WATER SECURITYParched California prepares for first-ever Colorado River Cuts

By Jake Bittle

Published 8 September 2022

An emerging deal would cut water deliveries to Southern California — but fall far short of federal demands.

Officials in California are closing in on an agreement to give up a significant portion of the water the state gets from the Colorado River, bowing to an emergency demand made by the federal government earlier this summer. 

Executives from two large water districts in the Golden State, which service the Los Angeles metropolitan area and the agriculture-heavy Imperial Valley, told Grist that they’re making progress on negotiations to leave roughly 10 percent of the state’s Colorado River water allocation in reservoirs next year, or at least 100 trillion gallons. The officials indicated that they may reach a deal as soon as this month, and said they believe other states will follow suit with cuts of their own, helping the federal government achieve its goal of stabilizing the Colorado’s two drought-wracked reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

But the deal under discussion falls far short of what federal officials have demanded: Water managers who spoke to Grist indicated that states will likely be able to cut water usage by around half of the minimum conservation target set by federal officials in June. Furthermore, many of the deal’s details are still unclear, including the size of contributions from states besides California. 

Nevertheless, the agreement would be transformative for the Golden State, which has never before faced any cuts to its share of the river. If it holds, the agreement could force new water restrictions across the Los Angeles metroplex and reduce the nation’s supply of winter vegetables like lettuce and asparagus. It’s the latest sign that the climate-fueled megadrought in the West is forcing major changes to how the region uses water.

“It’s huge,” said Bill Hasencamp, who manages Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which services the Los Angeles area. “We’re now in a permanent shortage going forward, and we’re going to live with it.”

Even as the Colorado River crisis has reached a crescendo, forcing major cuts to water usage on the drought-ravaged waterway, California has remained untouched. The state uses by far the most water of any state that draws from the river — in part because it holds some of the most senior rights to river water, which has allowed it to draw a full share of water even as the federal government has slashed water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada for two years running.