Six of the seven states in the Colorado River Basin have drawn up a joint proposal on how to meet the federal government’s unprecedented demand for water at a time when more than two decades of drought in the West have pushed key reservoirs to dangerously low levels. Cut down on water usage.
But the state of California, the largest water user, is not joining their ranks — an impasse that suggests that the debate over how to protect a dwindling water supply that serves 40 million people will linger in the coming months. The Interior Department has given states until Tuesday to develop plans for how to voluntarily reduce water use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet — or as much as a third of the river’s average annual flow.
“Obviously, it’s not going to go smoothly,” said Jeffrey Ketteringer, former general manager of the Southern California Metropolitan Water District, a key player in the negotiations. “It’s tough right now.”
The six-state proposal — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — aims to protect the main reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling below critical levels, such as when dams do not No longer able to generate electricity or in “dead pools”, at which point water would be effectively prevented from flowing out of these lakes. Before the above-average snowfall in recent weeks, the Bureau of Reclamation predicted that Lake Powell could start reaching such thresholds this summer.
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The river’s flow has declined during the drought of the past two decades, especially in recent years, but states continue to consume more than the river supplies, according to a framework established a century ago.
The proposal lays out potential new cuts for the southwestern states downstream of the main reservoir — Arizona, Nevada and California — as well as Mexico, which has treaty rights to parts of the river. The proposal would result in about 2 million acre-feet of cuts — the low end of federal requirements — and would be the largest for the largest water consumers: California and Arizona. If reservoir levels drop, the document suggests California, which has 4.4 million acre-feet of water, would need to cut more than 1 million acre-feet.
California has so far proposed only 400,000 acre-feet reductions. An acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover an acre of water one foot deep. JB Hamby, chairman of California’s Colorado River Commission, told The Associated Press in a statement that the state “remains focused on practical solutions that can be implemented now to protect the vast water storage without sparking conflict and litigation” and will submit its own the plan of.
Six other states made their case Monday in a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation.
“We recognize that over the past two decades, far less water has flowed into the Colorado River system than has left it, and that we have effectively depleted storage,” the states wrote. State representatives added that they will continue to work with the federal government and other agencies “to develop a consensus on how best to share the burden of protecting a system from which we all benefit.”
“This modeling proposal is a critical step in the ongoing dialogue among the seven basin states as we continue to seek collaborative solutions to stabilize the Colorado River system,” Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said in a statement. “
Reclamation is conducting an environmental review of how the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams will operate during low water conditions. By this summer, the process is expected to clarify the federal government’s legal authority to unilaterally cut state water allocations.
One of the main tensions in these complex negotiations is how to balance cuts between agricultural areas and cities, including major population centers. Agriculture uses about 80% of the river’s water and often has the most senior rights, some dating back to the 19th century. The way this “priority system” works, residents of Phoenix will run out of water before growers in Yuma. Those who grow alfalfa in Southern California’s Imperial and Coachella Valleys will conserve water ahead of those in parts of Los Angeles.
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Kightlinger, along with many other water experts and officials, argues that cuts of this size and severity must be spread out rather than based on seniority.
“They can’t follow the priority system. That would be a disaster. That is: We’re basically going to put all the cuts on the main share of the economy. That just can’t be realistic,” he said.
But officials in these agricultural districts, which have longstanding water rights, don’t plan to surrender without a fight — or give up those water rights without compensation that meets their needs.
Empire Irrigation District board chairman Alex Cardenas noted that in his part of California, near the Mexican border, farmers’ water rights predate the creation of the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river system. His water The District uses approximately 2.6 million acre-feet of water each year to irrigate more than 400,000 acres of farmland growing alfalfa, grasses and other crops.
“We support the priority system on the river, and we understand that people will need to make painful cuts. But we will not be an emergency reservoir for uncontrolled, unsustainable urban sprawl,” Cardenas said. “We’re not going to destroy our local economy so they can continue to grow their city’s economy.”
As negotiations progressed in recent months, Imperial Irrigation District offered to reduce its use by 250,000 acre-feet, or about 10%. The Biden administration has paved the way for the proposal by pledging $250 million for environmental projects to tackle the dust-ridden coastline around California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, which is fed water from the Imperial Valley. agricultural runoff.
The prospect of a 10 percent cut to the region’s $5 billion agricultural economy means severe economic pain for a community already suffering from high unemployment, Cardenas said. But look at it from the perspective of other states — even those cuts don’t go far enough.
Negotiators got some help from Mother Nature to start the year. Heavy rain and snowstorms that hit California in January raised the state’s reservoir levels and blanketed the Sierra Nevada with snow 210 percent above normal for this time of year. Snowpack in the Rockies, the main source of runoff from the Colorado River system, was also higher than normal, but not as much as in California.
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But the heavy rainfall is also a double-edged sword, creating political challenges for negotiators trying to agree painful cuts, according to analysts following the talks.
“If the severe, extreme drought conditions persist, then it will be easier for them to sell the extra cuts,” said Michael J. Cohen, a senior fellow at the Pacific Institute and an expert on the Colorado River. “But the public perception is flooding, why do we Extra action is needed now because all these recent storms have brought so much water.”
The Rockies have also seen healthy winter snowpack over the past two years, but runoff levels into Lake Powell have been a fraction of normal levels as warming dries up the terrain, absorbing more water before it reaches the reservoir. much water. Lake Powell’s water level has dropped about a foot this year and is now 33 feet above the Glen Canyon Dam’s non-generating threshold.
“There is a problem with aridification. But most importantly, there is a problem with the rules,” Cohen said. “The rules governing the system are not sustainable.”