Can Western States Agree on the Future of the Colorado River?
A mother and child rest near the shores of Lake Mead in Nevada. Western states are negotiating massive cuts to Colorado River water use to save essential reservoirs such as Lake Mead. John Locher/The Associated Press
Read more Stateline coverage of how communities across the West are grappling with drought that’s worsening because of climate change.
SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Western state water officials will spend the next few months trying to agree on how to divvy up water from the Colorado River, which sustains a region of 40 million people across seven states but has been devastated by the worst drought in more than a thousand years.
Reaching a deal, however, has thus far proved challenging. Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have jointly made a proposal to the federal government over how to decrease consumption of Colorado River water. California, however, has a different plan.
If the seven states can’t agree, federal officials will step in and unilaterally impose cuts later this year.
At issue is how much water California is entitled to and the time by which broad cuts will be implemented. California, which takes in the most Colorado River water of any state, wants a more gradual approach that honors decades-old water rights agreements, while the other states say California should take significant cuts sooner.
John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has spent the past 23 years negotiating water agreements. It always looked like they were about to fail right before they succeeded, he said. The six states are negotiating with California “in good faith” and, he believes, will settle.
“There’s enough water on this river for all of us to be safe and secure,” he said, “but achieving that stability takes sacrifice from everybody, and that’s what we should be striving for.”
One of the more contentious elements of the six-state proposal concerns evaporation. Though a tenth of Colorado River water is eventually lost due to evaporation and leaks in infrastructure as it travels to the Lower Basin in Arizona, California and Nevada, system water losses have not traditionally been factored into state water allotments, Entsminger said. Nevada and the five other states want to change that.
If adopted, the six-state plan would mean significantly less water for California. Southern California would stand to lose as much as a third of the water it gets from the Colorado River if reservoir levels continue to plummet, according to the proposal. Arizona and Nevada’s reductions would be far less since they lie upstream and are less affected by evaporation than California. Currently, 36% of Arizona water and 90% of Southern Nevada water come from the Colorado River.
Entsminger said an approach that accounts for evaporation is science-based, reasonable and equitable. California officials have disagreed.
No one wants the country’s largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, to reach critically low, “untenable” levels, said Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokesperson for the California Natural Resources Agency.
But while California wants to be “an active partner” with the other states, she argued their proposal would take a complicated approach that isn’t yet feasible.
“It’s never been done before and it’s unclear how it would all work,” she said. “We are really looking at what we can actually do, what can be achievable and implementable. The other proposal would be pretty disruptive and upend the law and compacts that have governed us for so long.”
An approach that accounts for evaporation and other water losses throughout the system could work, Lien-Mager said, but California officials would prefer that it is included in long-term conversations in the years to come and not rushed through now. Still, she recognizes “the spigot could turn off” if states do nothing, emphasizing the state’s willingness to negotiate.
The Need for Water Cuts
Last summer, the Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency that manages Colorado River dams, directed states to find a way to cut water use by as much as a third. The states have twice missed deadlines to come to an agreement.
Without action, water levels could fall so low that dams along the river would struggle to release water.
Over the past two decades, states have implemented innovative efforts to reduce water use in the Colorado River basin, including more efficient farming practices and urban water recycling programs, said Michael Cohen, a senior researcher with the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank.
But states are still drawing more water than rain and snow are putting back into a system hurt by an ongoing, 23-year drought. Rain is less frequent, the glaciers in the Rocky Mountains are drying up and the snow evaporates instead of flowing into rivers. As a result, the downstream reservoirs are severely depleted.
To ensure there is enough water in the future, the rules that govern the Colorado River basin must change, Cohen said.
“If there’s not water from the Colorado River, then the fastest growing states in the country are severely threatened and are potentially jeopardized,” he said. “How does L.A. survive, or San Diego or Phoenix or Tucson, or for that matter Denver, without the benefit of water from the Colorado River?”
Drastic cuts could also impact agriculture, which uses 80% of the Colorado River water.
Farmers have senior water rights, or older claims to the water, which in some cases give them priority over municipalities. Most of the country’s winter vegetables are grown in Arizona and California.
Federal officials will develop draft regulations over the next two months. After a public comment period and debate, the feds will finalize a plan by the late summer.
The competing plans are similar, said Jack Schmidt, director of the Center for Colorado River Studies. They both call for systemwide major water use reductions and establish target water levels of Lake Powell. The difference lies in who takes the biggest cuts and how soon those cuts should take place.
California has senior water rights under a collection of agreements — the so-called Law of the River — dating back a century. That means Arizona and Nevada, which have newer, junior rights, would be subject to more severe cutbacks than California under current agreements.
California is in a “very strong” position because of existing water rights and laws, Schmidt said. The federal government will play a “really important” role in brokering a deal, he added, navigating historical differences between the states.
“The truth of the matter is the difference of opinion has been around for more than a century,” he said. “In many ways, it’s been everybody against California. Nothing has changed. And California is the biggest, most important economy with the biggest population. It may be one state, but it’s got a lot going for it.”
No matter what the federal government decides this year, the need for conservation among the states is real, Schmidt emphasized, regardless of the large volume of rain and snow that’s fallen on the West this winter.
“If this is truly a gangbuster year, we’d have to do this six more years in a row to rebuild the reservoirs,” said Schmidt, who is also a professor of watershed studies at Utah State University. “Which is to say, the mandate and need for major reductions in consumptive use is unambiguously a reality. One great year doesn’t change things.”
Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River resources manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which gets a quarter of its water from the Colorado River, said conservation is going to have to be a permanent fixture throughout the basin. Agreeing on the future of water cuts in the region will require sacrifice, but he’s optimistic the states will do so.
“These will be difficult talks,” he said. “We want to be very thoughtful and think about how to live without less water. But we don’t want to rush into a proposal that might have unintended consequences. People realize the stakes are really high and we’re going to do whatever we can to get to a consensus.”
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