Why is California going it alone in the Colorado River talks?

With the recent expiration of a federal deadline, California now finds itself at odds with six other states over how to take less water from the shrinking Colorado River.

After rejecting a plan proposed by the rest of the region, California entered a high-stakes political tussle. So why did the state that uses the most water from the Colorado River decide to go it alone?

California appears to be banking on its priority water rights, while other states are presenting a united front to show the federal government they support a plan that would force California to give up more water.

“The strongest thing the other basin states have going for them is some level of relative consensus. And the strongest thing California has is the law,” said Rhett Larson, professor of water law at Arizona State University. “California is trying to play its best card, which is, ‘The law is on our side.’ And the other six states try to play their best card: “We are from each other”.

The parties are at an impasse as the federal government begins to weigh alternatives to rapidly reduce water use and prevent river reservoirs from reaching dangerously low levels.

The Colorado River, which feeds cities, agricultural areas and tribal nations from the Rocky Mountains to the US-Mexico border, has been pushed to breaking point by chronic overuse, drought and the effects of global warming. The two largest reservoirs in the river, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have shrunk to the lowest levels since they were filled.

Federal officials had called on each of the seven states that rely on the river to come up with alternatives for making water reductions by the end of January.

According to the proposal submitted by Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, much of the proposed water reductions would be made by accounting for evaporation and other losses. of water along the lower reaches of the river — a calculation that would translate into particularly large reductions for California, which uses most of the river.

In its proposal, California reiterated previous commitments by Southern California water agencies to reduce water use by 400,000 acre-feet per year, a reduction of approximately 9%, through 2026. The proposal also calls for additional reductions in Arizona, California and Nevada. on a tiered scale if the level of Lake Mead continues to drop to extremely low levels.

California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said the state’s proposal is “timely, practical and achievable in a manner that complies with applicable law.”

The so-called “Law of the River” is based on the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which divided water among the seven states, as well as various court decisions and agreements from the last century. California’s agricultural water agencies, particularly the Imperial Irrigation District and the Palo Verde Irrigation District, hold premier water rights that date back more than a century, giving California a privileged position under the system of prior water rights, often described as “first in time, first to right.

Less than four years ago, states appeared to be amicably resolving issues and agreed to water cuts under an agreement called the Drought Contingency Plan. But those reductions weren’t enough as reservoirs continued to shrink during the worst drought in centuries.

And tensions have risen in recent months, especially between California and the rest of the region.

JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said in a submission letter that the state’s proposal “minimizes the risk of a legal challenge.”

Arizona water agencies released a statement on Wednesday critically responding to California’s proposal, which they said “reflects strict adherence to a California definition of river law.”

“But there are different interpretations of what this law of the river actually means,” said the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project, adding that the six-state proposal is the “most equitable way.” and most effective” to deal with the problem. severe water deficit in the river due to drought, climate change and overexploitation.

Now that the two sides have submitted starkly different proposals, the Federal Claims Office will begin examining the alternatives as part of a review focused on overhauling shortage management rules.

Negotiations between the seven states are expected to continue, but the impasse between California and the other states remains.

Over the next few months, federal officials will play a key role in analyzing and weighing the proposals.

Either way, the rift between states now looks likely to trigger legal disputes and end up in court, Larson said.

“I think at this point it’s inevitable and that’s where things are headed. And I also think it might be the best of our options available now,” Larson said. not pulling ourselves together right now, and I think it’s probably time to try litigation.”

Los Angeles Times

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