Six of the Colorado River states agreed to shut off the water. California did not


For second time for six months, countries that depend on Colorado River to support their farms and cities appear to have failed to reach an agreement to limit water use, raising the prospect of the federal government making unilateral cuts later this year.

Six of the seven Colorado River basin states have outlined a joint proposal for how they might respond to the federal government’s request to make unprecedented cuts in water use as more than two decades of drought in the West pushed important reservoirs to dangerously low levels.

But the biggest water user, California, did not join them, an impasse that suggests arguments over how to preserve the dwindling water supply that serves 40 million people will continue in the coming months. The Interior Department asked states to contribute by Tuesday plans on how to voluntarily reduce water use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet — or up to a third of the river’s average annual flow.

“It’s obviously not going smoothly,” said Jeffrey Keitlinger, former general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a water supplier that is a major player in the negotiations. “It’s pretty tough right now.”

The six-state proposal — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — seeks to protect the main reservoirs in Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling below critical levels, such as when the dams will no longer be able to generate electricity, or at a “dead pool”, when water will be effectively blocked from flowing out of these lakes. Before above-average snow in recent weeks, the Bureau of Reclamation predicted that Lake Powell it may begin to reach such thresholds by this summer.

Officials fear ‘full-on end-of-the-world scenario’ for drought-stricken Colorado River

During the past two decades of drought, and especially in recent years, the river’s flow has decreased, but states continue to consume more than the river provides, based on a framework established a century ago.

The proposal lays out potential new cuts for the Southwest states that lie downstream from the main reservoirs — Arizona, Nevada and California — as well as the state of Mexico, which has treaty rights to some of the river’s water. The proposal would result in about 2 million acre-feet of cuts — the lower end of what the federal government has asked for — and would be the largest for the biggest water users: California and Arizona. As reservoir levels fall, the document suggests California, which has rights to 4.4 million acre-feet of water, will have to draw down more than 1 million acre-feet.

California has offered to be reduced to only 400,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover an acre in water one foot deep. JB Hamby, chairman of California’s Colorado River Board, told The Associated Press in a statement that the state “remains focused on practical solutions that can be implemented now to protect the reservoir’s water volumes without causing conflicts and litigation’ and will present his own plan.

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

In October 2022, Lake Powell was a quarter full due to a historic drought that threatened power to millions from Glen Canyon Reservoir in Page, Arizona. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

“We recognize that over the past twenty-plus years, there has simply been far less water entering the Colorado River system than is leaving it, and that we have virtually exhausted the depletion reserves,” the states wrote. State officials added that they will continue to work together and with the federal government and others “to build consensus on how best to share the burden of protecting the system from which we all benefit so much.”

“This modeling proposal is a key step in ongoing dialogue between the Seven Basin States as we continue to seek a collaborative solution to stabilize the Colorado River system,” Tom Bushatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said in a statement.

Reclamation is in process of an environmental review on how to manage Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams in low water scenarios. By summer, the process is expected to clarify the federal government’s legal authority to make unilateral cuts to states’ water allocations.

One of the main tensions in these complex negotiations is how to balance cuts between agricultural regions versus those in cities, including major population centers. Agriculture uses about 80 percent of the river’s water and also tends to have the highest rights, some dating back to the 19th century. The way this “priority system” works, Phoenix residents would lose water before Yuma vegetable growers. Those who grow alfalfa in Southern California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys would conserve their water before people in parts of Los Angeles.

City in Arizona shuts off water supply to neighborhood due to drought

Kightlinger, along with many other water experts and officials, say cuts of this magnitude and severity should be shared rather than doled out according to seniority.

“They cannot follow the priority system. That would be a disaster. That would be: we’re basically going to cut the bulk of the economy. This simply cannot be reality,” he said.

But officials in these agricultural areas with longstanding water rights aren’t about to surrender them without a fight — or without compensation that meets their needs.

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

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

As negotiations progressed in recent months, the Imperial Irrigation District proposed reducing its use by 250,000 acre-feet — or about 10 percent. The Biden administration helped pave the way for this proposal by betting $250 million for environmental projects to address the dust-ravaged shores around the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, which is fed by agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley.

Cardenas said the prospect of a 10 percent cut to the region’s $5 billion agricultural economy would mean severe economic pain for a community already suffering from high unemployment. But from the perspective of other countries – even these cuts would not be nearly enough.

Negotiators have had a little help from nature to start the year. The rain and snowstorms that hit California in January raised reservoir levels in the state and blanketed the Sierra Nevada Mountains with a snowpack that is 210 percentt 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, may help with drought

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

“If severe, extreme drought conditions continue, then it’s 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’s this public perception that it looks like there’s flooding, why do we need to take additional action now when there’s been so much water in all these recent storms.”

The past two years have also seen a healthy winter snowpack in the Rockies, only to have runoff levels in Lake Powell that are a fraction of normal as terrain dried by a warming climate absorbs more of the water than before for it to reach the tank. Lake Powell’s water level has dropped about a foot this year and is currently 33 feet above the threshold at which Glen Canyon Dam can no longer produce power.

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

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