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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
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California bypasses consensus, goes its own way on plan for Colorado River water cuts

Golden State officials say they have senior water rights.

(CN) — While six states came up with a consensus plan earlier this week regarding cutting water use from a dwindling supply of the Colorado River, a lone wolf — California — came up with its own.

The Bureau of Reclamation, as part of its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, asked states to come up with a consensus plan to save 2 to 4 million acre-feet.  One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre of land, about the size of a football field, one foot deep. 

The bureau manages lake levels at the nation’s two largest reservoirs fed by the Colorado River so Glen Canyon Dam — Lake Powell in northern Arizona — and Hoover Dam, which creates Lake Mead in southern Nevada, can continue to produce hydroelectric power and ensure water deliveries to 40 million people and provide irrigation water to a $5 billion farming industry.

Although there are plenty of negotiations ongoing, this issue has some folks getting chippy about who is going to cut water allocations, how much and when.

“Every state needs to come to the table and be part of a basin-wide solution,” Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona said in a press release Tuesday. “It’s unacceptable for Arizona to do the heavy lifting without meaningful cooperation from California, the largest user of water from the Colorado River.”

Added Greg John Stanton, the U.S. representative from Arizona's 4th Congressional District in a statement: “While many of the states have worked together to reach an agreement that works for everyone, California refuses to do its part — and in some parts of the state is using more water, not less.  The Bureau of Reclamation must take action on this consensus-driven proposal.  We cannot wait any longer.”

But California water officials remain steadfast in their beliefs that the rights to Colorado River water supersede other states. And the Golden State isn’t backing down from its conviction.

“California has done its part and is willing to do more, but it’s time for the other states to step up and create their own conservation programs that sustain the quality of life in their communities,” said Jim Madaffer, vice chair of the Colorado River Board of California, representing the San Diego County Water Authority.

California receives the most Colorado River water at 4.4 million acre-feet. Colorado is next (3.8 million acre-feet), followed by Arizona (2.8 million acre-feet), Utah (1.7 million acre-feet), Wyoming (1.04 million acre-feet), New Mexico (0.84 million acre-feet) and Nevada (0.30 million acre-feet). Mexico gets 1.5 million acre-feet and various Indian tribes also have rights to the water.

Of California’s share, 3.1 million acre-feet heads to agriculture in the Imperial Valley, irrigating 475,000 acres of farmland.

“The Colorado River – Imperial Valley’s only source of water – supports far more than our rural disadvantaged community as it provides for a robust agricultural industry that feeds millions of people and provides food security for this nation,” said Henry Martinez, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District.

He continued: “California, and particularly the Imperial Irrigation District, is working to be part of the solution, however we also believe in upholding the Law of the River and not shouldering the burden of supply limitations for states and agencies that have outgrown their water rights,” Martinez said.

The Law of the River was enacted 100 years ago and gives senior rights to California. Further complicating things is the Central Arizona Project, a 335-mile aqueduct that sends Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson. Arizona got the okay to build it in 1968 and agreed that California would get its full allotment before any water goes to the CAP in times of water shortages.

“California, and why they’ve sort of taken this position that’s in opposition to the rest of the states, is because they have the highest priority rights in the lower basin,“ said Elizabeth Koebele, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, who focuses on environmental policy.

“California has more senior rights on the river and according to the system we use to govern the Colorado River, seniority is really important,” said Koebele.

She elaborated on how the Central Arizona Project comes into the equation.

“In exchange for being allowed to build that project and divert a big share of Colorado River water, (Arizona) essentially said ‘We’ll take junior priority and California should take senior priority,’” said Koebele.

The last 20-plus years of drought and climate change has created a situation that wasn’t imagined years ago.

“All of these rules and laws were created when we had a totally different hydrologic situation on the Colorado River. We thought we had a lot more water than we actually do,” said Koebele.

California is leaning on the law during this time of low water flows, while the other six states favor collaboration. Koebele pointed out that the plans submitted by the six states and California are proposals, not official agreements. There will be plenty more negotiations.

The Department of the Interior said it was committed to pursuing a collaborative, consensus-based approach, with ongoing conversations with states, tribes, water managers, farmers, irrigators and other stakeholders.

“This collaborative supplemental process is our strongest immediate tool to help improve and protect the short-term sustainability of the Colorado River system by empowering the Bureau of Reclamation with additional alternatives and tools needed to address the likelihood of continued low-runoff conditions across the basin over the next two years,” said the Department of the Interior in a statement.

What happens if the states can’t agree? Will there be lawsuits?

“That’s the million-dollar question. That’s on everyone’s mind right now,” said Koebele.

But she said there is hope consensus can be found, like the states did in 2007 when they updated guidelines on the management of the river.

Categories / Environment, Government

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