A view of Lake Mead on Jan. 31, 2023. The largest reservoir on the Colorado River has reached dangerously low levels due to prolonged drought and overuse. / Photo by Joseph Griffin for Voice of San Diego
A view of Lake Mead on Jan. 31, 2023. The largest reservoir on the Colorado River has reached dangerously low levels due to prolonged drought and overuse. / Photo by Joseph Griffin for Voice of San Diego

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California isn’t getting along with other Western states that use — and need to use less of — the drought-stricken Colorado River water.

In a nutshell, California told the federal government this week it already committed to reducing its use of the river last year, beyond what it’s legally obligated to do, and the other users should help make up the rest. The other six states – Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah – said California is the biggest user so it should shoulder the biggest cut. 

January 31 marked a big deadline for states to cut their use voluntarily, without the federal government telling them how. A day before that deadline, everyone but California signed onto a proposal that would commit states to cut their water use by the amount that evaporates from their respective water delivery systems. That means California, with large systems to transport river water, would shoulder a large hit.

No way, said California, by way of releasing its own plan a day later. That plan reiterated what the state committed to back in October – when it said it was willing to reduce its use by 400,000 acre feet (an acre foot of water is enough to cover one acre of land, one foot deep). But that wouldn’t conserve the 2 million to 4 million acre feet per year the federal government asked for. For context, 4 million acre feet is almost as much as California is allotted each year. And so, de facto, the water savings would have to come from the other basin states. 

The Colorado River serves 40 million people in seven states in the U.S. and northern Mexico. Drought, intensified by a changing climate and overuse, are contributing to dangerously low water levels on the river’s biggest reservoirs – Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Both are about a quarter full.

The federal government has sent warnings that if basin states cannot agree on how to voluntarily cut their use and preserve water levels, it would step in and tell them how. But so far the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation allowed states to blow past an August deadline. January 31 was the second attempt at a deadline to come up with ways to use less water. 

California is not only the biggest user on the river, it holds some of the oldest rights to that water under a series of agreements and contracts made over a hundred years ago known as “the law of the river.” That dictates a pecking order as to who loses river water depending on availability at Lake Mead. California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which feeds water to a $2 billion agricultural industry in Imperial Valley, is virtually last in line to be cut by force. 

Arizona, Nevada and Mexico are first in line and already face mandatory water cuts. Under California’s plan, Arizona would bear the brunt of the cuts while Nevada would make up the rest. Under the plan Arizona and Nevada signed on to, California would bear the brunt of the cuts. 

It’s clear the rift between California and the other basin states is only growing. JB Hamby, chair of the Colorado River Board of California and member of the Imperial Irrigation District board, told the Associated Press that California may file a lawsuit if the federal government attempts to count for evaporation like in the other basin states’ plan. 

Over the next few months, the federal government will weigh these proposals as it comes up with a plan to keep the river running.

Clarification: California proposed all the basin states take on more water reductions as the level of Lake Mead drops lower than the West has planned. But who should take on those reductions is unspecified.

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  1. I think California is on the wrong track in its water management program, they are playing a dangerous, dangerous game of “Chicken.” The feds will not allow the pool to get even close to the power cutoff level before they act unilaterally to impose cuts on all parties. Further, Mother Nature does not care about your Water Rights, or your lawsuit. We are in the middle of a long-term drought.

    San Diego both city and county must act and act now to protect ourselves from the madness that the state of California is engaging in. We need to be water independent. To do that we need at least one, more likely two, large Desal Plants in San Diego County. When that happens we will be able to tell the Metropolitan Water Authority, “Your demand for water rationing does not apply to us, we are water independent from you.” We could then offer to sell our water rights to the highest bidder for enough money to pay for most of the cost of building two Desal Plants.

    This water crunch is coming we must act now to protect ourselves.

    1. Ocean water seems like an option to help keep our streets clean (free of fecal matter). The desal plants seem worth a try! Maybe some corporations should be required to pay for water and help build desal plants.

      1. Hey Newsom! Why does it seem like you are after our small organic California farmers? In a time of climate change, you should not be forcing small organic farmers to cut down their trees!!! With the pretext that is to conserve basin water!!! If the basins is in their property and you want then to pay for water, you are infringing on land rights! Outraged! Protect our small farmers, protect the health of Californians. What does the Climate Action Campaign think of this???

  2. Is Nestle Waters North America still pumping our precious California water for free???

  3. This article fails to put things in perspective in terms of water usage per capita. Of course CA is the biggest water user. CA has the most population. Out of the 7 states in question, 5 of them are among the top ten in the nation in terms of water usage per capita according to a national 2015 report. CA is by far the lowest water user per capita in this group. CA has been finding ways (including painful ways) to save water for many years. Calling CA uncooperative now without proper context seems misleading and/or dishonest.

  4. Yikes, this is way off. That “clarification” is a pretty major point that destabilizes the premise of the article. Of course California isn’t on board with a scheme that would permanently reduce their water rights without compensation (also, senior water users in AZ, including tribes, would also be dinged. They’re notably absent from the six-state letter). Especially considering that evaporation isn’t some new concept we only discovered recently–we knew about it back in 1968 when Arizona AGREED to take the junior priority. It’s abundantly clear in the Congressional record, and AZ senators are on the record stating that they were comfortable with the gamble. Buyers remorse doesn’t mean you can force everyone else to pay your debts.

    Arizona needs to strike a deal with its senior water users to transfer water to protect its junior priority, the CAP. California cut its Colorado River water use by 800,000 acre-feet per year back in 2003, and we’ve spent billions moving water from the Imperial Valley to San Diego, protecting our junior priority. Arizona is setting up a false dichotomy (either someone else takes the cuts or the CAP goes dry) because it doesn’t have the money, will, or ability to cut deals to meet its needs and honor its legal commitments. California isn’t going to step up and do more until Arizona gets its house in order.

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