Monday’s landmark Colorado River deal represents a big win for California, which just months ago was embroiled in a bitter row with Arizona, Nevada and four other western states over how to reduce considerably their use of the water supply in the shrinking river..
The proposal, which came after months of tense negotiations, would see the three states in the lower Colorado basin conserve about 3 million acre-feet of water from the river by 2026 – a reduction of 14% in the south -west which is only about half of what could have been imposed by the federal government if the states had not reached an agreement.
“It’s a win for California, but it’s a win for the entire basin that, once again, after a year of acrimony, we’re at least now on the same page,” said Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River resource manager for the Metropolitan Water District.
Although some details have yet to be released, the plan would see the majority of the cuts, about 1.6 million acre-feet, come from California. The rest would be split between Arizona and Nevada, with the former taking the lion’s share of those losses.
California’s reductions are similar to those that state water managers have been offering for several months, Hasencamp said. The plan is also consistent with California’s proposal to focus on voluntary reductions rather than opening the door for the federal government to dictate proportionate reductions across the region.
“I’m pleasantly surprised,” said James Salzman, professor of environmental law at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. “I thought it was going to go to court, but I think two big things happened: the record snowpack made the choices less painful and, to be honest, California and Arizona played one better. than the other than I had anticipated.”
Just a few weeks ago, states were at an impasse over the distribution of the cuts. California has argued for voluntary reductions while adhering to the water rights system under the body of agreements known as the Law of the River, which would favor its seniority. Arizona and Nevada – with support from the upper basin states of New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – argued for proportional cuts at all levels in the lower basin.
“It’s not obvious how that would have played out, but California would really roll the dice” leaving it up to the federal government or litigation, Salzman said. “They have come to an agreement now that obviously they have to feel that they can meet, that they can satisfy each other.”
It’s not just a win for California, however. The agreement marks extensive cooperation between lower basin states, tribes, water agencies and agricultural irrigation districts that have long relied on the Colorado River as a lifeline.
“I think the real victory is that we went from conflict to consensus in a matter of months – and conflict between states is a recipe for failure,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary of natural resources. “Our collective ability to come together and identify a shared approach, a consensus approach, is truly a win for California and also for other states.”
Water managers who brokered the deal said projections show the cuts would prevent Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, from reaching “dead pool” – a level at which water could not reach. more pass downstream through the Hoover Dam, effectively cutting off supplies for millions of people – over the next three years.
Michael Cohen, a senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, said while the plan is indeed closer to California conditions, he wouldn’t necessarily call it a win.
“I’m concerned about the health of the Colorado River Basin, and presumably California is as well,” Cohen said. “California certainly has rights to protect, but at the end of the day, if Mead goes to dead pool, those rights mean nothing.”
It remains to be seen whether the reductions will be sufficient in the face of worsening aridification and climate change – much like what will happen after 2026, when the proposed changes expire, he said.
The Biden administration has said it will analyze the states’ proposal before issuing a final decision later this year.