Industry the July/August 2023 issue

Water Rights

A brief history of Colorado River water usage.
By Maureen Brody Posted on July 17, 2023

These practices have led to considerable conflict in some states, especially during drought spells.

The biggest fight currently has to do with the Colorado River, which serves agriculture, residences, electricity production, hospitality and leisure, and numerous other sectors in seven states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. About 75% of the river’s use is for agriculture, though, and that is where the biggest outcry is right now, especially in southeastern California and southwestern Arizona, two areas whose economies depend on water from the Colorado.

A little backstory: Last year, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton sounded the alarm in a Senate hearing, saying the Colorado River is facing challenges “unlike anything we have seen in our history.” The seven basin states were to come up with a water-rights plan that showed progress on water management and conservation. Six states negotiated a proposal that contained sweeping cuts to water consumption. Notably absent from the effort: California, the largest consumer of Colorado River water. It came up with a conflicting plan that goes easy on its water districts. For context, a single California district, Imperial Irrigation District, serves about 500,000 acres in Imperial Valley, a natural desert that is now one of the largest vegetable-producing areas in the nation. The district is the single-greatest user of the Colorado River and is allotted 10 times the amount allocated to Nevada—yes, the whole state—according to the federal Bureau of Reclamation. California says it is going by the Colorado River Compact, a deal struck between the states in 1922 that gives California preeminent rights to the water.

These senior water rights, reaffirmed in the 1960s under what’s colloquially know as the “law of the river,” mean California still gets water from the river in times of drought and its neighbors in Arizona could get none before California sees any cuts. The pain extends into central Arizona’s population centers of Phoenix and Tucson, which rely on a system of canals that siphon Colorado water to support industry and lifestyles.

The concern is so great that, in 2021, the Arizona legislature passed HCM2004, a law directing the state to petition the federal government for a dam and pipeline to divert Mississippi River floodwater to the region, copying a model already implemented in Denver, harvesting Missouri River floodwater.

The federal government was expected to either determine the water-use cuts along the Colorado or bring the seven basin states to the table to iron out restrictions this spring. Neither happened, but the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation in early April released an environmental analysis that offered three options for sorting out the mess: (1) no action; (2) Interior would impose cuts based on the standing legal framework that prioritizes California’s demands; or (3) split cuts across the seven consuming states.

With California supplying about 70% of U.S.-consumed fruits and vegetables, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state has a strong argument for its food-security role and outsized need for water.

Maureen Brody News & Copy Chief Read More

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