Federal officials are warning California and other states that use Colorado River water to sharply limit diversions or the government will act unilaterally. California would take the biggest hit.
One has to wade through a thicket of bureaucratic jargon to find it, but on Friday federal officials issued what appears to be a dire warning to California and other states that use water from the highly stressed Colorado River:
If they can’t agree to sharply reduce water diversions in Colorado, the feds will unilaterally impose them.
It’s the latest wrinkle in decades of interstate wrangling over the river, which is heating up as the river’s flows continue to decline and conditions in its two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, reach crisis stage.
The Federal Bureau of Reclamation wants California, Arizona and Nevada to reduce diversion by at least 2 million acres a year and as much as 4 million, but negotiations have been fruitless. California, which takes by far the most water from the river, offered a reduction of only 400,000 acre-feet. An acre foot is 326,000 gallons.
With negotiations deadlocked, the bureau said it would begin planning for unilateral action “to address the serious operational realities facing the system…” due to “the likelihood of continued low flow conditions in the (Colorado River) basin.” It would introduce cuts by reducing leaks from two reservoirs.
“The Home Office continues to take a collaborative and consensus-based approach to addressing the drought crisis plaguing the West. At the same time, we are committed to taking the swift and decisive action necessary to protect the Colorado River system and all who depend on it,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.
The Bureau of Reclamation is telling states that “this is their last chance for consensus, 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 basic problem is that whatever solution people come up with is going to hurt,” Garcia said. “The river is congested. It dries up. And we have to find a way to spread the pain evenly.”
Since California is the largest user of Colorado River water, cuts — whether voluntary or imposed — would have the biggest impact on the state. However, while the Colorado is the main source of water for the more than 20 million residents of Southern California, the region has other sources for municipal users.
Rather, about two-thirds of Colorado’s water diverted to California goes to agriculture, mainly to the Imperial Irrigation District in Imperial County. The county draws more water from the river, at least 2.5 million acre-feet annually, than Nevada and Arizona combined. So if there are big cuts, as the feds are demanding, 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, creating its superior water rights. Imperial Dam and the All-American Canal allow the Imperial Valley to have a 12-month growing season, making it a major producer of winter crops as well as a source of alfalfa for feeding cattle and dairy cows.
The Interior Department has $4 billion from the newly enacted Inflation Reduction Act to compensate those who would lose water from flow cuts. But the money and the last warning may not bring agreement among the affected states.
If the Reclamation Authority acts unilaterally to limit the diversion, it will likely lead to a high-stakes lawsuit that will test the Imperial District’s water rights. In a sense, what’s happening in Colorado could be a precursor to legal showdowns over water rights in other areas of the state if droughts continue.