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

“This is a step in the right direction,” Thomas Buchatzky, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told Politico. “We fully agree with the need to continue discussions as suggested in the letter to continue moving forward in a positive way.”

An entrenched drought and decades of overuse have precariously reduced water levels in the river’s two major reservoirs, with water levels expected to fall at the Glen Canyon Dam next year just a few feet from the point at which hydropower production and the ability to deliver water in a downstream direction will cease. riverbed. could be at risk. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation said states need to conserve 2 million to 4 million acres next year to avert a near-term disaster in the reservoirs.

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

“The reason I didn’t sign a plan in August was because there wasn’t enough water in total, and there wasn’t enough water in looking relatively at what Arizona would put on the table and what California would put,” Buchatsky said.

Four hundred thousand acres represent 9 percent of California’s allotment for Colorado River water and only 20 percent of the minimum range that the Federal Bureau of Reclamation 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 appropriation, drawing additional water from Lake Mead on the Nevada and Arizona border that it previously held in the reservoir.

But whether pre-California makes much progress on the goals set by reclamation depends on whether it represents California’s total contribution, or comes on top of mandatory cuts introduced by the federal government.

Although reclamation He did not follow through on his threat To act unilaterally to force cuts in August when states failed to reach an agreement, Home Office officials discussed A handful of winches are at their disposal. These include, notably, the option to subtract the amount of water lost due to evaporation or channel leakage from the total amount of deliveries that California, Arizona, and Nevada are entitled to. This option could conserve a significant amount of water – an estimated 1.2 million acres – and could proportionally spread pain among users in a way that would be difficult to do within a water rights system.

Every state except California has publicly supported this option, and interior officials recently told states to begin preparing for changes in 2024, according to Buchatzky.

Adding those federal cutbacks to California’s conservation bid appears to be the only way states can approach the amount of water savings Reclamation is seeking, said Chuck Collum, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Authority.

“We want to be clear that we see the contributions that California has identified will be in addition to, or above, the application of evaporation and losses to the lower basin,” he said.

But California’s bid appears to be aimed at avoiding such moves.

“The State of California intends that this proactive voluntary action build on existing agreements, contracts, agreements, and water rights to incentivize broader conservation at the basin level and help avoid prolonged litigation that would otherwise result from regulatory or mandatory action,” California water agencies said in the letter the week. Past.

The fact that California water users have dismissed their obligation as “voluntary” is also controversial. Sarah Porter, the administrator, said California agreed in 2021 to voluntary reductions in use as part of a deal with Arizona and Nevada to try to stabilize levels in Lake Mead, but the state has not been able to follow through on its part of the agreement. From the Kiel Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University.

“Being optional makes it a little weaker, even weaker than it might seem when you look at the number,” Porter said. “It’s simply not the same thing as saying, ‘We’ll take a break. “

And the Golden State’s cuts are a short-term fix for the next three years – seen by many as merely an aid aimed at averting imminent disaster in the reservoirs – rather than a long-term solution to refilling the reservoirs and addressing the deteriorating state of the river that climate scientists say will be the new normal. .

“While the cuts proposed by California are a step in the right direction, it is necessary to implement meaningful and lasting solutions to reduce water demand to help stabilize the Colorado River and Lake Mead system,” the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Nevada’s lead agency for Colorado river issues, said. In a statement.

The river’s major players widely understand that such deals will be needed in the near term, as long-term solutions such as upgrading irrigation infrastructure and removing grass from desert cities are implemented – although how the money is spent on those short-term efforts is a moot point. Main.

California water agencies said their bid depends on federal funding to compensate users — and additional federal funding to deal with the environmental crisis in the Salton Sea. This water body is fed by irrigation water from the imperial irrigation zone; As this runoff is reduced for conservation purposes, the sea will shrink further, exposing toxic dust that threatens air quality to nearby communities.

But California does not mention a price in the letter. A spokesperson for Imperial, the signatory to the letter and the largest single user of Colorado River water, said the district had discussed funding with federal officials, but did not give a number.

Congress approved $4 billion in drought relief as part of the Democrats’ Inflation Cut Act — a lot of money, but it certainly wouldn’t be enough on its own, especially at the rates some farmers have been seeking for one year. Conservation during the period leading up to the August reclamation deadline. These rates so alarmed some players that the Nevada’s Colorado River negotiator leads the Nevada He warned against “profiting from drought”.

“There is definitely disagreement about whether dollars should be given — let’s just call it — for farmers to use less water temporarily,” said Porter of Arizona State University. “Four billion is a lot of money, but if we’re paying farmers at the levels they’re asking for, it won’t be enough.”

Interior officials said they plan to roll out two separate funding opportunities related to the $4 billion IRA — one focused on short-term deals like those offered by California, and the other for projects that reduce long-term water use. There was also discussion of prioritizing those involved in short-term projects to receive awards in the second round, a factor that could have motivated California to formalize its conservation proposal last week.

But, for all the tension that California’s message raises, outside observers say the fact of the official offer ever from the biggest player on the river is an important step at a time when negotiations have faltered.

“Instead of waiting for the arduous process of these complicated tangled agreements where everyone agrees on how much to cutAnd the John Fleck, a professor of water politics and writer at the University of New Mexico, says California says, “That’s important, we’re going to work on our own” — and that’s really important because trying to negotiate mutual sacrifice is off.

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