Alfalfa and other forage grasses — water-intensive crops used to feed dairy cows and cattle — dominate the acreage, carpeting more than half of the farmland. Imperial also produces two-thirds of the vegetables consumed in the U.S. during winter months.
Instead of signing the proposal from the other states, the Imperial Irrigation District and the other Southern California water agencies presented their own plan today. It closely resembles a similar offer they made in October to cut annual withdrawals by 400,000 acre-feet per year at least through 2026. That 9% reduction is much less than the 15% to 30% cuts that federal water managers are waiting for.
Hamby said California’s proposal is “based on what is practical, voluntary, and achievable through 2026 in a way that works within the existing body of laws, compacts, decrees, and … the Law of the River.”
The steep decline in the river’s supply has induced an escalating panic during the past five years. Last summer, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton asked the states in the Colorado River basin for a plan to reduce use of the river’s water by 2 to 4 million acre-feet each year within 60 days. The soft deadline passed quietly. In December, Touton repeated the order at a water users conference in Las Vegas, calling on the seven states for a plan to cut their use of Colorado River water “before the end of January.”
Some water policy experts consider it fair for California to give up more water that it has agreed to since it uses the most. John Fleck, water policy expert at the University of New Mexico School of Law’s Utton Center, said the six-state proposal “broadly shares shortages across all the water users. California would prefer to stick with their interpretation of old legal agreements, because they come out on top.”
The six-state proposal suggests that lower basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada – plus Mexico cut their usage by 1.5 million acre-feet when the elevation of Lake Mead drops below 1,145 feet, to account for water lost to evaporation, which current allocation systems do not consider. Mead currently stands at 1,046 feet and by volume is three-fourths empty.
The proposal suggests further water cuts as the lake declines past specific trigger points. At a level below 1,020 feet, California would retain 3 million of its full 4.4 million acre-foot entitlement.
Representatives of other states stressed the importance of coming to a consensus among all seven states but added that they produced the plan because the situation is urgent.
“We need to continue discussions among all 7 Basin States and to engage directly with tribal leaders and others as we prepare to move forward with the components,” said Estevan Lopez, New Mexico Colorado River Commissioner in a statement.
But U.S. Senators Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein of California said in a joint statement that “six other Western states dictating how much water California must give up simply isn’t a genuine consensus solution — especially coming from states that haven’t offered any new cuts to their own water usage. The proposal further fails to recognize California’s senior legal water rights.”
Fleck said past Colorado River water management has been hasty and haphazard.
“We’ve avoided legal conflict by just allowing California and Arizona to take a whole lot of water, and now Lake Mead is at these low levels,” he said.
Cuts have occurred in the past, he said, though usually with little impact on California. “They were the best we could do without triggering this sort of conflict,” Fleck said.
Now unrelenting drought, combined with overuse of the river, have taken things to the next level.
“What we’re seeing is a real manifestation of the urgent need to solve this problem, one way or another,” Fleck said.