The immediate question for the seven states using the Colorado River’s rapidly disappearing waters is not how to renegotiate the age-old agreement and associated laws that divide the supply.
California and other states will have to deal with that problem soon enough, and it won’t be easy. Those accords came about at a time when the western United States was sparsely populated, farmland was underdeveloped, and the climate—though few realized it at the time—was unusually wet. With thirst at its greatest and still growing, the region is returning to its former aridity, exacerbated by higher temperatures brought on by global industrialization.
But the deadline for that reckoning is still nearly four years away.
The pressing question right now is what emergency action the states should take in the meantime to keep enough water from the Colorado River in two massive but dangerously depleted reservoirs so that the dams can continue to provide a lifeline of water and power to 40 million people. in the southwestern United States. The seven states have repeatedly missed their deadlines to agree to a plan, delays that most likely leave the decision to federal regulators.
Obviously, each state must agree to take much less than their agreements allow, simply because the full guaranteed amount of water does not exist. Not even for decades.
But which state needs to cut the most in this interim period?
The four states in the Upper Colorado River basin — Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico — have never used their entire allotment and are resisting cutting the amount they currently take. Two states in the Lower Basin – Arizona and Nevada – also want to limit any losses, and that goes without saying. No state would voluntarily give up water without getting something in return. It would be political suicide for the elected leaders of each state.
Together, the six states upriver from California came up with it a new, albeit insincere, proposal: When calculating the amount of water used by each state, consider the amount that evaporates in the Lower Basin before it reaches its destination.
The Colorado travels furthest to reach California, which uses the most water, so of course – the argument goes – California should be on the hook for most of the evaporation. By the time the river flows into Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona, and then into Lake Mead in Arizona and Nevada, before it actually reaches the section where it marks the border between Arizona and California, much of the stock of California is already in the atmosphere above those other states.
The six upstream states revealed this argument in January. It was a PR win because if left unexamined it almost sounds passable. California and the Metropolitan Water District had one other proposal, but the evaporation argument caught them flat-footed.
But federal regulators shouldn’t be swayed. Evaporation was not part of the formula when all seven states signed the Colorado River Compact in 1922, nor in the subsequent treaties, agreements, and court decisions that make up the so-called Law of the River. It is a questionable measure, even for the long-term recalculation that the states will face in 2026. It has no legitimate place in discussions of short-term emergency measures.
All seven states need a more constructive approach that recognizes not only the need for broad cuts, but also for creative management of existing supplies. Nevada knew this when it wisely banned ornamental lawns. The other states and their water agencies have adopted smart strategies as well, none more so than MWD, which is building a massive water recycling plant and has voluntarily poured much of its supply into Lake Mead to keep the reservoir running.
Half of all Americans who use Colorado River water for drinking, cooking, showering, flushing or growing crops are Southern Californians. Much of it is served by the MWD.
The law of the river is complex and the danger of shrinking water resources is great. There are many painful decisions to be made between now and 2026, debates about whether or not to limit what farmers can grow and what developers can build, how the water rights of indigenous tribes and Mexico (where the river is now drying up before reaching the Gulf) must be respected. of California), whether and how the West’s first-come, first-served water laws should be amended.
But first, states need a fair and workable survival strategy, and they need it fast. Nature has its own timeline and it is short.