A view of the Colorado River as it flows through northern Arizona
A view of the Colorado River as it flows through northern Arizona / Image via Shutterstock

Days before the federal government shied-away from telling Western states how to curtail consumption of the drought-stressed Colorado River, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a plan to speed-up projects that would help California use less of it.

To be clear: California hasn’t yet taken any big cuts from its Colorado River allocation, despite being its largest user. But, as pressure mounts, it might, writes Ian James of the Los Angeles Times. Newsom’s plan doesn’t mention the Colorado River directly, but it’s conceivable this is an effort to prepare California for that reality – or at least prove the state is doing something. 

Still, some Arizona lawmakers have been throwing shade at California, accusing the Golden State for taking more than its share of the river and walking from agreements with other Colorado River basin states to conserve large amounts of water. Arizona faces losing a quarter of its entitled Colorado River allocation. The two states have been notorious rivals since the signing of the Colorado River compact laying out the rules for dividing the river a century ago. 

As human-caused climate change makes weather more unpredictable, Newsom said California’s water supply could shrink by 10 percent come 2040. And that means the state needs to build more storage to capture big rainfall, start recycling an enormous amount of wastewater, capture stormwater and build plants that make ocean water usable on land. San Diego has already taken some of those steps to diversify its own supply. Newsom already laid out the need for these concepts in 2020, but his August announcement was basically to say: These projects need to happen, now. 

I talked with Newsom’s appointed Secretary for Natural Resources, Wade Crowfoot, about the upcoming battle ground that is the Colorado River and San Diego’s stake in it. His agency oversees 26 environmental departments including the Department of Water Resources and California’s Colorado River Board, whose members represent the state in negotiations.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Q. What powers do you have to direct California action on the Colorado River? 

A. It’s ultimately the water rights holders who are the direct negotiators and make decisions on whether they’ll conserve water in reservoirs. We can’t direct the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District or San Diego County Water Authority or Imperial Irrigation District. But through our Colorado River Board and the DWR, which also participates in negotiations, we’re advancing their interests to come together around voluntary actions. 

Q. What direction have you given them, then? 

A. I think we all agree on the problem statement … which is that extraordinary actions are necessary for us to avert what could be a catastrophic situation. If the basin continues to have the hydrology it’s had over the last two decades, and we don’t take collective action to conserve more water in (the reservoirs), there’s a real chance we won’t be able to export water from them.

Q. How would you define extraordinary actions? 

A. Extraordinary actions means water users moving quickly to identify amounts of water they’ll forgo using and instead keeping it in the reservoir. Before the Drought Contingency Plans of 2019, there really wasn’t an action plan to navigate the conditions we’re experiencing. That plan set up stages of water cuts, one of which was activated last month, but climate change has moved even faster than that plan. So we have to move beyond that and say, we’re not going to take another few years to negotiate another solution. We have to do it much more quickly.

Q. Should San Diego be doing more to cut water use in this drought?

A. I believe San Diego, as part of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, agrees that all water users should reduce use of the Colorado River and keep more water in the reservoir, regardless of the seniority of rights to that water. That’s a big deal because senior water rights holders have not always embraced that. San Diego does deserve credit for diversifying its water supplies. We’re asking all regional local water agencies to do that so they’re not dependent on one source. Regardless of those investments it makes sense to stretch water supplies because we don’t know how long this drought will last. So therefore, in San Diego, there simply can’t be an approach that, “We’ll be fine. The drought doesn’t impact us here.” There needs to be continued focus on conservation.

Q.  Is there anything more the state will do to ensure that’s happening, like more mandatory cuts or restrictions? 

A. We’re heartened by the progress made since May. In Spring we saw significantly more water usage than that same time in 2020. Now we’re seeing things move in the right direction. Scientists suggest we’ll lose upwards of 10 percent of our water supply by 2040, that’s the equivalent of two Lake Shastas, our largest reservoir. The governor’s four point strategy that builds on a kind of master plan we already had to supplant that water loss. One of those areas is achieving 500,000 acre feet of water savings through improved efficiency and conservation in cities. We’re planning to accelerate efficiency standards for each city. 

Q. How? 

A. A law a few years ago established a water budget for each urban water agency identifying the appropriate amount of indoor use per person and using remote imaging to understand how much water is needed to keep outdoor vegetation alive without overwatering. These budgets weren’t scheduled to actually take effect for several years. We’ve talked about is accelerating that requirement. San Diego, like many urban water agencies, doesn’t like a one-size-fits-all approach. We need to move every urban community to be as efficient as it can be and that’s what these customized budgets do, moving beyond a temporary percent-water use cut and really moving toward a standard.

Q. Do you have any purview over agricultural use? We’re talking about efficiencies in urban areas, but farming uses 80 percent of the Colorado river. When do we start asking farmers to think about efficiency? 

A. There are already significant cuts to farmers during this drought. In the Sacramento River Valley, they’re curtailing water such that half of the rice production, the primary crop there, is being fallowed. In other words, they’re not planting half their rice crop this year as a result of the water curtailments. Agriculture will have to shrink water usage because of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Before that law, in California, anybody could buy a patch of dirt and stick as many wells as they want on it. … And areas of the Central Valley have to take land out of production. If it were its own state, the Central Valley would have some of the lowest per capita income of all 50 states, meaning we have this real affluence on the coast but inequity in other regions. The lifeblood of the Central Valley is agriculture, and the lifeblood of agriculture is water. We’re trying to work with those communities to try and diversify their economies, so we don’t have an economic catastrophe on our hands. 

Q. You recently took a trip to visit your counterpart in Mexicali, Mexico. Northern Baja California is very reliant on the Colorado River, as we’ve reported. What did you talk about there?

A. Baja California has been in a really bad way during this drought and doesn’t have the resources like California does. We’ve been focusing more on California water users because we really feel we need to step up and make voluntary cuts before we would ask Mexico to do so.

Q. I know there’s been some shade thrown by Arizona at California, saying the state hasn’t done their part. What’s your reaction?

A. What I would say is let’s spend our energy on finding solutions and avoid finger pointing. We don’t hear much about what California has already done. When our junior water rights holders were in a tough place (decades ago) to have to cut usage by 800,000 acre feet, our state legislature stepped up and helped broker this big agriculture to urban water transfer and that helped maintain reliability on the Colorado River for urban users. I think we’re saying, everyone has a role to play. I think everybody should use whatever flexibility they have in their states to use these models. 

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