The vast California lake relies on runoff from cropland to avoid disappearing. But as farmers face water cuts due to drought and an ever drier Colorado River, the Salton Sea stands to lose again.
BRAWLEY, Calif. — The drought crisis on the Colorado River looms large in California’s Imperial Valley, which produces much of the nation’s lettuce, broccoli and other crops, and now faces water cuts. But those cuts will also be bad news for the environmental and ecological disaster unfolding just to the north, at the shallow, shimmering and long-suffering Salton Sea.
“There’s going to be collateral damage everywhere,” said Frank Ruiz, a program director with California Audubon.
To irrigate their fields, the valley’s farmers rely completely on Colorado River water, which arrives by an 80-mile-long canal. And the Salton Sea, the state’s largest lake, relies on water draining from those fields to stay full.
But it’s been shrinking for decades, killing off fish species that attract migratory birds and exposing lake bed that generates dust that is harmful to human health. As the sea has receded, it’s also left abandoned houses, shuttered resorts and landlocked marinas that, in the mid-20th century, had transformed the area into a fishing and water-sports playground for Southern Californians.
Now, with cuts in water use coming after two decades of drought that have left the Colorado’s reservoirs at dangerously low levels, the sea will shrink even faster. “Less water coming to the farmers, less water coming into the Salton Sea,” Mr. Ruiz said. “That’s just the pure math.”
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.
A 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.
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.
“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.
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 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.
Proposal Outlines Constructive Approach to Achieve Necessary Water Use Reductions through 2026 to Protect Critical Infrastructure, Prioritize Public Health and Safety
California water agencies that rely on the Colorado River today proposed a modeling framework for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to evaluate as it considers actions to help stabilize reservoir elevations and protect critical infrastructure to ensure the Colorado River system can continue to support 40 million people, nearly 6 million acres of agriculture, and Tribes across seven states and portions of Mexico.
The modeling framework outlines a constructive approach to achieve additional water use reductions while protecting infrastructure, prioritizing public health and safety, and upholding the existing body of laws, compacts, decrees, and agreements that govern Colorado River operations (known collectively as the Law of the River). The approach builds on the California agencies’ commitments announced last fall to voluntarily conserve an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water each year through 2026 to protect storage in Lake Mead and help stabilize the Colorado River reservoir system.
California’s proposed framework seeks to protect Lake Mead elevation of 1,000 feet and Lake Powell elevation of 3,500 feet by modifying some parameters governing reservoir operations, maximizing the impact of existing plans and voluntary conservation actions, and increasing cutbacks if Lake Mead elevations decline. It also protects baseline water needs of communities across the West by prioritizing water supplies for human health and safety. The proposal was carefully developed to enable workable phased water use reductions and ensures protection of adequate water volumes in Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
“The alternative 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 implementation delays. California’s alternative protects critical elevations and uses adaptive management to protect critical reservoir elevations through the interim period,”
JB Hamby, chair of Colorado River Board of California and California’s Colorado River Commissioner, wrote in a transmittal letter to Reclamation.
The approach differs from a modeling proposal submitted to Reclamation on January 30 by the six other basin states. The six-state proposal would direct the majority of water use reductions needed in the Lower Basin to California water users through a new apportionment method based on “system and evaporative losses.” The proposal directly conflicts with the existing Law of the River and the current water rights system and mandates cutback without providing tools to manage reductions.
For the past several months, California water users have sought a timely, practical and implementable solution with other Lower Basin users that can be implemented over the next three years to protect critical elevations in Lake Mead while longer-term changes are negotiated to update 2007 Interim Guidelines that will expire at the end of 2026. Suggestions to fundamentally change the Law of River are appropriately addressed through this shared process to update the guidelines.
California’s water agencies remain committed to working with all Colorado River basin states to take urgent, fair, and achievable action now to avoid unacceptable risks to communities, farms and economies in California and the rest of the basin.
For decades, California has been a leader in managing its Colorado River water resources and collaborating in basin-wide efforts to more effectively operate and manage the reservoir system and to incentivize water conservation as demands have increased in the face of shrinking supplies due to climate change.
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.
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.
“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
The Whitewater River, which normally flows year round in the Southern California canyon that bears its name, has run dry there, confounding some hikers expecting a brisk and scenic flow after recent heavy rains.
But those storms are the culprits, says Whitewater Preserve manager Lucas Wilgers, who oversees the area for the Wildlands Conservancy.
“It’s kind of counterintuitive … but when larger storms happen, so much water is falling such a short period of time, it just accumulates and kind of coalesces up above,” he said.
Fast-moving water carries mud, ash and other debris — including material from the 2020 Apple Fire burn scar — down from steep mountain slopesand dumps it at the stretch of river in the preserve, about 20 minutes northwest of Palm Springs in Whitewater Canyon.
California, Arizona and Nevada are set to further cut back use
of Colorado River.
By Ian James
Two and a half years after signing a deal aimed at averting a damaging crisis along the Colorado River, water officials from California, Arizona and Nevada are discussing plans to take even less water from the shrinking river and leave it in Lake Mead in an effort to prevent the reservoir from falling to dangerously low levels.
Representatives of water agencies from the three states said they are firming up the details of a deal that would leave an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water in the reservoir next year, and the same amount again in 2023 — about double the quantity of water used annually by Las Vegas and the rest of southern Nevada.
For California, the deal would mean participating in water reductions prior to Lake Mead reaching levels that would otherwise trigger mandatory cuts.
The talks took on urgency this summer after federal projections showed growing risks of Lake Mead falling to critically low levels, despite plans for mandatory cutbacks throughout the Southwest that the states agreed to in 2019.
With the reservoir in a first-ever shortage and those cuts still insufficient, water management officials settled on a goal of together leaving half a million acre-feet of additional water in the reservoir instead of sending it flowing to farms, cities and tribal lands. The stored water would be roughly as much as 1.5 million average single-family households use in a year.
“We’ve got to stabilize the lake with this plan,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. He said representatives of California, Arizona and Nevada developed the framework of the deal within about two months after they saw projections showing growing risks of Lake Mead dropping to lows that would trigger much larger water reductions in all three states.
“I think coming together in that short a period of time is indicative of urgency we’re feeling to do more,” Buschatzke said. “If the lake keeps falling, cuts are going to be deeper and deeper and deeper. So I think it’s indicative of the risks.”
The deal would nearly double the reductions in planned water deliveries next year among the three states beyond those already planned under the 2019 agreement, called the Drought Contingency Plan. This new proposal, dubbed the 500+ Plan, would partially involve securing money to pay some water users to voluntarily relinquish water.
“We are estimating that we’ll need $100 million for those two years from the three states,” Buschatzke said. And while it’s unclear how much may be available from the federal government, Buschatzke and others said they hope to see a similar amount contributed from Washington, with funds available through the newly signed infrastructure legislation.
The water would come from various sources, including farmers who would be paid for leaving portions of their land dry, tribes that would contribute water supplies, and water agencies that would leave some water in Lake Mead instead of taking it out as planned.
Negotiations on the details are continuing, and officials from California and Arizona said they hope to have the overarching agreement ready to be signed next month at a conference in Las Vegas.
Arizona has pledged $40 million toward the deal. Board members of the Southern Nevada Water Authority are scheduled to consider approving up to $20 million in contributions this week.
If the details of the proposal come together as planned, 500,000 acre-feet of water over two years would mean water levels about 16 feet higher in Lake Mead.
The reservoir, the country’s largest, has declined to 34% of its capacity, the lowest point since it was filled in the 1930s with the construction of Hoover Dam.
For now, the talks have focused on lining up funds and water for two years. But Buschatzke said it’s intended to be a five-year plan, lasting until the current agreement expires at the end of 2026, by which time the states will need to have negotiated new rules for dealing with shortages.
If the winter were to bring heavy snow to the Rocky Mountains, it could still help ease the shortages. But the region’s water managers said they’ve decided to plan for more of the dismal runoff they’ve seen in the watershed during the past two years of extreme heat and parched conditions.
Bill Hasencamp, MWD’s manager of Colorado River resources, said if such extreme dryness persists for another year or two, then Mead could end up at such low levels that cuts would become “unmanageable.”
“By proactively taking the actions now, we can reduce the risk of hitting those levels and having to make these large, unpredictable cuts,” Hasencamp said. “It’s better to do it sooner than you need it, so you can have a little bit more control.”
Without such a plan, if nothing were done and the reservoir continued to drop, he said, then the whole region could be forced to deal with much larger cuts.
“Then it’s unmanageable. And it’s lawsuit time and fighting,” Hasencamp said. “So a much more collaborative approach has always been our preference. And we think now is the time to step up.”
Word of the proposal came as California water officials announced that statewide conservation efforts were “backsliding.” Although Gov. Gavin Newsom has urged state residents to voluntarily cut water use by 15%, urban areas statewide decreased water use just 3.9% in September compared to the same month a year ago. The reduction in water use was smaller than in August, when Californians used 5% less.
Buschatzke said officials from the three states have together identified 500,000 acre-feet of water that could be freed up in 2022 and 2023. He declined to give details, saying negotiations are continuing and those that contribute water could include farmers, tribes, cities and other entities.
“It’s basically paying people not to use water they’ve historically used,” he said, adding that participants would voluntarily and temporarily cede water in exchange for payments.
Such deals have been tried on a smaller scale in recent years. In California, MWD has scaled up a deal in which farmers in the Palo Verde Irrigation District are paid to leave a portion of their lands dry and fallow. In Arizona, the leaders of the Colorado River Indian Tribes have also been leaving some of their farmland dry in a similar deal.
“We’re going to look at mixing and matching water and money to come up with the plan that works,” Buschatzke said. “The key is getting the agreement down on paper in an enforceable way so that we know the conservation is going to occur in 2022.”
The Colorado River has long been chronically overallocated, with so much water diverted to supply farms and cities that its once-vast delta in Mexico has been largely transformed into a stretch of desert, with only a smattering of wetlands remaining. Most of the water that’s diverted — approximately 70% — is used for agriculture.
While a large portion of the water is likely to be purchased through the fallowing of farmland, participants in the talks said some water will also come from other sources, including urban agencies leaving water in Lake Mead instead of sending it through their aqueducts.
For example, California’s Imperial Irrigation District has been underusing its allotment in recent years. And that “underrun” of water then typically ends up going free-of-charge to MWD, which is the next entity in line in the priority system.
That unused water is projected to be about 95,000 acre-feet this year, and likely a similar amount next year, said J.B. Hamby, vice president of the IID board.
“All that water we don’t use or over-conserve in a year, instead of that going to Metropolitan, Metropolitan has agreed not to consume it and to leave it in the river, which is a huge plus,” Hamby said. “That’s kind of a major shift.”
Hamby said it’s encouraging that the three states have come up with the plan in just a few months.
Others agreed that the quick negotiations bode well for more collaboration in dealing with worsening shortages. Kathryn Sorensen, director of research for Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy, said with Lake Mead at such low levels, the need for quick action is clear.
“If we get another bad year or two, you know, things look really dire. So I think the speed is commensurate with the nature and scale of the crisis,” Sorenson said.
When Buschatzke testified in a congressional hearing on the Colorado River last month, he noted that snowpack in the Colorado River Basin peaked at 89% of average this year, but runoff in the watershed was only 33% of average.
“This phenomenon is likely the result of the hotter and drier conditions caused by climate change,” Buschatzke said in his written testimony. “This trend is one that water managers must take into account as we plan for the future of the Colorado River.”
The options for immediate measures, Buschatzke told senators, include additional mandatory water cuts or voluntary conservation of more water in Lake Mead, and the talks among the states were focused on the voluntary path.
Since 2000, the Colorado River has been ravaged by a series of mostly dry years, which have been compounded by the heating of the planet with the burning of fossil fuels. In that time, the flow of the Colorado River has declined nearly 20% below the 20th century average.
Scientists have estimated that about half the decrease in runoff in the watershed since 2000 has been caused by unprecedented warming. And this heat-driven aridification is projected to significantly worsen as temperatures continue to climb.
Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, likened the water reductions under the existing deal to a parachute — one that is too small and being opened too close to the ground.
“This new plan gives us both a bigger parachute and we’re going to deploy it sooner,” Udall said. “So hopefully we can have a softer landing.”
Given the alarming declines in the river’s reservoirs, the flaw with the parachute analogy is that the end of the story would put the parachutist safely on the ground, Udall said. “We’re landing on the edge of a cliff, if you will. And there’s still further to fall. We need another parachute here.”
Hopefully that next parachute will be ready well before 2027, he said, when the existing rules expire, and the Southwest needs to have long-term plans in place for adapting to a hotter, drier watershed and a river that yields less water.