The Biden administration is involved in a conflict over the Colorado River between California and its neighbors.

Sherif Saad
CaliforniaPhoto byMaarten van den HeuvelonUnsplash

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California has a suggestion for the six other western states that share the Colorado River after months of discussions behind closed doors: wander off.

The plan California presented on Tuesday asserts higher priority senior water rights to the greatest section of the river that have been stipulated in a decades-old agreement while making no notable concessions to requests from its neighbors.

The federal government is now left with the task of trying to find a solution. The states won't come to a compromise. Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), who represents the Phoenix region, stated that "we are simply too far apart."

"This government needs to find a solution to this conundrum right away," the speaker said. As the river experiences unprecedented stress due to climate change and population increases in the Southwest, California is vigorously pursuing its legal interests under a 1922 treaty.

The Biden administration is forced to decide how to resolve conflicting claims on water that is shared by 40 million people from Wyoming to Mexico as a result of the deadlock.

The Interior Department is anticipated to enact cuts as early as this summer after asking the states to develop a unified plan to limit use by around 30%.

Six states, including Arizona and Nevada, are on one side, where expanding towns like Las Vegas and Phoenix are engaged in an existential struggle to keep their supplies from the Colorado River from running out. California is on the opposite side, where farmers might use the legal system to defend their water rights.

If Gov. Gavin Newsom decides to run for president and requires political support in Nevada and Arizona, two key battleground states, California's decisions now might later harm him.

In a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday morning, a bipartisan group of Western representatives—except those from California—implored him to embrace the solution put forth by the six states.

California's two senators and Newsom appointment Wade Crowfoot, secretary of natural resources, have attacked the six-state proposal for unfairly burdening California farmers and communities. Senators from the West will gather on Thursday to talk about the problem.

According to a spokeswoman on Wednesday, the Interior Department is continuing discussions with states and tribes and seeks "as much support and consensus as feasible."

Every user, including California and Mexico, would face greater cuts under the six states' plan.

Their strategy depends on a new program that accounts for evaporation and leaks along the river as it runs downriver to California to save some water for customers in Arizona and Nevada.

Farmers in California were incensed by that because they believed it undermined their legal rights to the water.

Instead, California's plan would change how the two major dams on the river operate, requiring already-agreed-to small cuts from other states.

If that wasn't enough, it would next use the priority system to impose obligatory cuts, effectively drying off central Arizona's towns and tribes before the Golden State made further reductions.

J.B. Hamby, the head of the Colorado River Board of California and a director of the Imperial Irrigation District, said, "We agree there needs to be decreased use in the Lower Basin, but that can't be done by just completely ignoring and sidestepping federal legislation."

He said that California had previously offered more reductions in October to lighten the load on other states.

According to the Interior Department, a draught study of the possibilities under consideration will be made public this spring. It could intervene this summer to cut deliveries.

California and six other states have submitted competing plans for how to conserve the rapidly drying Colorado River to federal officials, who have made it clear they may enforce harsh cuts if agreement on significant reductions is not obtained locally. It could be challenging to reach such a consensus.

Late on Tuesday, California launched an aggressive attack on six other Western states by presenting its request for a cut of more than 3 million acre-feet from both existing and upcoming agreements from the river's shrinking Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs.

The proposal tries to protect all of California's water rights, the majority of which date back more than a century, and contains certain California-specific cuts, but it mostly targets Arizona and other states with fewer legal water rights.

The federal government and all others who depend on the river's water, including California, according to six other states, must take immediate action. A significant Arizona official on Wednesday said that the Southwest as a whole may consider outlawing lawns.

Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said high-ranking federal officials "might be able to say lawns or non-functional turfs are no longer a beneficial use of Colorado River water."

"I would like to see the beneficial use process move forward as quickly as possible." Every contract with the federal government for Colorado River water contains a clause that requires "beneficial use," he added.

Not so fast, though, with golf courses, which would affect Scottsdale, Coachella Valley, and other areas in both states.

"With golf courses, they would struggle more since they have economic importance for both the tourism sector and golf courses individually." "That's a more difficult nut to crack."

The federal government and other states may be able to challenge California's long-standing "senior" rights to river water thanks to the "beneficial use" language.

Although they stated in the spring of last year that they were looking into the phrase, federal officials have not provided any further details.

The Imperial Irrigation District, which produces a significant amount of the country's winter crops and cattle feed and is nestled away in the state's dry southeast, is entitled to more water than Arizona and Nevada put together.

However, many communities such as Phoenix, Denver, and Las Vegas, as well as farms and suburbs in the states of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming, rely heavily on river water, which is diminishing as a result of overallocation, an unprecedented drought, and rising temperatures brought on by climate change.

In addition to calling for more than 3 million acre-feet of conservation and reductions, these states presented a proposal on Monday. This falls firmly within the 2 to 4 million acre-feet that U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton stated was required last year.

Two households could probably live off of an acre-foot of water for a year. Their plan calls for significant cuts from California, not theirs.

According to the six-state plan, mandated water delivery cuts would become ever more severe for some, with the largest amounts coming from California if the enormous reservoirs, which are presently only around 25% full, dropped to ever lower trigger levels.

Another almost 1.6 million acre-feet might be saved by accounting for evaporation in the reservoirs and seepage when water is pumped from the river to state systems.

This would mostly benefit Arizona and California since they have the longest aqueducts in the warmest regions of the watershed.

According to JB Hamby, California's recently elected Colorado River Commissioner, "Gutting California in this fashion would be terrible for the state." He said that low-income citizens in both urban and rural farming regions would be particularly badly impacted.

Based on current agreements and judicial rulings known as "The Law of the River," which according to Hamby demonstrates the state's "commitment to make voluntary contributions," the state's plan would be distributed throughout the region.

Hamby and other state water officials noted that their state has already pledged to conserve a million acre-feet of water through 2026, or at least 400,000 acre-feet per year, the only concrete commitment from a state.

They also noted that in recent years, they have already spent billions of dollars to conserve 1.2 million acre-feet in Lake Mead, sparing other states from making bigger, faster cuts.

But if low flows persist, its plan would increase cutbacks to lower-basin nations by eliminating safeguards that protected them from harsher reductions last year when flows in the upper basin were held back.

In a letter to Assistant U.S. Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau outlining the proposal, Hamby wrote that California's alternative "provides a realistic and implementable framework to address reduced inflows and declining reservoir elevations by building on voluntary agreements and previous collaborative efforts."

The targeting of them was incorrect, according to other water managers in the region. "Our strategy unjustly singles out California?" No, not at all. Evaporation and system losses must be taken into account due to physical realities in the world, and there is a dispute over equity about the extra losses.

They contend that Arizona has a junior priority. Hamby advised that Arizona's agencies collaborate to fairly distribute the state's current supply, which includes groundwater and river water, within its borders, much like California did in 2003 with a difficult but eventually successful shift from rural IID to urban regions.

The present federal approach, according to Buschatzke, has nothing to do with internal state agreements, and Arizona had already gone through a similar process as part of a previous drought strategy.

He said that the 2003 deal with California only transferred water domestically. "No water has remained in Lake Mead as a result of the deal in California." "Never a drop."

Officials from the Metropolitan Water District of California point out that since the agreement's implementation, they have kept more than a million acre-feet of water in Lake Mead, preventing severe cuts for other states by maintaining 10 feet of elevation in the enormous reservoir.

"Metropolitan has successfully reduced its consumption of Colorado River water for more than 20 years, and we are dedicated to doing more right away.

But we have to do it in a way that doesn't hurt the majority of river users, according to Hagekhalil, general manager of the Southern California Metropolitan Water District.

"We must do it in a way that can be promptly implemented... without getting bogged down in protracted legal disputes," said President Obama. "We must do it in a way that does not ruin our $1.6 trillion economy, an economic engine for the whole United States."

He said, "The approach put forward today by California does all of this without unduly impacting any one agency or state by evenly dividing the risk across Basin states." California was excluded from the proposal that was released yesterday, thus it does not.

The Golden State has by far the largest legal share of its water, totaling 4.4 million acre-feet of the 7.5 million acre-feet distributed annually to each of the states, tribes, and other entities.

The Golden State provides drinking water to 19 million of the nearly 40 million people across the West who are dependent on river supplies.

Because other states' urban and suburban growth flourished and increased their water demands, it has been the object of their ire for decades. According to some, the six-state plan from Monday is the most recent attempt to change the current structure.

"A good crisis should never be wasted." The other states are attempting to take advantage of a genuine crisis to change the rules and laws governing the river and cut back on California's entitlements. "It is primarily directed towards California, pitting the wealthy against the poor."

Bart Fisher is a representative of the Palo Verde Irrigation District in southeast California, which has the first river water rights.

Other state water agency officials chose not to comment right away because they wanted more time to examine the plan, while others indicated they were dedicated to continuing the conversation.

According to Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission, "the basin states' efforts are ongoing, and a lot more work has to be done to expand consensus to go ahead jointly." Congressmen, though, have chimed in and defended their states.

California has been urged to make cuts by Democratic Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona for several months. In August, he stated that "particularly, California gets a big percentage of water from the Colorado River." So it just cannot be our fault.

Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, senators from California, released a statement together on Tuesday night that said, in part: "We know that drought brought on by climate change will demand modifications to Colorado River water use and that no state will be spared from water restrictions." Because of this, California was the first state to present a voluntary water consumption reduction plan last autumn.

"However, mandating to California how much water it must give up from six other Western states is just not a true consensus solution, especially from states that haven't proposed any additional reductions in their water consumption. Furthermore, the proposal disregards California's senior legal water rights.

"The plan California announced today calls for major water cutbacks for California as well as the same degree of water cuts across the Colorado Basin as the plan announced by the other six states yesterday. Any deal must have the approval of all seven states to succeed.

Federal action spurred the proposals. As a clear indication that they are serious about cuts, Reclamation officials, a division of the Department of Interior, announced in November that they would draught "supplemental" environmental documents by this summer to amend 2007 guidelines governing the distribution of river water through two enormous dams.

Agency officials decided to give the states until January 31 to submit voluntary initiatives, even though public comment ended in December. Instead, they now have rival ideas that might be either entirely or partially ignored in the federal filings.

A government spokeswoman on Tuesday minimized the discrepancies, declined to comment on either plan and stated that state officials' involvement and discussions will continue.

In response to inquiries sent via email, Interior Department spokesman Tyler Cherry stated that the Biden-Harris administration "is urgently pursuing a collaborative and consensus-based approach and deploying unprecedented resources to improve and protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System."

The department will benefit from having more options and the resources it needs to deal with the potential of enduring low runoff conditions as a result of this approach.

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