California filed a competing conservation plan for the Colorado River on Tuesday, just one day after opting out of a proposal put forward by six other western states, signaling a breakdown in negotiations over how to drastically cut water use from the imperiled waterway.
Officials with the Bureau of Reclamation had called on the states to come to a consensus on how to curb between 2 and 4m acre-feet or roughly enough water to supply 8m households for a full year.
Tense negotiations have dragged on for months and, after first failing to meet a deadline to reduce diversions by 15% to 30% last summer, the parties were hoping to reach a consensus by the end of January.
Now that the date has come and gone without an agreement, the two dueling proposals submitted will be considered by the Bureau of Reclamation, which is expected to release an official decision this summer. Still, the threat of litigation looms large.
Meanwhile, water resources in the mighty Colorado river system are rapidly dwindling. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the largest reservoirs in the US, are roughly a quarter full.
The 1,450-mile river (2,334km) serves 40 million people across the west and Mexico, generating hydroelectric power for regional markets and irrigating nearly 6m acres (2,428 hectares) of farmland. But a multi-decade drought in the west – made worse by climate change, rising demand and overuse – has sent water levels to unprecedented lows.
Existing agreements only outline cuts to water use when Lake Mead’s elevation is between 1,090ft (332 meters) and 1,025ft (312 meters). If it drops any lower than 1,025ft, California’s plan proposes even further cuts based on the so-called Law of the River – likely meaning Arizona and Nevada would bear the brunt of them. Those cuts are designed to keep Lake Mead from reaching “dead pool”, when it could no longer pump out water to farms and cities including Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
The reservoir’s current elevation is around 1,045ft.
As the sole holdout in an agreement reached by the six other states in the pact, California’s plan leaned heavily on its senior rights to the water, which stretch back more than a century, and refused to take more from its sprawling agricultural sector.
Instead, California proposes reducing water taken out of Lake Mead by 1m acre-feet, with 400,000 acre-feet coming from its own users, numbers the state has stuck to through months of negotiations. Arizona would bear the brunt of bigger cuts – 560,000 acre-feet – while Nevada would make up the rest.
Under California’s plan, its Imperial Irrigation District, an arid hub of cropland in the south-eastern part of the state, would retain more access to water than Arizona and Nevada combined.
State officials claim more cuts would gravely impact growers and low-income communities already feeling the crunch.
The California senators Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein backed the state’s plan, saying the alternative “fails to recognize California’s senior legal water rights” and highlighting the state’s record on conservation.
“Six other Western states dictating how much water California must give up simply isn’t a genuine consensus solution – especially coming from states that haven’t offered any new cuts to their own water usage,” they said.
In the six-state plan, which carved out more than 3m acre-feet in reductions if the reservoirs drop beyond the triggering threshold, cuts would largely come from California’s share, and factors in 1.5m acre-feet of Colorado River water lost to evaporation and transportation along the lower part of river.
California currently has the largest allocation of water among the seven states that tap the Colorado River, and state officials have threatened that their senior rights are legally defensible as they pushed other parties to acquiesce.
“The best way to avoid conflict and ensure that we can put water in the river right away is through a voluntary approach, not putting proposals that sidestep the Law of the River and ignore California’s senior right and give no respect to that,” J B Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River board of California and a board member of the Imperial Irrigation District, said.
California officials have also touted conservation efforts and investments already in play. The state has committed to saving 1m acre-feet through the next three years and have spent billions to secure levels at Lake Mead.
The new proposals do not change states’ water allocations immediately – or disrupt their existing water rights. Instead, they will be folded into a larger proposal that the Bureau of Reclamation is working on to revise how it operates Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams – behemoth power producers on the Colorado River.
Despite California’s inability to reach agreement with the other six states so far, the parties said they hope to keep talking.
“We’re not going to stop the discussions,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona’s department of water resources. “Maybe we come to an agreement and maybe we won’t.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting.
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