One must wade through a thicket of bureaucratic jargon to find it, but on Friday federal officials issued what appears to be a serious warning to California and other states that use water from the highly stressed Colorado River:
If they cannot agree on sharp reductions in diversions of the Colorado’s water, the feds will impose them unilaterally.
It’s the latest wrinkle in decades of interstate squabbling over the river, which has become more heated as the river’s flows continue to decline and conditions in its two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, reach the crisis stage.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation wants California, Arizona and Nevada to reduce diversions by at least 2 million acre-feet a year and as much as 4 million, but negotiations have been fruitless. California, which takes the most water from the river, by far, has offered just a 400,000 acre-foot reduction. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.
With talks stalemated, the bureau said it will begin planning for unilateral action “to address the serious operational realities facing the system…” due to “the likelihood of continued low-runoff conditions across the (Colorado River) basin.” It would implement cuts by reducing releases from the two reservoirs.
“The Interior Department continues to pursue a collaborative and consensus-based approach to addressing the drought crisis afflicting the West. At the same time, we are committed to taking prompt and decisive action necessary to protect the Colorado River system and all those who depend on it,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.
The Bureau of Reclamation is telling the states “that this is kind of their last opportunity for consensus-building, for voluntary action,” Jaime Garcia, a water fellow at the University of Colorado Law School’s Getches-Wilkinson Center, told the Los Angeles Times.
“The fundamental issue is, whatever solution people come up with is going to hurt,” Garcia said. “The river is overallocated. It’s drying up. And we have to find a way to sort of spread out the pain evenly.”
Because California is the largest user of Colorado River water, cutbacks — either voluntary or imposed — would have their greatest impact on the state. However, while the Colorado is a major source of water for Southern California’s more than 20 million residents, the region has other sources for municipal users.
Rather, about two-thirds of the Colorado’s water diverted into California goes to farming, particularly the Imperial Irrigation District in Imperial County. The district takes more water from the river, at least 2.5 million acre-feet a year, than Nevada and Arizona combined. Therefore, if there are major cutbacks, as the feds demand, the Imperial Irrigation District would have to give up the most.
Imperial gets the most because it was the first entity to tap the Colorado more than a century ago, thus establishing its senior water rights. The Imperial Dam and All-American Canal allow the Imperial Valley to have a 12-month growing season, making it a major producer of winter produce as well as a source of alfalfa to feed cattle and milk cows.
The Interior Department has $4 billion from the newly enacted Inflation Reduction Act to compensate those who would lose water by flow reductions. But the money and the latest warning may not produce agreement among the affected states.
If the Bureau of Reclamation acts unilaterally to reduce diversions, it will likely result in high-stakes litigation that tests Imperial district’s water rights. In a sense what’s happening along the Colorado could be a forerunner of legal showdowns over water rights in other regions of the state, if drought conditions continue.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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