California has presented the federal government with its own counter-proposal for distributing reductions in Colorado River water, saying a plan from six other states would place a disproportionate burden on Southern California farms and cities.
Water agencies that depend on the river submitted their proposal to the Biden administration on Tuesday, the same day federal officials set a deadline for Colorado River Basin states to agree on how to keep reservoirs from dropping to dangerously low levels.
The state submitted its proposal a day after Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming released their alternatives. Much of the cuts they proposed would be made by accounting for evaporation and other water losses along the lower part of the river — a calculation that would translate into particularly large cuts for California, which receives more water from the Colorado River. river uses than any other state.
“The six-state proposal has a direct and disproportionate impact on California,” said Wade Crowfoot, the Secretary of State for Natural Resources. “It does not seem like a constructive approach for some states to make a proposal that only affects the existing water safety and water rights of another state that is not part of that proposal.”
Crowfoot said the other states had come up with an approach that would go beyond anything laid out in the agreements and laws governing how the Colorado River is managed and used. In contrast, he said the California water agencies’ proposal includes practical and feasible changes that can be made starting this year to stabilize reservoir levels.
The state’s proposal builds on a previous commitment by four Southern California water agencies to reduce water use by 400,000 acre-feet per year through 2026, a reduction of about 9%. The federal government has asked states to reduce their total use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet.
In addition to planned reductions in California and other states, the proposal calls for action to keep reservoirs above a certain level, including additional reductions on a graduated scale such as the level of Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, continues to fall towards critically low levels.
In the proposal letter, JB Hamby, president of California’s Colorado River Board, said the state’s alternative “provides a realistic and viable framework to address diminished inflows and declining reservoir heights by building on voluntary agreements and previous collaborative efforts to address the risk of legal challenge or delay in implementation.”
California agencies, including the Imperial Irrigation District and the Palo Verde Irrigation District, which provide water to vast farmlands, have high-priority senior water rights that date back more than a century. California officials have insisted that these water rights and the river’s existing law must be enforced in any plan to reduce water use.
“California does not deviate from our legal position,” Hamby said. “We continue to look forward to developing a seven-state consensus if possible, but if there isn’t, it’s the law of the river by default.”
If legal disputes break out, it can make finding solutions more difficult. The states submit their proposed alternatives as the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation begin a review process to review current deficit-handling rules.
Hamby said California is focused on “practical solutions that can be implemented now to protect the amounts of water in storage without leading to conflict and litigation.”
“At the moment we were unable to reach that consensus, but we hope to reach that in the future,” said Hamby. “We need to be able to build consensus among the seven river basin states to come up with voluntary approaches where each state feels comfortable with the direction.”
Even after the federal government’s deadline, water agency managers have scheduled more talks to continue negotiations.
The Colorado River, which supplies cities, farmlands and tribal nations from the Rocky Mountains to the U.S.-Mexico border, has been driven to breaking point by chronic overuse, drought and the effects of global warming.
Over the past 23 years, the watershed has been desiccated by the worst drought in centuries, exacerbated by rising temperatures.
Lake Mead and Lake Powell are now about three quarters empty. And while the Rocky Mountains have seen an above-average amount of snow so far this winter, that’s not nearly enough to pull the reservoirs out of severe water shortages.
Federal officials in June called on the seven states to come up with plans to reduce water diversions by about 15% to 30%. But negotiations between the states became tense and acrimonious and failed to produce a deal.
In October, the Biden administration announced plans to review current shortage-handling rules and pursue a new agreement for significant reductions in water use.
After the final round of talks reached a deadlock, the six states released their proposal. They called it an “alternative framework” for the Bureau of Reclamation to consider as part of its review when preparing what is called a supplemental environmental impact statement.
The six states urged federal officials to account for more than 1.5 million acre-feet of water losses, primarily caused by evaporation, which would represent major budget cuts for Southern California.
“I don’t think there’s any disagreement about the magnitude of the reductions needed,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “We need this magnitude of cuts to stabilize the system.”
The question is how those cuts will be distributed, he said, and talks between the states will continue.
“I think all seven states are still committed to continuing to work towards a solution in good faith,” Entsminger said.
Federal officials aim to release a draft outline of alternatives by the end of March, followed by a decision in the summer.
Entsminger said that while the states haven’t reached a consensus yet, he hopes “we can come up with something everyone can live with.”
Crowfoot said that while California’s proposal specifies reductions, it also focuses on protecting “basic water needs of communities across the West by prioritizing water supply for human health and safety.”
While negotiating immediate plans, the seven states will also soon begin discussions on new deficit management rules beyond 2026.
Crowfoot said those talks would be more appropriate to discuss any changes to the established allocation system, such as the six states’ proposal to focus on evaporative water losses.
“To do that in a few months on a system built in a century, we don’t think it’s the way to get consensus,” Crowfoot said. “Let’s focus on what’s the job … that’s making changes to water conservation here in the coming months.”
California Senator Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein supported the state’s proposal, saying no state will be spared water reductions as drought and climate change reduce the river’s flow.
The two Democratic senators said in a joint statement that “six other Western states dictating how much water California should give up is simply not a true consensus solution — especially from states that have not offered new cuts to their own water use. They added that the six-state proposal “does not recognize California’s higher legal water rights.”
A California tribal leader joined water managers in supporting the state’s proposal. Jordan Joaquin, president of the Quechan Tribal Council, said the proposal “reflects a meaningful effort to address the hydrological challenges facing the [Colorado River] Basin respecting the senior water rights of the tribe and others and ensuring that the Colorado can continue to exist as a living river.
Managers at Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District said they are planning additional steps this year to reduce Colorado River water use.
“But we have to do it in a way that doesn’t harm half of the people who depend on the river — the 19 million people in Southern California — said Adel Hagekhalil, MWD’s general manager. “We have to do it in a way that doesn’t destroy our $1.6 trillion economy, an economic engine for the entire United States. We need to do it in a way that can be implemented quickly, by adding water to Lakes Mead and Powell without getting caught up in a lengthy legal battle.
In December, leaders of the water wholesalers declared a regional drought emergency and called on local suppliers to reduce water use. MWD’s managers discussed plans to move to mandatory conservation measures across the region by allocating supplies to all of the district’s 26 member agencies.
Adán Ortega, chair of the MWD board, said the district is preparing to take these measures to “do our part in saving the Colorado River.”
“We’ve actually started preparing our member agencies and the public for this possibility, so that’s a good-faith gesture that we hope the other states will take seriously,” Ortega said.
Ortega said the six-state proposal would lead to disputes over evaporative loss calculations, “not to mention the disputes you’re going to get over changing the rule on the river.”
He said that would be a “very ill-advised shortcut”.