Six of the seven Colorado River basin states have jointly mapped out how to meet the federal government’s demand for unprecedented cuts in water use by more than Two decades of drought In the West, bioreservoirs have been pushed to dangerously low levels.
But the largest user of water, California, has not joined them — a predicament that signals continued debate over how to sustain a dwindling water supply that serves 40 million people in the coming months. The Department of the Interior asked states to contribute to plans on Tuesday for how they can voluntarily reduce water use by 2 to 4 million acres — or up to a third of the river’s average annual flow.
“It’s clearly not going well,” said Jeffrey Kaitlinger, former general manager of Metropolitan Water in Southern California, a water provider that is a major player in the talks. “It’s very difficult right now.”
The proposal from the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — seeks to protect major reservoirs in Lake Powell and Lake Mead from dropping below critical levels, such as when dams are no longer able to generate electricity or when a “dead pond” occurs, when water is prevented from flowing out of such lakes. Before the above-average snowfall in recent weeks, the Bureau of Reclamation was expecting it Lake Powell It can start to reach these thresholds by summer.
During the past two decades of drought, and especially in recent years, the river’s flow has decreased but countries continue to consume more than the river provides, based on a framework created a century ago.
The proposal identifies potential new cuts for the southwestern states that lie downstream from the major reservoirs — Arizona, Nevada and California — as well as the state of Mexico, which has convention rights to a portion of the river’s waters. The proposal would result in about 2 million acres of cuts—the minimum required by the federal government—and would be the largest for the two largest water consumers: California and Arizona. As reservoir levels drop, the document notes that California, which has rights to 4.4 million acres of the water, will need to cut more than 1 million acres.
ca has progress To reduce only 400,000 acres. An acre foot is 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover an acre in water one foot deep. JB Hamby, president 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 volumes of water stored without sparking conflict and litigation” and will present the own plan.
The other six states made their case in a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation on Monday.
“We recognize that over the past 20 years there has been far less water flowing into the Colorado River system than leaving it, and that our stock has been effectively depleted to exhaustion,” the states wrote. State representatives added that they will continue to work together, with the federal government, and others “to come to a consensus on how best to share the burden of protecting the system from which we all derive so many benefits.”
“This modeling proposal is a major step in Continuous dialogue among the seven basin states as we continue to seek a collaborative solution to stabilization of the Colorado River system,” Tom Buchatzky, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said in a statement.
reclamation in process environmental review On how to operate the 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 allotments.
One of the central tensions of these complex negotiations is how to balance cuts between agricultural areas 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 of which date back to the 19th century. The way this “priority system” works, Phoenix residents will lose water before vegetable growers in Yuma. Those who grow alfalfa in Southern California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys will hold their water before people in parts of Los Angeles.
Kightlinger, along with many other water experts and officials, says cuts of this magnitude and severity should be shared, rather than distributed according to seniority.
“They can’t follow the priority system… It would be a disaster. That would be: We’d put all the cuts on the largest share of the economy. That simply cannot be a reality,” he said.
But officials in these agricultural regions who enjoy long-term water rights do not intend to give them up without a fight — or without compensation to meet their needs.
Alex Cardenas, chair of the Imperial Irrigation District Board, noted that water rights among farmers in his California district are close to border with Mexico It preceded the formation of the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river system. His water district uses about 2.6 million acres of water annually to irrigate more than 400,000 acres of farmland for alfalfa, grasses, and other crops.
“We stand behind the priority system on the river, and we also understand that there are painful cuts that people have to make. But we will not act as an emergency reservoir for uncontrollable and unsustainable urban sprawl,” Cardenas said. “We will not destroy our local economy so that they can continue to grow. their urban economy.
As negotiations progressed in recent months, the Imperial Irrigation District offered to cut its use by 250,000 acres — or about 10 percent. The Biden administration helped pave the way for this show through Pledge $250 million for environmental projects to address dust-ravaged beaches around the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, which is fed by agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley.
Cardenas said the prospect of cutting the region’s agricultural economy by 10 percent worth $5 billion would mean serious economic pain for a community already suffering from high unemployment. But from the perspective of other countries — even those cuts won’t be nearly enough.
The negotiators got a little help from nature to start the year. The rains and blizzards that hit California in January sent the state’s reservoir levels soaring and blanketed the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 210 percent snowpackt above normal At this time of year. The ice in the Rocky Mountains, the main source of runoff that feeds the Colorado River system, is, too higher than normal But not to the same extent in California.
But the downpour has also been a double-edged sword, creating a political challenge for negotiators trying to agree painful cuts, according to analysts following the talks.
said Michael J. “If severe, extreme drought conditions persist, it will be easy for them to sell additional cuts,” said Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Pacific Institute and expert on the Colorado River. “But there is this public perception that there seems to be flooding, so why do we need to take extra action now when there has been so much water during all these recent storms.”
The past two years have also seen a healthy build-up of winter snow in the Rocky Mountains, with runoff levels in Lake Powell a fraction of normal as the dry terrain due to the warm climate absorbs more water before it reaches the reservoir. The water level in Lake Powell has fallen about a foot this year and is currently 33 feet above the threshold where the Glen Canyon Dam can no longer produce power.
There is a drying problem. “On top of that, there is a problem with grammar,” Cohen said. “The rules that govern the system are not sustainable.”