California holds agreement on Colorado River cuts

Six western states that depend on water from the Colorado River have agreed on a model to drastically reduce their consumption, months after the federal government called for action and an initial deadline passed.

what you need to know

  • Six western states that depend on water from the Colorado River have agreed on a model to drastically reduce their consumption; California, the state with the largest allotment of water from the river, is the holdout
  • The Colorado River supports 40 million people and a $5 billion annual agricultural industry
  • While states missed a mid-August deadline to heed the US Bureau of Reclamation’s call to save 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, they regrouped to reach consensus by the end of January
  • The design will feed into a larger proposal for how the two largest dams on the river will be operated; California released a plan to deforest 400,000 acres in October, but didn’t sign Monday’s plan

California — with the largest allotment of water from the river — is the only high achiever.

The Colorado River and its tributaries flow through seven states and into Mexico, supporting 40 million people and a $5 billion annual agricultural industry. Some of the country’s largest cities, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver and Las Vegas, two Mexican states, Native American tribes and others depend on the river, which has been severely stressed by drought, demand and overexploitation.

States missed a mid-August deadline to heed a call from the US Bureau of Reclamation to propose ways to save 2 million to 4 million acres of water. They regrouped to reach consensus by the end of January to fit into a larger proposal that Reclamation has in the works.

Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming on Monday sent a letter to Reclamation, which operates the major dams in the river system, to outline an alternative that builds on existing policies, deepens water restrictions and accounts for water lost through evaporation is lost and transportation.

California didn’t sign Monday’s agreement but released a proposal in October to cut 400,000 acres of feet. An acre foot is enough water to supply two to three US homes for a year.

Tina Shields, water manager for California’s Imperial Irrigation District — the Colorado River’s largest water consumer — declined to comment Monday on the basin-wide discussions. But she said any multi-state agreement must be legally justifiable.

“Honestly, that’s what the priority system was set up for… to make long-term planning decisions,” Shields said. “We’ve done this in California, and it’s not fair to solve a major Colorado River drought by pointing to those with higher water rights.”

With the consensus reached among the six states, nothing will happen immediately. Without reaching a consensus, however, there was a risk that the federal government would decide on cuts alone.

By not signing up, California doesn’t avoid that risk.

Debates on how to cut water use by about a third have been contentious. The upper basin states of Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah have said that the lower basin states – Arizona, California and Nevada – will have to do the heavy lifting. This Lower Basin conversation has focused on what is legal and what is fair.

Reclamation will view the six-state agreement as part of a larger proposal to overhaul the operation of the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams — giant power generators on the Colorado River. The reservoirs behind the dams — Lake Powell and Lake Mead — have reached historic lows amid more than two decades of drought and climate change.

Reclamation plans to present a draft of this proposal in early March, with a goal of having it ready by mid-August, when the agency normally announces the amount of water available for the following year. Reclamation has said it will do whatever is necessary to ensure the dams can continue to produce hydroelectric power and deliver water.

Those annual August announcements have resulted in mandatory cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico in the lower river basin for the past two years. California has been spared cuts so far because it has some of the oldest and most secure water rights, particularly in the Imperial Valley, where much of the country’s winter vegetables are grown, and in the Yuma region of Arizona.

Without California’s involvement, the six-state proposal can only go so far as to reflect the hydrological realities of the river. Water managers in the Lower Basin say the level of conservation that Reclamation seeks cannot be achieved without California, tribes and farmers drawing directly from the Colorado River.

It is also unclear how much Mexico will ultimately contribute to the savings. In its prime water years, Mexico receives its full allotment of 1.5 million acre feet under a 1944 treaty with the United States.