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California offers allocation cut to save the Colorado River

The voluntary cut amounts to a tenth of its annual allocation.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Following federal pressure to reduce how much water it takes from the Colorado River, California on Wednesday announced a plan to cut its consumption annually by 400,000 acre-feet. 

In a letter sent to the Department of the Interior, four water agencies say they have complied “collection of proposed water conservation and water use reduction opportunities” that would save the 400,000 acre-feet in hopes of replenishing Lake Mead — the nation's largest reservoir. The agencies say the conservation efforts are only possible through funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and “other federal programs.” 

The Colorado River supplies water to seven states and Mexico. California is entitled to the largest share at 4.4 million acre-feet annually and is the last to lose rights when the once-mighty river starts running dry. The river provides water to up to one-third of Southern California, hydroelectric power and irrigation for 660,000 acres of farmland. Just one acre-foot of water can supply approximately two households for a year. Additionally, Imperial County farmers alone take more from the river than Arizona and Nevada combined.

“The effects of climate-driven extremes are being felt across the West,” California Department of Water Resources director Karla Nemeth said in a press release. “The time to adapt is now, and California is aggressively moving to transform the way we use and manage water so we can thrive in a hotter, drier future.” 

California's letter to the feds, which states in bold, “all water users within the basin must take immediate voluntary actions,” comes after months of failed negotiations on how to conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet of river water by 2023 following a call by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation this year for a swift and united approach to keep the river system functioning. 

The letter also contains details of the Golden State’s conservation efforts over the years. "Through a variety of activities, California’s water agencies have voluntarily conserved nearly 2 million acre-feet of water supplies in Lake Mead since 2007 that has added more than 20 feet to Lake Mead elevations.” However, these are the state’s first formal numbers on how much stake it will give up since the federally demanded cuts. 

California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot touted the state's sacrifice in a statement.

“California water agencies are stepping up in a big way with this proposal. Everyone in the basin agrees that extraordinary measures are needed to prevent the system from collapsing. But to date, months of negotiations have yielded no concrete action. Simply put, we can’t wait any longer to act and are therefore stepping up to leave more water in the reservoirs. We hope water users across the basin will follow suit,” Crowfoot said.

However, at least one expert says the proposal leaves much to be desired. Not only is the cut just a tenth of the state's annual allotment, but the letter does not lay out a specific plan — saying instead that if the funding is right, the state may be able to take conservation action.

"It's not clear from the letter that California is making a commitment to do this, or just saying 'we'll look for opportunities to conserve water if you pay us,' and it's not clear that this is permanent conservation," says Sarah Porter, the director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University.

"They're the last to speak," Porter said, noting southern Nevada announced cuts this year and that Arizona has committed to leaving 900,000 acre-feet of water in the system in 2023. "California has held out putting anything on the table, at least publicly, until this letter."

Porter also feels that the cut is not going to be seen as sufficient in the eyes of the federal government, since it's the lowest commitment from the player with the largest allocation. California has a history of not swaying on its water budget while other states do: Reports that environmental factors are depleting the river system by 16% led states to reduce their consumption by 16%. California didn't budge.

"That 16% cut for California would be a little over 700,000 acre-feet of water. So this proposal of 400 is pretty far short," Porter said. "This amount isn't enough by any stretch of the imagination."

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