Editorial: Why California leaders may regret playing hardball in negotiations over the Colorado River

The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

The failure of California and six other Western states to meet a Jan. 31 deadline for deciding how to divvy up the dwindling water supplied by the Colorado River clears the way for one of the biggest fights over natural resources in U.S. history — and already the Golden State is being cast as the villain in some national coverage for being the sole holdout to a deal agreed to by Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah. Due to a regional "megadrought" now in its third decade and the accelerating climate emergency, the Biden administration last year called for creation of a plan that cuts annual water use by at least 15 percent.

But California officials have never wavered from their initial offer to accept a 9 percent reduction in supplies the state receives from the Colorado, the single biggest share of which goes to the Imperial Irrigation District, which in turn is a major supplier of the San Diego County Water Authority. They say that because of federal laws and court rules interpreting them, California has "senior water rights" that must be honored in the allocation of the river's supplies.

But will these rights thwart an emergency intervention by the U.S. Interior Department that could cite a 1963 Supreme Court decision saying the agency can step in if there are shortages? That's a gamble California might not want to take. If the Biden administration has to weigh in, it seems more likely to pick the six states over one. Siding with swing state voters in Las Vegas and Phoenix over farmers in safely blue California would seem political to some — and the humane thing to do by others.



The editorial board operates independently from the U-T newsroom but holds itself to similar ethical standards. We base our editorials and endorsements on reporting, interviews and rigorous debate, and strive for accuracy, fairness and civility in our section. Disagree? Let us know.


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