John Fleck: California wants to keep (most of) the Colorado River for itself

Six states, including Utah, want to share the burden of cuts in water use. But California won’t play fair.

(Erin Schaff | The New York Times) A broken boat that used to be under water in Lake Mead now sits above the lake’s water line because of a decades-long megadrought outside of Boulder City, NV, earlier this month.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area • If the Colorado River continues to dwindle from the same arid trend of the last two decades, it could take as little as two bad drought years to drive the reservoir here on the Arizona-Nevada border to “dead pool.” That’s the term for levels so low that water can barely flow out of Hoover Dam.

Mead is already just 29 percent full, its lowest level since it began filling in the 1930s. But dead pool would be a true disaster for farms, towns and cities from San Diego to Denver that depend on water from Mead and other reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin.

Lake Powell, upstream on the Arizona-Utah border, is 23 percent full, the lowest since it filled in the 1960s. The precarious state of the two reservoirs is why the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation called last year for deep cuts in water use — as much as 30 percent — from the seven states that depend on the river — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California. But as a summer deadline to come up with a plan looms, the states are deadlocked.

Last month, six of the seven proposed a sweeping plan to share the burden and bring the river’s supply and demand into balance. But California, the river’s largest water user, refuses to play fair.

As climate change shrinks the river, California argues, it’s Arizona that should take the biggest cuts. If the water in Lake Mead dips below 1,025 feet above sea level, California’s proposal would cut Arizona’s allocation in half, but California’s share, which is already larger, would be cut only 17 percent. That would mean central Arizona’s cities, farms and Native American communities would suffer, while California’s farmers in the large desert agricultural empire of the Imperial Valley — by far the region’s largest agricultural water user — would receive more water from Lake Mead than the entire state of Arizona.

California justifies this imbalance with an outdated interpretation of the river’s allocation laws, but it’s really just an excuse to hoard resources on behalf of the farmers who raise alfalfa, the valley’s most dominant crop, and the cows that eat it. Alfalfa and other animal feed crops are grown across the West, and other regions must decide whether to continue this use of water in an ongoing drought. But nowhere are the stakes as high as in California.

Before there was a Hoover Dam, there was a bargain between California, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. A rapidly growing California could have locked up rights to the biggest drink of the Colorado River, but it needed the federal government’s help to build dams and canals — so it agreed to share the water with its neighbors.

For a good long time that agreement was mostly theoretical. The other states hadn’t yet built sufficient infrastructure to access their share of the water. But by the 1960s, Arizona tried to build a canal to carry the river’s water to Phoenix and Tucson — and California fought hard to block it.

In 1968, California agreed to stand down, but only if Arizona agreed to give California priority if the river ever shrank. With no other way to get the water it needed, Arizona took the deal.

Today, California’s municipal and agricultural water agencies — such as the Imperial Irrigation District of southeastern California, the largest single Colorado River Basin water user by farm — are demanding that Arizona stick to the agreement.

Those agencies point out that California has already done much to reduce water use. That’s true, but the state is still trying to protect its outsized water supply at the expense of others in the region.

Many Native American communities in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California that were left out when the water subsidies were handed out in the 20th century deserve a much bigger share of the river than they have received. California’s intransigence is making it harder to meet that legal and moral challenge.

The fish, birds and vegetation of the Colorado River also need water to survive. Collaboration among all seven basin states has, over the last decade, returned a modest supply to once-dry stretches of the river’s bed. California’s intransigence makes that harder, too.

The reality of climate change means the West is becoming a different place. Meeting the challenges will be painful not just for California’s farmers but for communities across all seven states that are accustomed to an abundance of water. Cities, already reducing their water use even as their populations grow, will have to conserve more. Indoor plumbing is becoming more efficient, but the real change is in gardens surrounding the homes of the Southwest. There will be less lawn, fewer trees.

If we approach the challenge with a sense of fairness and shared sacrifice it will be possible to save the West that we know and love. But this can only happen if California joins in, rather than trying to hoard the water for itself.

John Fleck is the co-author of “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River” and is a writer in residence at the University of New Mexico School of Law’s Utton Center. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.