California bucks a united front as region grapples with Colorado River water cuts
Published in News & Features
With the recent expiration of a federal deadline, California now finds itself sharply at odds with six other states over how to take less water from the shrinking Colorado River.
After rejecting a plan offered by the rest of the region, California has entered a political tug-of-war with high stakes. So why has the state that uses the most Colorado River water decided to go it alone?
California appears to be banking on its high-priority senior water rights, while the other states are presenting a united front to show the federal government they support a plan that would have California give up more water.
“The strongest thing that the other basin states have going for them is some relative level of consensus. And the strongest thing California has going for it is the law,” said Rhett Larson, a professor of water law at Arizona State University. “California is trying to play its best card, which is, ‘The law is on our side.’ And the other six states are trying to play their best card: ‘We are on each other’s side.’”
The parties are at an impasse as the federal government begins to weigh alternatives for rapidly reducing water use and preventing the river’s reservoirs from reaching dangerously low levels.
The Colorado River, which supplies cities, farming areas and tribal nations from the Rocky Mountains to the U.S.-Mexico border, has been pushed to a breaking point by chronic overuse, drought and the effects of global warming. The river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have declined to the lowest levels since they were filled.
Federal officials had called for each of the seven states that rely on the river to come up with alternatives for making water cutbacks by the end of January.
Under the proposal submitted by Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, a large portion of the proposed water cuts would be made by accounting for evaporation and other water losses along the lower portion of the river — a calculation that would translate into especially large reductions for California, which uses the largest share of the river.
In its proposal, California has reiterated previous commitments for Southern California water agencies to cut water use by 400,000 acre-feet per year, a reduction of about 9%, through 2026. The proposal also calls for making additional cuts in Arizona, California and Nevada on a tiered scale if the level of Lake Mead continues to decline toward critically low levels.
California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said the state’s proposal is “timely, practical and achievable in a way that works within existing law.”
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