California’s opening bid alone won’t solve the Colorado River crisis

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“It’s a step in the right direction,” Thomas Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told POLITICO. “We absolutely agree with the need to continue discussions as proposed in the letter to continue moving forward in a positive manner.”

Entrenched drought and decades of over-drafting have driven water levels in the river’s two main reservoirs to a precarious level, with levels at Glen Canyon Dam set to drop next year to within yards of the point at which the hydroelectric production would cease and the ability to supply water downstream could be jeopardized. The Federal Office of Reclamation said states need to conserve 2 million to 4 million acres next year just to avoid a short-term reservoir disaster.

The offer presented by California’s agricultural and urban water agencies last week matches the proposal made by the Golden State during negotiations on a multi-state agreement in August, which Arizona rejected as insufficient, said Buschatzke.

“The reason I didn’t sign a plan in August was that there wasn’t enough water involved in total, and there wasn’t enough water involved to compare what the Arizona would put on the table and what California would put. on the table,” Buschatzke said.

Four hundred thousand acre feet is 9 percent of California’s Colorado River water allocation and only 20 percent of the lower end of the range of what the federal Office of Recovery says should be preserved. Arizona is using nearly 800,000 acres less than it is entitled to this year, while California is using its full allocation and extracting additional water from Lake Mead on the Nevada-USA border. Arizona that she had previously accumulated in the tank.

But whether California’s ante makes meaningful progress on the goals set out by Reclamation depends on whether it represents the sum total of California’s contribution or is in addition to mandatory cuts proposed by the federal government.

Although Reclamation did not follow through on its threat to act unilaterally to impose cuts in August when the states failed to reach an agreement, Interior Ministry officials discussed a handful levers at their disposal. These include, above all, the possibility of subtracting the amount of water lost through evaporation or channel leaks from the total amount of deliveries to which California, Arizona and Nevada are entitled. This option could conserve a significant amount of water – about 1.2 million acre-feet – and could distribute pain proportionately among users in a way otherwise difficult to do under the water rights system.

All states except California have publicly supported this option, and interior officials recently told states to start preparing for the changes in 2024, according to Buschatzke.

Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said adding these federally mandated cuts to California’s conservation bid appears to be the only way for states to get closer to the amount of water savings sought by Reclamation.

“We want to be clear that we see the contributions described by California would add or add to the application of evaporation and losses in the lower basin,” he said.

But California’s offer appears to be aimed at preventing such moves.

“It is California’s intention that this proactive voluntary action will build on existing agreements, contracts, covenants and water rights to catalyze broader basin-wide conservation and help avoid protracted litigation. that may otherwise result from regulatory or mandatory actions,” the California water agencies said. said in last week’s letter.

The fact that California water users called their commitment “voluntary” is also controversial. In 2021, California agreed to voluntary usage reductions as part of a deal with Arizona and Nevada to try to stabilize Lake Mead levels, but the state was unable to meet its part of the deal, said Sarah Porter, director. from the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University.

“The fact that it’s voluntary makes it a bit weaker, even weaker than it looks when you look at the numbers,” Porter said. “It’s just not the same as saying, ‘We’ll take a slice.

And the cuts announced by the Golden State are a short-term fix for the next three years — seen by many as just a band-aid to avert impending disaster in the reservoirs — rather than a long-term fix to fill the reservoirs. and tackling the deteriorating condition of the river that climatologists predict will be the new normal.

“While California’s proposed reductions go in the right direction, it is imperative to implement meaningful and permanent solutions to reduce water demand to help stabilize the Colorado River system and Lake Mead,” said the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Nevada’s lead agency on Colorado. River issues, said in a statement.

Major players on the river widely recognize that such deals will be needed in the short term as longer term solutions such as upgrading irrigation infrastructure and clearing grass from desert towns are implemented – although how the money should be spent on these short-term efforts is a major point of contention.

California water agencies said their bid was dependent on federal funding to compensate users – and additional federal funding to address the environmental crisis in the Salton Sea. This body of water is fed by irrigation runoff from the Imperial Irrigation District; as this runoff is reduced for conservation purposes, the sea will shrink further, exposing toxic dust that threatens air quality for nearby communities.

But, California does not name an award in the letter. A spokesperson for Imperial, the letter’s signatory and the largest user of Colorado River water, said the district had discussed funding with federal officials, but did not name a number.

Congress has approved $4 billion in drought relief under the Democrats’ Cut Inflation Act – a big chunk of money, but one that certainly won’t be enough on its own, especially for rate that some farmers were looking for for a single year of conservation during the period leading up to the August Reclamation deadline. Those rates have some players so alarmed that Nevada’s chief negotiator on the Colorado River warned against “drought profiteering”.

“There’s certainly some disagreement about whether dollars should be given – let’s just say it – to farmers to temporarily use less water,” said ASU’s Porter. “Four billion is a lot of money, but if we paid the farmers at the level they are asking for, it wouldn’t be enough.”

Interior officials said they plan to offer two separate funding opportunities linked to the IRA’s $4 billion – one focused on short-term deals like the one California is offering, and another. for projects that reduce water use in the longer term. There was also talk of giving participants with short-term projects priority to receive second-round awards, a factor that may have prompted California to formalize its conservation proposal last week.

But, despite all the tensions raised by the California letter, outside observers say making a formal offer from the biggest player in the river is an important move at a time when negotiations have stalled. .

“Rather than waiting for the laborious process of these complex, interlocking deals where everyone agrees on how much they’re going to cut, for California to say, ‘It’s important, we’re going to go it alone’ — it’s really important because the attempt to negotiate a shared sacrifice is stalled,” said John Fleck, a water policy professor and writer. at the University of New Mexico.

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