California offers proposal on Colorado River crisis

California has submitted its own proposal to the federal government to cut Colorado River water use, saying a plan offered by six other states would place a disproportionate burden on Southern California farms and cities.

Water agencies dependent on the river submitted their proposal to the Biden administration on Tuesday, the same day federal officials gave Colorado River Basin states a deadline to come to an agreement on how to prevent it reservoirs sink to dangerously low levels.

The state presented its proposal a day after Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming published their alternative. A large portion of the cuts they propose would be made by accounting for evaporation and other water losses along the lower portion of the river — a calculation that would result in particularly large reductions for California, which uses more Colorado River water than any other state.

“The six-state proposal has a direct and disproportionate impact on California,” said Wade Crowfoot, the state’s secretary of natural resources. “It does not appear to be a constructive approach for some states to come up with a proposal that only affects the existing water security and water rights of another state that is not part of that proposal.”

Crowfoot said the other states have developed an approach that goes beyond anything set out in the agreements and laws that govern the management and use of the Colorado River. He said the California water authorities’ proposal, in contrast, sets out practical and achievable changes that could be made beginning this year to stabilize reservoir levels.

The state’s proposal builds on an earlier 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 consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet.

In addition to planned reductions in California and other states, the proposal calls for measures aimed at keeping reservoirs above certain levels, including additional cuts in a phased manner if levels at Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, fall further in Direction decreases critically low stats.

In the proposal letter, JB Hamby, chair of California’s Colorado River Board, said the state’s alternative “provides a realistic and feasible framework to manage reduced inflows and declining reservoir heights by building on voluntary agreements and prior cooperative efforts to mitigate risk.” legal challenge or delay in implementation.”

California agencies like the Imperial Irrigation District and the Palo Verde Irrigation District, which provide water to vast tracts of farmland, have priority water rights that date back more than a century. California officials have insisted that these rights and the river’s existing law must be respected in any plan to reduce water use.

“California does not deviate from our legal position,” Hamby said. “We remain excited to develop a seven-state consensus if possible, but if it doesn’t, it defaults to the law of the river.”

If legal disputes arise, this could make it difficult to find solutions. The states are putting forward their proposed alternatives, while the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Reclamation are beginning a review process to revise the current rules for handling congestion on the Colorado River.

Hamby said California is focused on “practical solutions that can be implemented now to protect water volumes in storage without causing conflict and litigation.”

“As of this writing, we have not been able to reach that consensus, but we hope to be able to do so in the future,” Hamby said. “We need to be able to build consensus among the seven basin states to develop voluntary approaches where each state agrees on the direction.”

Even after the federal government’s deadline had expired, those responsible for the water authorities scheduled further talks in order to continue negotiating.

The Colorado River, which feeds cities, agricultural areas and tribal nations from the Rocky Mountains to the US-Mexico border, has been stretched to breaking point by chronic overexploitation, drought and the effects of global warming.

For the past 23 years, the watershed has been parched by the worst drought in centuries, compounded 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, it’s not nearly enough to lift the reservoirs out of severe water shortages.

Federal officials in June asked the seven states to submit plans to reduce water diversion by about 15% to 30%. But negotiations between the states became bitter and did not lead to an agreement.

In October, the Biden administration announced plans to revise current congestion-handling rules and seek a new agreement to significantly reduce water use.

After the last round of talks reached an impasse, the six states published their proposal. They called it an “alternative framework” for the Bureau of Reclamation to consider as part of its review when preparing what they call a supplemental environmental impact statement.

The six states have asked federal officials to begin accounting for more than 1.5 million acre-feet of water losses, mostly caused by evaporation, that would leave Southern California hard hit.

“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 cuts of this magnitude to stabilize the system.”

The question is how those cuts would be divided, he said, and talks between the states are continuing.

“I think there is still a strong commitment from all seven states to continue working towards a resolution in good faith,” Entsminger said.

Federal officials plan to release a draft review of alternatives by the end of March, followed by a decision in the summer.

Entsminger said while states have yet to reach a consensus, he hopes “we can find something that everyone can live with.”

According to Crowfoot, while the California proposal focuses on reductions, it also focuses on protecting the “essential water needs of communities across the West by prioritizing water supplies for human health and safety.”

As the seven states negotiate immediate plans, they are also expected to soon begin talks on rules for dealing with congestion after 2026.

Crowfoot said these talks are better suited to discuss changes in the established allocation system, such as the six states’ proposal to focus on water losses through evaporation.

“Doing this in a matter of months on a system that’s been built over a century isn’t the approach to reaching consensus, in our view,” Crowfoot said. “Let’s focus on the task at hand… making water conservation changes here in the coming months.”

California Sens. Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein supported the state’s proposal, saying no state will be spared water cuts as drought and climate change shrink river flow.

The two Democratic senators said in a joint statement that “six other Western states dictating how much water California must give up simply aren’t a real consensus solution — particularly from states that haven’t offered fresh cuts to their own water use.” They added that the six-state proposal “does not recognize California’s overriding statutory water rights.”

A California tribal leader joined water managers in supporting the state’s proposal. Quechan Tribal Council President Jordan Joaquin said the proposal “reflects a meaningful effort to address the hydrological challenges facing the community.” [Colorado River] Basin while respecting the senior water rights of the tribe and others and ensuring that the Colorado continues to exist as a living river.”

Managers of the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California said they are planning additional steps to reduce Colorado River water use this year.

“But we must do it in a way that doesn’t harm half of the people who depend on the river — the 19 million people of 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, providing water to Lakes Mead and Powell without getting embroiled in lengthy litigation.”

In December, water wholesalers leaders declared a regional drought emergency and urged local suppliers to reduce water use. MWD’s managers have discussed plans for moving to mandatory conservation efforts across the region by beginning to allocate supplies for all of the district’s 26 member agencies.

Adán Ortega, chairman of the MWD board, said the district is preparing to take these actions to “do our part to save the Colorado River.”

“We have actually begun to prepare our affiliates and the public for this possibility, and this is a good faith gesture that we hope 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’ll get into if you change the rule for the river.”

He said that would be a “very ill-advised shortcut”. California offers proposal on Colorado River crisis

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