California has floated a counterplan for water reductions from the Colorado River, saying a proposal announced earlier this week by six other states disproportionately burdens farms and cities in Southern California.
Federal officials had set a Tuesday deadline for a consensus agreement among the seven Colorado River Basin states to draw less resources from the dwindling river and prevent the nation's largest reservoirs from dropping to dangerously low levels.
California put forward its offer Tuesday, a day after Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming released their plan. A large portion of cuts the six states proposed would be made by simply accounting for evaporation and other water losses along the lower portion of the river -- a calculation resulting in especially large reductions for California, which uses more Colorado River water than any other state, per a longstanding federal water-use compact.
Officials in California are standing firm on senior rights they hold on water diverted from the river, wherein states such as Arizona would have to draw down use before California is legally required to make cuts.
"The six-state proposal directly and disproportionately impacts California," said Wade Crowfoot, the state's natural resources secretary. "It doesn't seem like a constructive approach for some states to fashion a proposal that only impacts the existing water security and water rights of another state [California] that's not part of that proposal."
Crowfoot said the other states had devised an approach that would go beyond anything established in the agreements and laws that govern how the Colorado River is managed. He said the proposal by California water agencies, in contrast, lays out practical and achievable changes that could start this year to stabilize reservoir levels, namely at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both of which are fed by the Colorado River.
California's proposal builds on a previous commitment by four Southern California water agencies to cut water use by some 400,000 acre-feet per year, a reduction of about 9%, through 2026. The federal government has asked the states to reduce total usage by 2 to 4 million acre-feet.
Atop the planned reductions in California and other states, the California proposal calls for measures aimed at keeping reservoirs above certain levels, including making additional cuts on a tiered scale if the level of Lake Mead, the country's largest reservoir, continues to decline toward critically low levels.
J.B. Hamby, chairman of California's Colorado River Board, said in the proposal that the state's alternative plan "provides a realistic and implementable framework to address reduced inflows and declining reservoir elevations by building on voluntary agreements and past collaborative efforts in order to minimize the risk of legal challenge or implementation delay."
California agencies including the Imperial Irrigation District and the Palo Verde Irrigation District, which deliver water to vast farmlands -- about 80% of water diverted from the river goes toward agriculture in the West -- have high-priority senior water rights dating back more than a century.
California officials have insisted that these water rights and the existing law of the river must be upheld in any plan for reducing water use.
"California is not wavering from our legal position," Hamby said. "We continue to look forward to developing a seven-state consensus if possible, but in the absence of that, it defaults to the law of the river."
He said California is focused on "practical solutions that can be implemented now to protect volumes of water in storage without driving conflict and litigation."
Even after the federal government's Tuesday deadline, managers of water agencies have more talks scheduled to continue negotiating.
The Colorado River, which supplies water to cities, tribal nations and farming areas from the central Rockies to the Gulf of California, has been pushed to a breaking point by chronic overuse, prolonged drought and the effects of global warming.
Lake Mead and Lake Powell now sit about 75% empty.
Federal officials in June called for the seven states to come up with plans to reduce water diversions by 15% to 30%. But negotiations among the states grew tense and acrimonious. In October, the Biden administration announced plans to revise the current rules for dealing with water shortages and to pursue a new agreement for major reductions in water use.
After the latest round of talks reached an impasse last week in Denver, the six states announced their proposal Monday. They called it an "alternative framework" for the Bureau of Reclamation, a subset of the Interior Department, to consider as part of its review while preparing what is called a supplemental environmental impact statement.
The six states urged federal officials to begin accounting for more than 1.5 million acre-feet of water losses, primarily caused by evaporation, which would mean major cuts for Southern California.
"I don't think there is disagreement on the magnitude of the reductions that are needed," said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. "We need this magnitude of cuts in order to stabilize the system."
The question is how those cuts will be divided, he said, and the talks among the states will continue.
"I think there's still a strong commitment by all seven states to continue to work in good faith towards a solution," Entsminger said.
Federal officials aim to release a draft review of alternatives by the end of March, followed by a decision in the summer.
Entsminger said even though the states haven't reached a consensus yet, he's hoping "we can come up with something everybody can live with."