The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation has presented options for the future distribution of Colorado River water due to unprecedented water shortages in reservoirs, including Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
The seven states with a say in water withdrawal agreements—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming—failed to come to an agreement last year. And now there are two new proposals, one from California and the other from the rest of the states.
The Bureau of Reclamation has presented three options for water distribution from the Colorado River, including taking no action after the current guidelines expire in 2026, which would have severe consequences for hydropower production and 30 tribal nations. One of the other options favors California, and the other equally distributes cuts among the lower basin states.
The proportional cuts in one proposal (you guessed it, not California’s) would result in California’s farmers experiencing significant hardships and interfere with water rights that California does not want to give up. Arizona would face larger cuts in California’s proposal due to its lower ranking in water rights seniority.
Expect legal challenges regardless of the option. Secretary Deb Haaland is expected to make a decision after public comment, with a final version set to be released in August.
How’d we get here?
Despite record-breaking levels of rain and snow in California, it is unlikely to have a significant impact on the drought, which has been ongoing for more than two decades.
How do we adapt?
Adapting to less water use is necessary, and the option for financial incentives for farmers to forego planting certain crops is on the table. However, the price of water needs to increase to reflect the precious, at-risk nature of the resource, similar to any other commodity. If water costs remain low, it may result in mandatory restrictions in the future.
Improved irrigation practices, crop selection, and gray water use can significantly reduce water use. Still, we need to address other fundamental issues, like reduced animal agriculture, food waste, and the ability to grow feed crops in deserts.
1. The Washington Post, “Colorado River cities and farms face dire trade-offs with new federal review,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/04/11/colorado-river-biden-review/ Accessed April 13, 2023