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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

California water agencies strike an agreement to conserve some Colorado River supply

Southern California water agencies have agreed on a deal to cut back on the amount of water they use for the Colorado River, some of which is used to grow crops in the Imperial Valley.
Ted Wood
The Water Desk
Southern California water agencies have agreed on a deal to cut back on the amount of water they use for the Colorado River, some of which is used to grow crops in the Imperial Valley.

Water agencies in southern California announced a new agreement to voluntarily cut back on their total water from the Colorado River use by 9%. The deal is a rare instance of collaboration between water departments representing cities and farms, and comes amid federal pressure to conserve water in the face of historic drought.

“We were getting later and later into the fall recognizing that no concrete actions were taking place, and then looking at another winter of water supply that could be conserved,” said Wade Crowfoot, California natural resources secretary. “So from our perspective, we just have to go. We have to take action. Inaction is not an option.

Federal authorities put out a call for conservation at the beginning of the summer, asking the seven states that use water from the Colorado River to cut back on their use by an unprecedented amount — 2 to 4 million acre-feet in 2023 alone. Those states were unable to strike a deal by the August federal deadline, and still have not done so. Talks were mostly hamstrung by tension between states who did not want to be the first to take cuts. Some pointed fingers at California, which has the largest and oldest water rights.

California’s contribution represents the first public commitment to conserve a specific volume of water among the Colorado River’s basin states since the mid-August deadline passed.

“You always have to look at it in the context of water rights,” said Felicia Marcus, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West Program and former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board. “The harsh part of it is that, in theory, if you just let it go, Imperial [Irrigation District] will always get its full allotment before anybody else gets a drop. Which is the harshness of the water system. And so they can be fairly righteous about it if they want to be.”

The new plan from California proposes a 400,000 acre-foot reduction in water use each year, beginning in 2023 and lasting through 2026. The agencies involved – Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Imperial Irrigation District, Coachella Valley Water District and Palo Verde Irrigation District – said it’s an effort to help boost low levels in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir.

Climate change is sapping the natural water supply for the 19 million people who depend on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Although the agriculture sector uses the bulk of the Colorado River's water, the agency's leaders say it's worth investing in recycled water, stormwater capture, and storage.
Alex Hager
The new conservation deal is a rare instance of collaboration between water departments representing the area's cities and farms, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies 19 million people.

Storage reserves along the Colorado River are shrinking rapidly. The river, which supplies about 40 million people across the Southwest, is strained by a supply-demand imbalance. As the region’s population grows and the agriculture sector continues to pull nearly 80% of the river’s water, climate change is supercharging the worst drought in centuries.

The California agencies said they will only take voluntary cutbacks if the federal government provides “funding and commitments on the Salton Sea.” The lake is kept full by irrigation runoff from neighboring agricultural areas. As farmers conserve more water in the Imperial and Coachella valleys, the lake declines causing public health and ecological crises for that valley. Its future has been at the heart of fractious debates in California about its use of Colorado River water.

“If all of a sudden you start fallowing more land or doing drip irrigation on more land, the lake is just going to recede faster and that community will see worse dust storms and it's a real health risk,” Marcus said.

Further details of the plan have not yet been released, including the amount of water each agency will give up.

The California deal joins a patchwork of other conservation agreements. States are due for a major restructuring of water-sharing rules by 2026, but a handful of smaller cutback deals in the past few years has helped them stave off catastrophe until then.

One of those is the “500+ plan,” a 2021 agreement involving Arizona, Nevada, California and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, also designed to prop up sagging water levels in Lake Mead through voluntary cutbacks. Water experts cautioned that neither 500+ nor the recent proposal to cut back 400,000 acre feet are a “silver bullet,” and further, steeper cuts will be needed.

The plan's designers framed this recent agreement as a solution born out of necessity.

“There have been periods where we've been at odds with each other,” said Deven Upadhyay, assistant general manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, “And yet I think the nature and severity of the condition that we're facing right now on the river really has caused everybody in the States – but in particular in California – all of us to try to band together as agencies and figure out how we can contribute and be part of a solution.”

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC, and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.

Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.
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