Six of the seven states in the Colorado River Basin outlined a joint proposal for how to meet the federal government’s call for unprecedented cuts in water use as more than two decades of western drought have pushed key reservoirs to dangerously low levels.
But the biggest water consumer, California, didn’t join them — a deadlock that suggests disputes over how to sustain the dwindling water supply that serves 40 million people will rage on in the coming months. The Interior Department had asked states to contribute plans for a voluntary reduction in water use by 2 to 4 million acres — or up to a third of the river’s annual average flow — by Tuesday.
“Obviously things aren’t going well,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, former general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a water utility playing a key role in the talks. “It’s pretty tough right now.”
The six states’ proposal – Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – aims to protect the major reservoirs in Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling below critical levels, such as when the dams are no longer in the Location would be generating electricity or at the “dead pool” if water were effectively prevented from flowing out of these lakes. Ahead of above-average snowfalls in recent weeks, the Bureau of Reclamation forecast Lake Powell could hit such thresholds starting this summer.
Officials fear a “complete doomsday scenario” for the drought-stricken Colorado River
During the past two decades of drought, and particularly in recent years, the river’s flow has declined, but states continue to consume more than the river provides, based on a framework set a century ago.
The proposal envisages potential new cuts for the Southwest states that lie downstream of the major reservoirs – Arizona, Nevada and California – as well as the country of Mexico, which has treaty rights to some of the river’s water. The proposal would result in cuts of about 2 million acres — the low end of what the federal government has called for — and would be biggest for the biggest water consumers: California and Arizona. If reservoir levels drop, the document suggests that California, which has rights to 4.4 million acre-feet of water, would have to mine more than 1 million acre-feet.
California has offered to reduce just 400,000 acre feet. An acre foot is 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover an acre with water 12 inches deep. JB Hamby, chair of the Colorado River Board of California, told the Associated Press in a statement that the state “remains focused on practical solutions that can be implemented now to protect reservoir water levels without causing conflict and litigation.” ‘, and will submit his own plan.
The six other states asserted their case in a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation Monday.
“We are aware that over the past 20+ years, far less water is entering the Colorado River system than it is leaving, and we have practically run out of reservoir to deplete it,” the states wrote. The country representatives added that they would continue to work together and work with the federal government and others “to reach consensus on how best to share the burden of protecting the system from which we all derive so much benefit.”
“This modeling proposal is an important step in the ongoing dialogue between the Seven Basin States as we continue to seek a common solution to stabilize the Colorado River system,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said in a statement.
Reclamation is in the process of an environmental review of how to operate the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams under low water scenarios. By summer, the trial is expected to clarify the federal government’s legal authority to make unilateral cuts in state water allocations.
One of the key tensions in these complicated negotiations is how to balance cuts between agricultural regions and those in cities, including major population centers. Agriculture uses about 80 percent of the river’s water and typically also has the oldest rights, some dating back to the 19th century. The way this “priority system” works, Phoenix residents would lose water before the Yuma vegetable growers. Those growing alfalfa in Southern California’s Imperial and Coachella Valleys would hold their water before the people of parts of Los Angeles.
The city of Arizona cuts off a neighborhood’s water supply amid a drought
Kightlinger, along with many other water experts and officials, says cuts of this magnitude and severity need to be shared rather than allocated by seniority.
“You can’t follow the priority system. That would be a disaster. That would be: we’re going to basically apply all the cuts to most of the economy. It just can’t be reality,” he said.
But officials in these farming districts with long-standing water rights have no intention of giving them up without a fight — or without compensation commensurate with their needs.
Alex Cardenas, the president of the Imperial Irrigation District’s board of directors, noted that the water rights of farmers in his California territory near the border with Mexico predated the establishment of the Bureau of Reclamation, which administers the river system. Its water district uses approximately 2.6 million acres of water per year to irrigate more than 400,000 acres of farmland for alfalfa, grasses and other crops.
“We stand behind the river priority system and also understand that people have to make painful cuts. But we will not serve as an emergency reservoir for uncontrollable, unsustainable urban sprawl,” Cardenas said. “We’re not going to ruin our local economies so they can continue to grow their city economies.”
As negotiations have progressed in recent months, the Imperial Irrigation District has offered to cut its use by 250,000 acre feet — or about 10 percent. The Biden administration helped pave the way for that bid by pledged $250 million to environmental projects to clean up the dusty shores around the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, which is drained by agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley is fed to tackle.
Cardenas said the prospect of a 10 percent cut in the region’s $5 billion agribusiness would spell serious economic pain for a community already suffering from high unemployment. But from the point of view of other states, even these cuts would not be enough.
The negotiators had a little help from nature to start the year. The rain and snowstorms that hit California in January have raised reservoirs in the state and blanketed the Sierra Nevada mountains with snowpack 210 percent above normal for this time of year. Snow cover in the Rocky Mountains, the main source of runoff that feeds the Colorado River system, is also higher than normal but not as heavy as in California.
California’s snow cover, aided by atmospheric fluxes, could counteract droughts
But the copious fallout was also a double-edged sword and posed a political challenge to negotiators trying to agree on painful cuts after the talks, analysts said.
“If the severe, extreme drought conditions continue, it will be easier for them to sell additional cuts,” said Michael J. Cohen, a senior researcher at the Pacific Institute and an expert on the Colorado River. “But there is this public perception that there is flooding, why do we need to take extra action now when there has been so much water through all these recent storms.”
For the past two years, even the Rocky Mountains have had a healthy accumulation of snow during winter, only to achieve a fraction of the normal runoff into Lake Powell as the terrain, parched by the warming climate, absorbs more water before it reaches the reservoir can reach. The water level in Lake Powell has dropped about a foot this year and currently stands 33 feet above the threshold at which Glen Canyon Dam could no longer produce electricity.
“There is a problem of dehydration. But on top of that, there’s a problem with the rules,” Cohen said. “The rules of the system are not sustainable.”