Reclamation to voluntarily give up some Colorado River water shares

The city of Tucson will take less Colorado River water in a new deal forged between municipal leaders and the Bureau of Reclamation. 

Officials from the city, Bureau of Reclamation and the Central Arizona Project met Wednesday to sign the deal. It will reduce Tucson’s water allotment by up to 110,000 acre feet through 2025. That’s roughly enough to supply 37,000 homes, according to estimates on water usage from the Arizona Department of Water Resources. 

"We are facing serious challenges in the Colorado River basin, as a result of the persistent and pervasive drought, and it is more important than ever that we are united in our commitment to the basin," Bureau of Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Michael Brain told reporters at the press conference in Tucson on Wednesday.

The deal is called the Conservation Implementation Agreement. Brain said the agreement signed in Tucson, along with seven othersaround Arizona, will conserve up to 393,000 acre feet of water in Lake Mead. 

Joel Olson, general manager of Metro Water District, says the district is also part of the Bureau's program. It's the second-largest water authority in Pima County. 

"We've actually had a compensated system conservation agreement since 2019 with CAP," he said. "We partnered with them to create this, uh, vehicle for the compensated system and originally it was only about 25% of our allocation. And under this agreement we've increased that to 40% of our allocation."

In exchange for this voluntary cut, Tucson will get Inflation Reduction Act funding for water infrastructure projects. 

Mayor Regina Romero said these plans have been underway in Tucson for the last few years and now it's the first city in Arizona to strike a deal like this. The Gila River Indian Community was the first tribe.

"Right now, what our agreement secures is that we are voluntarily putting acre feet on the table, that way, we are protecting ourselves as a city," she said. 

Romero said especially as Arizona, California and Nevada finalize their water reduction deal, the local agreement is a way to ensure mandatory cuts aren’t brought to Tucson. The states  reached an agreement earlier this week. 

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.