California has major stake in Colorado River water use fight

Californians have a major stake in the seven-state fight over how reductions in Colorado River water use should be allocated. The states on Tuesday missed a federal deadline for reaching a voluntary agreement on how to reduce supplies from the drought-stricken river. It raises the prospect of the Biden administration stepping in and imposing mandatory restrictions on water use.

Any cuts to Southern California’s water supply could put additional pressure on the state to send more water south from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The Delta provides about one-third of the Bay Area’s water and 65% of the fresh water that Californians drink. Protecting the health of the Delta and the quality of its drinking water should be one of the state’s highest priorities. Excess pumping from the Delta to Central Valley farms and Southern California cities threatens the health of the largest estuary west of the Mississippi. Scientists for decades have maintained that the best way to protect the Delta is to pour more water through it — not less.

California gets 15% of its water from the Colorado River, which has its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains and flows southwest through the Grand Canyon before heading south to Lake Mead and Mexico. California uses water from the Colorado River for irrigating farmland in Imperial and Riverside counties and drinking water in Southern California cities. All told, the Colorado River supplies fresh water for 40 million people.

But chronic overuse of Colorado River water has depleted reservoirs of the region it serves to the point where it threatens a natural disaster. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, are now only about 25% full, creating the potential that they become “deadpools,” in which the water levels become so low that water can’t flow out of those dams. If that happen, supplies would be cut off to the farmlands and cities that rely on the water.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation in June gave the seven states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — two months to reach a voluntary agreement on reducing water use by as much as 30%. That deadline came and went, so the states were given an additional four months to come up with a plan.

Six of the seven states on Tuesday agreed to a proposed set of cuts — but not California, which has held senior water rights to the river for decades.

California water officials say they are willing to cut back their water use, but they argue that their water rights should be upheld and that they should be fairly compensated for any water reductions.

The failure to reach an agreement raises the potential for a major legal fight if the federal government imposes cuts on the states.

Northern Californians should note that the Colorado River Delta, which originally flowed into Mexico, for decades has run dry or with only minimal flows. Rather than emptying into the Pacific Ocean, the Colorado River water serves cities and farms in the seven U.S. states.

It’s a cautionary story that should cause Northern Californians to do everything possible to protect the health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

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