Parched California prepares for first-ever Colorado River Cuts

The vast majority of the state’s 4.4-million-acre-foot water allotment is used for agriculture, and almost all that agricultural water flows to the Imperial Irrigation District, a gigantic farming organization in the southeastern part of the state that produces the lion’s share of winter vegetables grown in the United States. The remaining water flows to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, or the Met, which provides water to almost 20 million people in and around Los Angeles.

Thanks to the state’s strong water rights, Imperial and the Met have largely stayed out of the crosshairs of Western water shortages so far. The two districts have instituted water-savings programs on their own turf — the Met banked unused water in Lake Mead, and Imperial helped farmers install more efficient farming equipment in their fields — but they have never had to reduce the amount of water they draw from the river. A 2019 drought response agreement exempted the state from mandatory cuts under all but the worst circumstances.

This year, though, the proverbial dam broke. Inflow into the Colorado River’s two main reservoirs fell to historic lows, threatening the reservoirs’ ability to generate hydropower, and the federal government stepped in to engineer a solution. In a sudden announcement earlier this summer, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Camimlim Touton ordered the river states to reduce their total water demand by 2 to 4 million acre feet — as much as a quarter of all usage. If the states didn’t find a way to do this by mid-August, Touton said, the federal government would step in to institute new emergency cuts of its own.

The Bureau’s emergency demands were shocking but not surprising, according to Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California. 

“The fact that there’s a structural water deficit in the basin is not new news,” she told Grist. “And it’s not like [water managers] have not been thinking about stuff they could do to reduce water usage — it’s just that people have been working on a timeline for this that turns out to have really not been fast enough.”

The states blew past the federal government’s deadline, and negotiations are now in overtime. The parties met in Denver in early August and again in Salt Lake City toward the end of the month. California has emerged from those meetings as the linchpin of a deal to meet Reclamation’s demands. Since the state is the largest water user, and since it’s never taken cuts before, other states are waiting to see what it does before they commit to their own reductions. Another meeting is scheduled later this month in Santa Fe.

While early conversations among the California districts centered around a target of 500,000 acre-feet in combined cuts from Imperial and the Met, executives from both districts told Grist that the potential range of cuts has fallen since then. Hasencamp, the Colorado River manager for the Met, said that the range could go as low as 350,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is equivalent to about 320,000 gallons of water.)

“The numbers continue to change, to be honest with you,” said Henry Martinez, the chief executive of the Imperial Irrigation District, who said that 500,000 acre-feet is “probably too high.” 

Hasencamp said that it’s very unlikely the river states will meet Reclamation’s demand for 2 to 4 million acre-feet in total savings. The states are now angling for a lower target and hoping it satisfies federal officials.

“I just don’t think it’s practical anymore,” he said, adding that a million acre-feet of savings between the states was a more realistic total number.

The proposed voluntary cuts would be painful for Imperial, in part because they would take effect as soon as next year. The farming district has spent the past decade helping farmers make their growing operations more efficient by buying sprinklers, drip irrigation infrastructure, and water retention systems, and there’s plenty of room for further improvement — for instance, farmers could shift away from water-intensive alfalfa, much of which gets exported overseas. But these new policies would take years to ramp up, so the only short-term option is to farm less land. 

That raises a big question about who will pay farmers who take their land out of service, and how much compensation the farmers should receive. The Inflation Reduction Act signed last month by President Biden gives Reclamation around $4 billion in drought response funding thanks to a last-minute intervention from Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Martinez wants to tap that money to compensate farmers for taking land out of service, but the details are thorny.

“It’s kind of a chicken and egg issue,” said Martinez. The district needs to figure out how much money it will get from Reclamation before it can figure out how many acre-feet of water it can cut and how much it can pay farmers to stop watering, but it can’t propose a funding amount to Reclamation without first figuring out how much to pay farmers to reduce their water usage. “We have not really arrived at a price,” Martinez added.

Previous voluntary conservation programs in Imperial have offered farmers close to $300 for every acre-foot of water they save, but this time growers in the district are asking for much more, Martinez told Grist. That’s in part because the overall drought in the West has jacked up prices for the crops that Imperial farmers tend to grow, which means it will cost more to induce them to stop farming.

“Markets have been very, very good for the farmers at this point,” he said, adding that farmers have to make “a comparison of getting paid X number of dollars not to plant when they can earn [high] market prices for the crops that they produce.”

Nevertheless, Martinez said, a basic outline is in place. The deal would establish a base price for water saved by any water district in the river states and add supplemental payments for hard-hit districts like Imperial, giving the district extra funding to account for the secondary impacts of the water reduction on the vulnerable farming communities in Imperial’s service area. These impacts include a loss of hydropower generation from the All-American Canal, which conveys water from the Colorado River to Imperial’s crop fields and produces electricity along the way.

Martinez told Grist he hoped to reach an agreement some time in the next month, before Imperial farmers start planting winter crops, lest the farmers sign contracts to deliver certain vegetables only to find they aren’t getting any water.

“We have communicated to the Bureau that we need something to put on the table to the farmers by the end of September at the latest,” Martinez told Grist.

Even if these voluntary talks fail, it’s only a matter of time before California sees mandatory water reductions. The drought response agreement from 2019 forces the state to take a haircut on its water allocation if the federal government declares a so-called “Tier 2b” shortage on the Colorado, which occurs when the water level in Lake Mead falls below a certain height. That seemed unlikely back in 2019, but now it looks almost certain. The federal government last month declared a Tier 2a shortage on the river, dealing further cuts to Arizona and Nevada. If reservoir levels had been even 5 feet lower, California would have taken cuts as well.

Even then, Imperial would be insulated from mandatory cuts. Because Imperial has the most senior water rights within California — having started using the river water before its neighbor districts — it wouldn’t have to fallow any land even if California took a mandatory cut. A district spokesperson told Grist that Imperial will account for only 3 percent of California’s mandatory reduction, even though it receives more than half of the state’s Colorado water.

The pain of these mandatory cuts would fall almost entirely on the Met, the water servicer for the greater Los Angeles area, which would absorb more than 90 percent of the reduction. The district has banked about a million acre-feet of surplus water in Lake Mead over the past few years, but it’s only a matter of time before those reserves run out and force the district to reduce water usage around Los Angeles. The voluntary cuts the district is negotiating with Imperial would make that happen a lot faster. 

“We knew that the river was out of balance, we knew that climate change was impacting the river, and we knew that there was going to be a reckoning on the river,” said Hasencamp, “but most of us thought we would have time to adapt.” All told, the district stands to lose as much as 500,000 acre-feet between the voluntary and involuntary cuts. This would remove close to half of the district’s total Colorado River withdrawals.

The problem for the Met is that the district’s other main source of water is also in crisis. The district also imports billions of gallons every year from the so-called State Water Project, a canal system that funnels water from reservoirs in the Northern California mountains down to Los Angeles, but these reservoirs are also at historic lows thanks to the regional drought. The district is caught between a rock and a hard place: Participating in a Colorado deal will make it more reliant on an alternative water source that is also getting hammered by drought.

Hasencamp told Grist the district has a few tools it can use to save water in the near term, such as offering rebates to customers who convert grass lawns to turf. He also said that in the next few months the district’s board will likely reduce cap deliveries to member agencies, placing a ceiling on how much water cities and utilities can buy from the district. This would force each individual agency to figure out how to reduce its water consumption, such as by raising the price of water or banning outdoor lawn watering.

Still, the adjustment will be difficult, said Ed Osann, a policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council who studies California water.*

“A major reduction like this would take maybe ten years to carry out if you’re trying to make for a soft landing,” Osann told Grist, “but a soft landing may not be attainable here.”

There’s no telling how long the present drought will last, and thus it’s not clear whether the cuts under discussion in California will be temporary or permanent measures. But research has shown that climate change can cause the long-term aridification of landscapes like the western United States, which could mean that low inflow to the Colorado River reservoirs will prove a persistent problem even if rainfall increases. This would ensure future shortages. If the past few years are any indication, these shortages will be painful for everyone on the river, including states like California, which have long managed to stay above the fray.

Jake Bittle is a free-lance reporter. This story was originally published by Grist. You can subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.