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. / Photo by Joseph Griffin for Voice of San Diego

A few months ago drought had so choked the Colorado River – San Diego’s main water resource – that the federal government was ready to enforce significant major water restrictions on the seven states that drink from it. 

But it has snowed and rained so much since January, tempers have cooled as the drought has been more or less quenched, at least for now. 

Still, Tuesday marks the next big deadline for the federal government to temporarily divide waters of the dwindling Colorado River until 2026. This was a kind of emergency plan while everyone also worked on a longer-term one, recognizing that collectively the states need to use around 25 percent less of the river than we currently are. 

California promised to cut some water use in exchange for federal money to help build water conservation projects. Then the other six states – Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah – banded together without California, submitting water reduction plan that called for California to take the biggest hit. 

“That might have been the low point in relationships between the states,” said Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California based in Los Angeles. “It’s amazing what a little … well, a lot of snow can do.” 

California’s snowpack this year is one of the largest ever, 221 percent of average according to April 3 readings at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada mountains by the California Department of Water Resources. That’s the biggest snowpack since the state started measuring snow with sensors in the mid-1980s. It’s welcome news but also a sign of climate change exacerbating weather extremes. After the three driest years on record in California, now the department is preparing to respond to potentially devastating floods as the snow melts this Spring. 

Hasencamp said he believes there’s no longer a need for the short term, drastic water cuts western states were fighting over. But drought can and will strike again. So recent basin state meetings have been more focused on a long-term solution.

Guidelines for river conservation from 2007, outline water cuts for states depending on how bad the drought is, expire in 2027. A treaty for water cuts to Mexico also relies on that plan, meaning two nations will also likely have to renegotiate a binational agreement. Arizona, Nevada and Mexico are first in line to take cuts under that agreement and already faced some this year.

Western states need a plan that forces them to live within their means, Hasencamp said.

“The last rules didn’t do that and so you saw reservoir levels going down,” he said. “So we need a more sustainable plan that recognizes the limitations of the river and potential impacts of climate change.” 

The Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton will announce the proposed short-term Colorado River solution Tuesday at 11 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. 

In Other News 

  • The price of wholesale water in San Diego could rise 14 percent next year. That will impact the 24 different water utilities in the region differently but, overall, the price of water in San Diego is slated to rise a lot, again. (Union-Tribune)
  • Californians will soon start paying a flat fee for electric delivery based on income, part of sweeping changes to how power is priced. It’s an attempt to make the rising cost of electricity more affordable. Spreading the costs out this way would lower the average electric bill of middle-income residents by $7 a month, according to a joint proposal from the state’s investor-owned utilities, which includes San Diego Gas and Electric. Some ratepayer advocate groups want lowest-income households to pay a fixed charge of just $5 per month. (Union-Tribune)
  • The U.S. needs to build-out its electric grid fast if it wants to reap all the potential carbon pollution cuts made possible by recent federal spending from the Inflation Reduction Act, writes Sammy Roth of the L.A. Times. Over the next decade, California should spend at least $7.5 billion on transmission projects, according to the state grid operator, a price largely paid by customers of investor-owned utilities. 
  • Interstate 15 briefly became bike and pedestrian friendly when Caltrans shutdown the freeway to car traffic for routine maintenance last month. It looked apocalyptic but with a bunch of smiling faces. (Union-Tribune and KPBS)
  • Carbon dioxide concentrations from the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities continue to climb at the same rate it did a decade ago. The amount of CO2 is comparable to the levels in the atmosphere about 4.3 million years ago when sea level was about 75 feet higher than today and the Arctic tundra was covered in forest. (NOAA)

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Bill Hasencamp’s surname and the parameters around the snow average. The snowpack is 221 percent of average.

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