SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California on Tuesday released a plan detailing how western states that rely on the Colorado River should conserve more water. It came a day after the six other states in the river basin made a competing proposal.
In a letter to the US Bureau of Reclamation, California detailed how states could save between 1 million and nearly 2 million acres of water through new cuts based on the height of Lake Mead, a key reservoir.
His plan failed to account for water loss through evaporation and during transportation — a move that was being sought by other states and would mean major penalties for California.
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The 2,334-kilometer river serves 40 million people in western and Mexico, generates hydroelectric power for regional markets, and irrigates nearly 6 million acres (2,428 hectares) of farmland.
A decades-long drought in the West, exacerbated by climate change, rising demand and overexploitation, has pushed water levels at key reservoirs along the river to unprecedented lows. That has forced federal and state officials to take additional steps to protect the system.
The California plan and separate methods, outlined by states Monday, came in response to Reclamation when they asked last year for details on how they would use between 15% and 30% less water. The federal agency operates the major dams in the river system.
All seven states missed that deadline last August. Six of them regrouped and settled by the end of January. California was the only refusal to accept the agreement and responded Tuesday with its own plan.
Unlike other states’ plans, California doesn’t account for the approximately 1.5 million acres of Colorado River water lost to evaporation and transport.
Instead, it proposes reducing water withdrawal from Lake Mead by 1 million acre feet, with 400,000 acre feet coming from its own users. The state outlined that level of cuts earlier in October. Arizona would bear the brunt of larger cuts — 560,000 acre feet — while Nevada would make up the rest. According to the letter from California, these figures are based on discussions from previous negotiations.
An acre foot is enough water to supply two to three US homes for a year.
The Arizona Department of Water Resources said it is still reviewing California’s proposal and would not comment immediately.
But Tom Buschatzke, the department’s director, said earlier Tuesday that basin-wide water managers could not reach an agreement with California on cuts, even at the broader state level.
“The big questions are what does the priority system mean, what does junior priority mean and how does that relate to the outcome of who gets what cut?” he said. “That was the topic in the summer, that was the topic in the fall, that’s still the topic.”
California has the largest water supply among the seven US states that tap the Colorado River. It is also one of the last to face water cuts in times of scarcity due to its priority water rights.
California water authorities have often reiterated that any additional water cuts must be legally justifiable and consistent with Western water laws, which recognize its water rights.
JB Hamby, chair of the Colorado River Board of California and a board member of the Imperial Irrigation District, pointed out that California can file a lawsuit if the federal government tries to account for evaporative losses.
“The best way to avoid conflict and ensure we can put water into the river immediately is to take a voluntary approach not to make proposals that circumvent the river’s law and ignore and disrespect California’s elder rights,” he said.
Existing agreements mean cuts only if Lake Mead’s elevation is between 1,090 feet (332 meters) and 1,025 feet (312 meters). If it drops below 1,025 feet, California’s plan proposes even more cuts based on the so-called Law of the River — likely meaning Arizona and Nevada would take the brunt. These cuts are intended to prevent Lake Mead from reaching the “dead pool” when it could no longer pump water to farms and cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
The current elevation of the reservoir is about 1,045 feet.
Overall, California’s plan could save between 1 million and 2 million acre-feet of water based on elevations on Lake Mead, from which Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico draw their share of the river.
Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of California, the nation’s largest water utility, said it’s important to protect key reservoirs “without getting bogged down in lengthy legal battles.”
Hagekhalil and other water managers pointed to numerous efforts the state has made to drastically reduce its water use by making agricultural and urban water use more efficient.
“California knows how to permanently reduce river use — we’ve done it over the past 20 years through billions of dollars in investment and hard-earned partnerships,” he said in a statement. “We can help the entire Southwest do this again if we move forward.”
The new proposals won’t immediately change states’ water allocations — or disrupt their existing water rights. Instead, they’re being combined into a larger proposal that Reclamation is working on to revamp how it operates Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams — gigantic power generators on the Colorado River.
Though California hasn’t been able to reach an agreement with the other six states so far, the parties said they hoped to talk further.
“We’re not going to end the discussions,” Arizona resident Buschatzke said, “and we may and may not come to an agreement.”
Naishadham reported from Washington, DC AP writer Felicia Fonseca contributed from Flagstaff, Arizona.
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