California water agencies, dependent on the dried-up Colorado River, are poised to cut usage by a tenth

It’s the first time the four water boards have publicly said what they would be willing to give up since the federal government called for cuts this summer.

(Jeff Scheid | Nevada Independent via AP) Dry, cracked land that was once submerged is visible at Lake Mead Marina on Thursday, August 4, 2022. Negotiations over the Colorado River have become increasingly difficult for the seven states that depend on the shrinking river and its reservoirs, including Lake Mead, which is sinking to a critically low level.

California water agencies, which rely on the dried-up Colorado River, said Wednesday they could reduce their consumption by a tenth starting in 2023 in response to federal government calls for cuts.

The authorities, which provide water to farmers and millions of people in Southern California, put forward their proposal in a letter to the US Department of the Interior. It comes as droughts exacerbated by climate change continue to reduce the flow, and months after the US Bureau of Reclamation first urged users to voluntarily limit their reliance on it.

California shares the river’s waters with six other states, tribes and Mexico. She is entitled to the largest single share and is the last to lose water in times of scarcity.

The proposal to cut 400,000 acre-feet annually is the first time California’s water authorities have publicly and formally stated what they are willing to give up since federal officials called for significant cuts this summer. California has been pressured by other states to figure out how to use less water when river reservoirs drop so low they risk losing the ability to generate hydroelectric power and deliver water.

“While a comprehensive multi-state agreement to conserve water across the basin has not been reached, California authorities are proposing to take voluntary action now to conserve water in the coming months,” the California authorities wrote.

One hectare of water is enough to supply about two households for a year. California is entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water each year.

The proposed cuts are conditional on water authorities receiving money from the $4 billion in drought relief included in the Inflation Reduction Act and a commitment by the federal government to help clean up the Salton Sea, a drying lake fed by decreasing runoff Imperial Valley farms.

The letter contained few details. The agencies said they had “a collection of suggested water conservation and water use reduction opportunities” that would help retain more water in Lake Mead, one of the river’s most important reservoirs. No specific projects were listed or the rate of payment expected from the agencies was given.

Neither agency immediately responded to emails asking for comments, including additional details on what each had committed to saving.

The Home Office did not comment on the letter, spokesman Tyler Cherry said. But the department has previously said the $4 billion could be used for short-term conservation measures, like paying farmers to leave their fields unplanted, and long-term efficiency projects like lining canals to prevent water loss.

All eyes were on California to offer cuts. Both Arizona and Nevada were told in August they would receive less water under previous drought deals.

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, declined to comment specifically on the letter from California. But he said earlier Wednesday that Arizona cannot be expected to contribute more than California as it will lose more to mandatory cuts due to the existing priority structure.

“We want fairer policies, it’s not about gallons per gallon,” he said.

In California, the Imperial Irrigation District receives a larger proportion of the river than any other entity. It is the only source of water for crops in California’s southeastern desert, where many of the country’s winter vegetables, such as broccoli, as well as forage crops, such as alfalfa, are grown.

Formed in 1905 when the Colorado River burst its banks, the Salton Sea was once a tourist destination. But the lake has dried up in recent decades, exposing residents to harmful dust and damaging ecosystems.

When lower basin states negotiated a drought plan in 2019, the Irrigation District refused to sign it because it had no money for the sea.

California’s letter said any conservation efforts would require a federal government commitment to help stabilize the sea. California water agencies, dependent on the dried-up Colorado River, are poised to cut usage by a tenth

Justin Scacco

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