A big rewrite of the water rules?

By Ian James

Debate over Colorado River cutbacks centers on whether evaporation should be counted. Changing the formula would hit California hard. (Rick Bowmer Associated Press)Much of the Colorado River’s water is diverted from reservoirs and transported in canals to the farmlands and cities of the desert Southwest. But some of the water also ends up going elsewhere — vanishing into thin air.

Water lost to evaporation has become a central point of contention in the disagreement between California and six other states over how to divide reductions in water use.

proposal submitted by Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming calls for relying heavily on counting evaporation and other water losses from reservoirs and along the river in the Lower Basin — the portion of the watershed that begins near the Grand Canyon and stretches to northern Mexico.

Counting those losses would mean immediate reductions of more than 1.5 million acre-feet across the region. It would also translate into especially large water cutbacks for California, which uses the single largest share of the river.

Under the proposal by the six states, Southern California water agencies would be required to absorb the largest share of the cuts, including a potential reduction of more than 18% for the evaporation losses alone, which could rise to 32%if reservoirs hit critically low levels.

The proposal also calls for major reductions in Arizona and Nevada. But the portions of those cuts based on accounting for evaporation would be smaller: about 13% for Arizona and 6% for southern Nevada.

California’s water managers argue that suddenly including evaporation in the math would amount to a drastic rewriting of the rules that would flout the water rights system. They have proposed a different approach that calls for more gradual reductions and wouldn’t involve evaporation losses.

“California’s focus has been, what can we do in the interim that’s pragmatic, practical, doable, that’s not going to make big, lasting changes,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s natural resources secretary. He said changes that would compromise existing water rights would be “a bridge too far in the near term.”

The Colorado River supplies water to farming areas, cities and tribal nations from the Rocky Mountains to northern Mexico. Chronic overuse combined with 23 years of severe drought and the effects of climate change have pushed the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, to their lowest levels since they were filled.

The growing risk of a collapse in the water supply has prompted federal officials to demand that the states come up with approaches for preventing reservoirs from bottoming out.


Despite separate plans for Colorado River cuts, stakeholders continue to talk


One proposal would bring cuts of 2 million acre-feet of water for users pulling from the drought-choked Colorado River system, mostly affecting California, Nevada and Arizona, in an attempt to conserve the region’s most valuable commodity: water.

When looking at the plan released Monday by six of the seven states that rely on the Colorado River for their water supplies — and fiercely try to protect what they believe is their fair share — one water expert came to a harsh conclusion.


A view of low water levels in Lake Mead at Hoover Dam Tuesday, June 28, 2022.

“It’s a bandage for a gunshot wound,” said Kyle Roerink, the executive director at the Great Basin Water Network.

The proposal, Roerink says, falls short because it puts the burden mostly on the three southwestern states — the so-called Lower Basin states.

“I think any time we see a proposal put forth that is going to limit consumptive uses, that’s helpful,” Roerink said. “It’s promising, but when you look at who’s giving up what, it just begs the question: Why does the Upper Basin get off scot-free?”

The Colorado River and its tributaries pass through seven states and into Mexico, serving 40 million people and a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry. Some of the largest cities in the country, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver and Las Vegas, two Mexican states, Native American tribes and others depend on the river that’s been severely stressed by drought, demand and overuse.

The 1,450-mile river also generates hydroelectric power for regional markets and irrigates nearly 6 million acres of farmland.

States missed a mid-August deadline to heed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s call to propose ways to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water. They regrouped to reach consensus last week to fold into a larger proposal the Bureau of Reclamation has in the works.



California bucks a united front as region grapples with Colorado River water cuts

After a key deadline passed this week without an agreement on how to address the Colorado River’s crisis, California is now sharply at odds with six other states over how to take less water from the shrinking river.

Now that California has rejected a plan offered by the rest of the region, the state has entered a political tug-of-war with high stakes. So why has the state that uses the most Colorado River water decided to go it alone?

California appears to be banking on its high-priority senior water rights, while the other states are presenting a united front to show the federal government they support a plan that would have California give up more water.

The All-American Canal runs between growing fields and a residential development in Calexico.(Brian van der Brug : Los Angeles Times)

“The strongest thing that the other basin states have going for them is some relative level of consensus. And the strongest thing California has going for it is the law,” said Rhett Larson, a professor of water law at Arizona State University.

“I think they’re playing to their strengths,” Larson said. “California is trying to play its best card, which is, ‘The law is on our side.’ And the other six states are trying to play their best card: ‘We are on each other’s side.’”

The parties are at an impasse as the federal government begins to weigh alternatives for rapidly reducing water use and preventing the river’s reservoirs from reaching dangerously low levels.


A showdown over Colorado River water is setting the stage for a high-stakes legal battle

By , CNN


Months of bitter negotiations between seven states that rely on the Colorado River’s vanishing water have collapsed along a clear fault line over the past week: California versus everyone else.

The multi-state talks, which have been ongoing in fits and starts for months, were focused on achieving unprecedented water cuts to save the Colorado River – a system that provides water and electricity to more than 40 million people in the West.

A showdown over Colorado River water is setting the stage for a high-stakes legal battle

As less and less water has been flowing through the river and its reservoirs, US Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton last year called on the basin’s seven states – California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming – to figure out how to cut 2 to 4 million acre feet of usage, or as much as 30% of their river water allocation.

If they couldn’t agree on how to do it, Touton vowed the federal government would step in.

On Monday, six states – including lower basin states of Arizona and Nevada – released a letter and a proposed model for how much Colorado River water they could potentially cut to stave off a collapse and prevent the nation’s largest reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell, from hitting “dead pool,” when water levels will be too low to flow through the dams.

The maximum amount of basin-wide cuts the six states are proposing in their model is 3.1 million acre feet per year. It accounts for water conservation and evaporation and, if approved, could kick in if reservoir levels fall to catastrophically low conditions.

California – the largest user of Colorado River water – is conspicuously absent from the text and will release its own letter and model calling for more modest annual cuts of around 1 million acre feet later this week, JB Hamby, the chair of the Colorado River Board for the state and an Imperial Irrigation District board member, told CNN.


California holding out as Nevada, other states agree to Colorado River cuts


Colorado River from Moab Rim. Photo by the USGS.

Six western states that rely on water from the Colorado River have agreed on a model to dramatically cut water use in the basin, months after the federal government called for action and an initial deadline passed.  California — with the largest allocation of water from the river — is the lone holdout. … Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming sent a letter Monday to Reclamation, which operates the major dams in the river system, to outline an alternative that builds on existing guidelines, deepens water cuts and factors in water that’s lost through evaporation and transportation.  Those states propose raising the levels where water reductions would be triggered at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are barometers of the river’s health. The model creates more of a protective buffer for both reservoirs — the largest built in the U.S. It also seeks to fix water accounting and ensure that any water the Lower Basin states intentionally stored in Lake Mead is available for future use. ... ”  Read more from the Associated Press here: California holding out as Nevada, other states agree to Colorado River cuts