The Colorado River war and the growing problem of less water

With water supply dwindling, the West must decide who gets what

The Colorado River is running low and the West is at odds over how to respond. Here's everything you need to know:

What's happening with the Colorado River?

The Colorado River provides water for a number of states including California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. The amount of water in the river has slowly been dropping, prompting states to collaborate to reduce water usage by 30 percent of their river water allocation, per CNN

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation called on the affected states to come to an agreement on how to cut water usage to prevent the river's reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, from becoming  "dead pools," where the water level is too low to pump out to farms and cities. In response, six of the states released a letter proposing maximum basin-wide cuts of 3.1 million acre-feet per year, which would kick in if the reservoir levels drop dangerously low. Their recommendations distribute the cuts across every state and account for water lost to evaporation, which reduces water levels faster, writes Politico.

But California, which claimed that the six states' proposal disproportionately impacts California farmers, opted to release its own letter, prompting some conflict. In its competing recommendations, California proposed conserving between 1 million and nearly 2 million acre-feet of water, but failed to account for water lost to evaporation and during transportation, reports The Associated Press. Its recommendations also burden Arizona and Nevada with the biggest cuts, so much so that Phoenix and Las Vegas could be almost completely cut off from their water supply.

"The lack of a consensus and six states moving forward with an approach that does not harmonize with the law is troubling," said JB Hamby, the chair of the Colorado River Board for California. "It is everyone's best interest to avoid litigation, but being put into a situation like this where you have six states approaching things in this way raises the risk."

Why is California not cooperating?

The issue comes down to water rights. California asserts that it has senior rights to the water because of a compact made in 1922, which granted California farmers the largest share of river water. But in 1968, Arizona agreed to a junior water right in exchange for a system of canals called the Central Arizona Project. Because of this, Arizona has historically been first in line for water cuts, while California's allocation has remained unchanged.

With the Bureau of Reclamation now asking for a new, usage-reducing deal, California is siding with tradition and believes it should see the least amount of additional cuts under an updated proposal, while the remaining states believe future cuts should be distributed more evenly, especially if they would disproportionately impact some states more than others.

"I would not, even under a modeling scenario, agree or ask the federal government to model a scenario in which the Central Arizona Project goes to zero," Arizona's top water official, Tom Buschatzke, told CNN. "I will not do that. The implications would be pretty severe if CAP went to zero. Severe for tribes, severe for cities, severe for industries."

"We agree there needs to be reduced use in the Lower Basin, but that can't be done by just completely ignoring and sidestepping federal law," Hamby commented.

How is the disagreement being resolved?

The Biden administration and the Department of the Interior (DOI) will need to step in. "The states are not going to reach an agreement. We are just too far apart," said Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.). "Now is the time that we need this administration to come up with a solution to this dilemma, and we need it now." The decision will end up impacting 40 million people who use water from the Colorado River.

Bipartisan officials from the Western states (excluding California) have urged Biden to support the six-state proposal. Western senators have also met to discuss the issue. Meanwhile, the DOI is looking to gain "as much support and consensus as possible," and is in the process of speaking to the states as well as tribes in the region. The agency will evaluate both competing proposals and release an analysis of the options in the spring, to take effect as early as the summer. 

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case regarding the right of the Navajo Nation to sue the federal government for help with water access. The tribe has claimed that the government is required to bolster its water needs as per an 1868 treaty, under which the U.S. agreed to provide the nation with a new "permanent home." The government, however, disagrees. And at the center of the dispute is, of course, the Colorado River — an attorney for Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada says the tribe shouldn't be allowed to claim expanded rights over the river because it might affect "pre-existing agreements and ultimately mean less water available to those communities that have come to rely on it," ABC News summarizes.

Why must the West moderate its water usage?

For one thing, the West just saw its driest two decades in over a thousand years, per the Financial Times. And for another, water scarcity "is an increasing problem on every continent," and is likely to get worse as climate change becomes more intense, writes the United Nations. "The impacts of a changing climate are making water more unpredictable. Terrestrial water storage – the water held in soil, snow, and ice – is diminishing." 

Is there a broader message here?

The battle for the Colorado River highlights a looming fight "about who should control this most precious and life-saving of commodities," writes Gillian Tett at the Financial Times. In the U.S., owning land means owning the water on that land, further complicating control of a precious resource, especially in times of short supply. 

"When you look at how this river has shrunk, when you look at how much less water there is in the river than any of us ever thought – you have to say everyone who receives a benefit from this infrastructure needs to be willing to put some water on the table," said general manager of the Central Arizona Project and former Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, speaking with CNN.

Update March 23, 2023: This piece has been updated to reflect the case involving the Navajo Nation.


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