Water levels in Lake Mead have been plummeting in recent years. (JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Update Feb. 1, 2019: Despite a last-minute frenzy of deal-making, the federal government announced that it will begin taking “protective actions” on the Colorado River, where a long-running drought has put the water supply for 40 million people at risk. Read the story here.
Avoiding a long-expected crisis on the Colorado River, a water source for 40 million people, is coming down to a final few days of frenzied negotiations. A 19-year drought and decades of overuse have put a water shortfall on the horizon.
If California and six other states, all with deeply entrenched interests, can’t agree on a plan to cut their water consumption by Jan. 31, the federal government says it will step in and decide the river's future.
The Colorado River has been the object of some of the West's most bruising water battles. If farmers, cities and water districts can agree to conserve water now, it would mark a new era of cooperation.
In California, the Colorado supplies millions of people in San Diego and the Los Angeles area. Its water also shows up on dinner plates across the country. In winter, most leafy greens and lettuce in grocery stores are grown with it, in California’s Imperial Valley or across the border in Arizona.
Still, despite the high stakes, California and Arizona have yet to sign off on the plan. For California, it will take convincing one farming community to share water, even though their supply of the Colorado River is considered the most untouchable.
Climate Change is ‘Water Change’
The long-running drought in the Colorado River basin has brought everyone to the table, but it’s not the entire story.
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“Most droughts, it’s pretty obvious,” says Brad Udall, climate and water scientist at Colorado State University. “You get less snow or less rain, you see less water in the river. In this case, there was actually still pretty good precipitation and yet a horrible drought. So, it begs the question: All right, what’s going on here?”
Udall and others found one answer came from the warming climate.
“Climate change is water change,” he says. “You heat up the climate, you are going to get fundamental impacts to the water cycle. We’ve known this for almost 50 years now.”
A warmer atmosphere sucks up water, drawing it out of plants and soils. Udall says that means less runoff going into the river, potentially cutting its flow 20 percent by mid-century.
It Doesn't Add Up
Add to that, the Colorado River has a fundamental accounting problem. Seven states and Mexico rely on the river, but by longstanding agreement are entitled to more water than it delivers in most years.
For decades, many states didn’t use their entire share, something that largely benefited California, which was able to tap into the surplus. But now, demand on the river has grown.
That’s led to falling water levels in Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir on the river (and largest man-made reservoir in the nation). Its level is close to the specified low point that would trigger the federal government to declare an official shortage of water on the river for the first time.
“These are the lowest reservoir levels in my lifetime,” said Brenda Burman, Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, as she addressed water users in December. “We are quickly running out of time.”
So, states on the river have been negotiating a water-sharing deal known as the “drought contingency plan.” Water users would conserve and cut back, so that Lake Mead's surface wouldn’t sink to its trigger point of 1,075 feet above sea level.
Negotiations have been slow-going. Some hoped a few wet winters would solve things. But with a shortfall in sight, the federal government turned up the heat.
“I am here today to tell you all that we will act if needed to protect this basin,” Burman said last month. If there’s no deal by Jan. 31, the Bureau of Reclamation will start a process to make new rules to govern water on the river.
States like Arizona and Nevada have the biggest incentive to make a deal. That’s because of the pecking order of who gets water first, known as the water rights system.
Under the current system, if a shortage is declared in Lake Mead, Arizona and Nevada would be the first states required to cut back.
With the oldest water rights, California wouldn’t have to make any cuts, at least until the reservoir dropped so much that the whole system would have to be renegotiated.
Under the proposed drought plan, California would cut back voluntarily to help keep water in Lake Mead. On a river where water rights have ruled, it marks a major moment of collaboration.
Some water users, like the Metropolitan Water District, a major supplier in Southern California, have largely supported the plan, seeing their fate tied to the future of the river.
But in the subsidiary pecking order within California, Metropolitan is at the bottom. It would have to cut back before others in the state with more senior rights -- like the Imperial Irrigation District. That’s where the drought plan has been a tough sell.
Water's For Fightin' Over
“It’s extremely important that we have a reliable water source,” says Erik Ortega, president of the board of directors of the Imperial Irrigation District. “It’s the Colorado River, our only source.”
The Imperial Valley uses more Colorado River water than Arizona and Nevada combined, mostly for agriculture. It’s the dominant industry there, thanks to its year-round growing season.
Public meetings about the drought plan have turned contentious. Some raised another water-sharing deal from 2003, where tensions ran high.
Back then, California had been using more than its allocation from the river and was being forced to stick to the limit. San Diego's proposed solution was to buy some of Imperial Valley’s water. Farmers would either fallow land or install more efficient irrigation equipment to free up that water.
The irrigation district approved it, but by a very tight margin.
“I was voted out of office over that vote,” recalls Bruce Kuhn, who was a board member of Imperial Irrigation District at the time. “I was the swing vote. I lost friends and I lost business associates over that.”
Kuhn is now back on the board, with another water-sharing vote in front of him.
“If we have to do some things," says Kuhn, "as long as it’s not to our detriment, we stand ready to be good neighbors and do our part."
He hopes his friends will stay with him this time.
“One thing I will not lose this time: I will not lose customers,” Kuhn says of his former agricultural services company. “I sold my business a year ago.”
The board said it would support the Colorado River drought plan under a few conditions, including rights to store more water in Lake Mead.
The largest sticking point is the Salton Sea, a vast inland lake that was created in 1905 by a breached levee. The lake bed has been drying up, creating dust and air quality problems for the region.
“This is an ecological disaster at this point, and it needs to be addressed,” says Ortega.
In order to approve the drought plan, the irrigation district wants to ensure that millions of dollars in Salton Sea restoration funding is approved. The federal Farm Bill, passed in December, had language supporting that, but the district says it’s still looking into how to get that funding.
The Imperial board said it won’t vote to implement the drought plan until that happens. Arizona is also debating how to cut water there, with some farm groups opposing the cutbacks.
“We’re very hopeful it will be resolved by the 31st," says Ortega, "but I don’t know if that’s realistic at this point."