Six of the Colorado River states have agreed to water cuts. California does not have


For the second time in six months, the States which depend on the colorado river to support their farms and cities appear to have failed to reach an agreement on restricting water use, raising the prospect of the federal government making unilateral cuts later this year.

Six of the seven states in the Colorado River Basin have outlined a joint proposal on how they could respond to the federal government’s demand for unprecedented reductions in water use as more two decades of drought in the West has pushed crucial reservoirs to dangerously low levels.

But the biggest water user, California, has not joined them – a stalemate that suggests wrangling over how to conserve the dwindling water supply that serves 40million people will escalate in the months coming. The Home Office had asked states to contribute by Tuesday to plans on how to voluntarily reduce water use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet, or up to a third of the average flow river annual.

“Obviously it’s not going very well,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the former chief executive of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a water supplier who is a major player in the talks. “It’s quite difficult right now.”

The six-state proposal – Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – aims to protect the main reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead to fall below critical levels, such as when dams would no longer be able to generate electricity or at the “dead pool”, when water would be effectively prevented from flowing from these lakes. Prior to above-average snowfalls in recent weeks, the Bureau of Reclamation predicted that Lake Powell could begin to reach such thresholds by this summer.

Authorities fear ‘complete doomsday scenario’ for drought-stricken Colorado River

Over the past two decades of drought, and particularly in recent years, the flow of the river has declined but states continue to consume more than the river provides, based on a framework established a century ago.

The proposal lays out potential new reductions for southwestern states downstream of the main reservoirs – Arizona, Nevada and California – as well as for the country of Mexico, which has treaty rights to some of the water in the river. The proposal would result in cuts of about 2 million acre-feet — the low end of what the federal government has requested — and would be the biggest for the biggest water users: California and Arizona. As reservoir levels drop, the document suggests that California, which has rights to 4.4 million acre-feet of water, should cut more than 1 million acre-feet.

California has so far Free to reduce only 400,000 acre feet. An acre foot is 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover an acre of water one foot deep. JB Hamby, chairman 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 stored water volumes without causing harm. conflicts and disputes” and will submit its own regime.

The other six states made their case in a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation on Monday.

“We recognize that over the past twenty plus years, there is simply far less water flowing into the Colorado River system than the amount leaving it, and that we have effectively run out of storage to deplete” , wrote the States. State representatives added that they would continue to work together and 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 a key step in the permanent dialogue among the seven basin states as we continue to seek a collaborative solution to stabilize the Colorado River system,” Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said in a statement.

Refurbishment is in progress environmental review how to operate Glen Canyon and Hoover dams in low flow scenarios. By summer, the process should clarify the federal government’s legal authority to make unilateral cuts to state water allocations.

One of the central 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 also tends to have the oldest rights, with some dating back to the 19th century. The way this “priority system” works, the people of Phoenix would lose water before the market gardeners of Yuma. Those growing alfalfa in Southern California’s Imperial and Coachella Valleys would save their water before people in parts of Los Angeles.

Arizona city cuts water supply to neighborhood due to drought

Kightlinger, along with many other water experts and officials, believe that cuts of this magnitude and severity should be shared, rather than handed out based on seniority.

“They can’t follow the priority system. It would be a disaster. It would be: we’re basically going to put all the cuts on most of the economy. It just can’t be the reality,” he said.

But officials in these agricultural districts with longstanding water rights have no intention of giving them up without a fight — or without compensation that meets their needs.

Alex Cardenas, the chairman of the board of the Imperial Irrigation District, noted that water rights among farmers in his area of ​​California near the border with Mexico predate the formation of the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river system. Its water district uses approximately 2.6 million acre-feet of water annually to irrigate more than 400,000 acres of farmland for alfalfa, grasses, and other crops.

“We support the priority system on the river, and we also understand that there are painful cuts people have to make. But we will not serve as an emergency reservoir for uncontrollable and unsustainable urban sprawl,” Cardenas said. “We are not going to destroy our local economy so that they can continue to develop their urban economy.”

As negotiations progressed in recent months, the Imperial Irrigation District offered to reduce its use by 250,000 acre feet, or about 10%. The Biden administration helped pave the way for this offer by pledge $250 million for environmental projects to address dust-ravaged shorelines around the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, fed by agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley.

Cardenas said the prospect of a 10% reduction in the region’s $5 billion agricultural economy would mean severe economic hardship for a community that already suffers from high unemployment. But from the perspective of other states, even these reductions would not be enough.

The negotiators had a little help from nature to start the year. Rain and snowstorms that hit California in January raised reservoir levels in the state and blanketed the Sierra Nevada mountains in 210 percent snowfall.t above normal for this time of year. The Rocky Mountain snowpack, the primary source of runoff that feeds the Colorado River system, is also higher than normal but not as much as in California.

California’s snowpack, aided by atmospheric rivers, could contribute to drought

But the heavy rush has also been a double-edged sword, creating a political challenge for negotiators trying to agree on painful cuts, analysts said following the talks.

“If extreme and severe drought conditions persist, then it’s easier for them to sell additional cuts,” said Michael J. Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Pacific Institute and an expert on the Colorado River. “But there is this public perception that it looks like there is flooding, why do we need to take extra action now when there was so much water through all these recent storms.”

The past two years have also seen a healthy winter snowpack in the Rockies, but runoff levels into Lake Powell were a fraction of normal as the terrain dried up by global warming absorbs more water before it cannot reach the reservoir. Lake Powell’s water level has dropped about a foot this year and currently sits 33 feet above the threshold where the Glen Canyon Dam could no longer generate electricity.

“There is a problem of aridification. But on top of that there is a problem with the rules,” Cohen said. “The rules governing the system are not sustainable.”

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