Six western states agreed on a plan to significantly reduce water use from the shrinking Colorado River, but California – the largest user of them all – wouldn’t get on board

Colorado River.  Low tide strip on bluff on Lake Mead taken from Hoover Dam near the Nevada/Arizona border.

Colorado River. Low tide strip on bluff on Lake Mead taken from Hoover Dam near the Nevada/Arizona border.Getty Images

  • The federal government has called on western states to come to an agreement on water cuts.

  • California was unable to reach an agreement with six other states on the Colorado River.

  • The proposed cuts come as decades of drought have reduced the water supply millions rely on.

Western states this week failed to reach agreement on how to reduce water use from the Colorado River, even as the waterway dries up and the water supplies on which cities, farms and millions of people depend are not replenished.

Well, six of the seven states that make up the Colorado River basin came to an agreement, but California — the largest user of the river’s water — wouldn’t get on board.

The six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — submitted their water reduction proposals Monday, after all states missed a deadline in August at the request of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The new deadline asked states to propose a plan by the end of January that would reduce the river’s water use by 15 to 30%.

But after California failed to sign that plan, it submitted its own proposal on Tuesday.

“Both proposals recognize that something important needs to be done,” Sharon B. Megdal, the director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona, told Insider, adding, “We need a total adjustment or a total recalibration of what we’re doing.”

“At least they’re putting things down on paper, which is a lot better than having nothing to go off of,” she said of the dueling proposals.

Both plans propose major cuts, but differ in how, when and from where those cuts would be implemented. According to Jeff Fleck, a professor at the University of New Mexico and an expert on the Colorado River, both proposals end up in the same place over time, but the difference is in the timing.

“California’s cuts don’t take effect until later — essentially a bet on good hydrology that again helps us avoid conflict by letting us use more water in the short term,” Fleck wrote in an analysis of the proposals posted on his blog. shared, adding “the six-state proposal says ‘go big'” when Lake Mead drops below a certain level that would be sooner than under California’s plan.

“The six-state proposal is now pulling the bandaid off,” he added.

The proposals also differ in the distribution of the cuts

California, which has the largest allocation of water from the Colorado River, also has superior rights making it one of the last states to cut when there is a shortage.

“The strongest thing the other basin states have for them is a relative level of consensus. And the strongest thing California has for them is the law,” Rhett Larson, a professor of water law at Arizona State University, told the Los Angeles Times. .

Despite failing to come to an agreement by the federal government’s deadline, the states may eventually agree on a plan, and state officials have said they will all continue to work together.

“I don’t view the lack of unanimity on any step in that process as a failure,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told the Associated Press. “I think all seven states are still committed to working together.”

If the states themselves cannot come to an agreement, the federal government may need to step in, increasing the risk of litigation, perpetuating a situation where “time is of the essence,” Megdal said, adding “going to court makes no water.”

She also stressed the importance of having these written proposals, which can be used to build on and help build consensus, but most importantly said that every state seems willing to make major water cuts. The harder part may even come after austerity is agreed upon, when states must determine how all of the different water users — municipal, agricultural, industrial, tribal — will be affected.

“The challenge is that we need to get back into balance in terms of water use and what the system produces,” she said. “We have lived on borrowed water.”

Megdal explained that many states rely on water from reservoirs fed by the Colorado River, such as Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which have reached historic lows after decades of drought and climate change impacts.

“That storage is not replenished,” she said. “We have to get in balance with what nature offers us.”

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