California cut off major southwestern cities from Colorado River water before affecting agricultural supplies, sources say


In closed-door talks last week over the fate of the Colorado River, representatives of California’s powerful water districts proposed modeling what the basin’s future would look like if some of the West’s biggest cities — including Phoenix and Las Vegas — were cut off from river water supply, three people familiar with the negotiations told CNN.

More than 5 million people in Arizona are served by Colorado River water, which accounts for 40 percent of Phoenix’s supply. About 90% of the water in Las Vegas is from the river.

The proposal came in a statewide session that was focused on achieving unprecedented water shutdowns to save the Colorado River, a system that collectively provides water and electricity to more than 40 million people in the West. For months, seven states have been trying to come up with cuts to keep the river system from collapsing.

As the river declines, negotiations to save it increasingly pit farmers’ long-standing senior water rights against explosive metropolitan growth.

California proposed following the “law of the river,” which gives farmers in large agricultural areas first access to water because they have priority set before the rights of other areas — including California cities like Los Angeles, which gets about half water from the Colorado River.

The impressive proposal was met with strong and immediate reaction from other government officials at the negotiating table, people familiar with the discussions said.

John Enstminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, who was not present at this particular session, told CNN the proposal is a major public health and safety concern in western cities.

“If you want to model cutting off most or all of the water supply to 27 million Americans, you can go through the exercise, but running it on the ground would have the worst consequences for almost 10 percent of the country,” Entsminger said.

Arizona’s chief water officer, Tom Bushatzke, declined to comment on the closed-door discussion. But he told CNN that Arizona officials would not consider completely cutting off its largest cities and Native American tribes from Colorado River water.

“I wouldn’t agree, even in a modeling scenario, or ask the federal government to model a scenario where the Central Arizona project goes to zero,” Bushatzke said. “I will not do this. The consequences would be quite severe if the CAP were to reach zero. Hard on the tribes, hard on the cities, hard on the industries.”

One source familiar with the meeting disputed that California has asked to model cutting other agencies and cities to zero, but specified that if California has to compromise with other states’ demands, it also wants to see one of the options, which follows the current strict rules of the river priority system “as a default baseline”.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Towton last year called on the basin’s seven states — California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — to figure out how to reduce use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet, or as much as 30 percent. from the river water allocated to them. She promised the federal government would step in if no agreement could be reached.

The question is who bears the brunt of the unprecedented cuts needed to preserve the Colorado River, which flows into America’s largest reservoirs. If the feds take a heavy hand, it could set off a tense legal battle — as the nation’s largest reservoirs continue to dwindle.

Arizona’s point of view is that it thinks California will let them “dry up and blow away,” a source familiar with the meeting told CNN. California’s point of view, the source added, is: “We’ve fought for a century to keep our super-priority, why should we give it up now?”

After six other states in the Colorado River basin released a proposal to shut off water on Monday, California water agencies presented a separate and more modest plan to federal officials on Tuesday.

The state is poised to save 400,000 additional acre-feet of water — about 130 billion gallons — annually from 2023 to 2026, according to the plan. Overall, it seeks voluntary reductions in the lower basins of about 1 million acre feet per year, with California contributing 400,000 acre feet, Arizona contributing 500,000 acre feet, Nevada contributing 20,000 acre feet and Mexico contributing 80,000 acre feet .

It’s nearly identical to the plan the state proposed in October and is less than 10 percent of the state’s water allotment. California receives the largest distribution of the Colorado River of any state in the basin.

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‘Genuinely concerned’: Why researcher fears Lake Mead could collapse

California’s proposal would take effect if Lake Mead reached an elevation of 1,000 feet and Lake Powell an elevation of 3,500 feet — precariously close to those reservoirs’ “dead pool” levels, when the water is so low that there is no longer to flow through the dams.

California’s proposal mentions “increasing cuts” if Lake Mead’s sea level continues to decline, but does not specify by how much.

California’s plan “provides a realistic and workable framework” that builds on “voluntary agreements and past collaborative efforts to minimize delays in implementation,” said JB Hamby, state Colorado River Board chairman and board member of Imperial Irrigation District, in statement.

Adel Hagehalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said in a statement that the state had committed to cuts, but in a “way that doesn’t hurt half of the people who rely on the river — the 19 million people of the South California.”

“We have to do it in a way that doesn’t devastate our $1.6 trillion economy, an economic engine for the entire United States,” Hagehalil said. “California’s proposal today does all of this by equitably sharing the risk among the basin states without adversely affecting any agency or state. The plan unveiled yesterday, which excludes California, does not.

California’s proposal is less than the plan proposed Monday by the basin’s six other states, which max out at 3.1 million acre feet a year. This six-country model also accounted for water lost to evaporation and leaking river infrastructure.

The six-state plan also suggests it be activated if Lake Mead levels are around 1,050 feet. Lake Mead is currently about 1,047 feet and last summer it was down to 1,040 feet.

Multiple countries told CNN they will try to continue to reach an agreement everyone can support, while acknowledging that negotiations so far have been difficult.

“We are committed to continuing to work collectively as seven basin states,” said Chuck Cullum, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Bushatzke, Arizona’s top water official, called the six-state proposal “a very positive outcome” and said he and others would try to continue talks with California.

“I am committed to continuing to work with all seven states,” Buschatzke said, adding that additional talks and negotiations will continue “over the next several months.”

Still, the collapse of the agreement between California and the rest of the Colorado River Basin raises the prospect that federal officials will enact their own cuts in the coming months. Bushatzke told CNN that federal officials have not shared much with states about the number of cuts they are targeting.

“They have not shared any cumulative field with us,” he said. “I think it’s imperative that we know at least the rough numbers and ultimately the specific number because it will be a smaller gap to close the necessary reductions.”

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