Water Crisis: California submits competing water-saving plan after Arizona, 5 other states submitted theirs

The seven states that use water from the Colorado River are sitting on a time bomb.

Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have until Jan. 31 to come up with a plan for drastic water cuts on top of the cutbacks residents have already seen.

In 2022, the Bureau of Reclamation asked Arizona, along with California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, to come up with a plan to conserve 2.4 million acre-feet of water. The only thing they can agree on is that the other state should do more.

MORE: Colorado River water users convening amid 'dire' drought concerns

Prior to Jan. 31, expert says he's not optimistic on deal

"I don’t I don’t expect that the states will hammer out an agreement. If they do, I’ll crack open the champagne," said Sarah Porter, Director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU.

Porter says California holds the cards over Arizona based on past legal agreements in an argument that seems to pit California farmers against Arizona's subdivisions.

"It’s a little bit of an urban versus agricultural discussion," Porter explained. "By the same token agriculture uses most of the water [by] 75%."

The likelihood of the seven states reaching a compromise in four days seems like something from a wishing well. If they don't do it, it'll be up to Uncle Sam to decide how this pans out.

"At some point, we will get to see the federal proposed approach, and then people will start commenting," Porter said.

By commenting, she also means debating, arguing and suing. 

Porter expects the federal government to impose smaller cuts later this year, which will impact things like aquifer levels, and bigger cuts will come in 2024.

6 states creating conservation proposal

On Jan. 31, we reported that while technically, no formal agreements have been made, six of the seven states, including Arizona, have submitted a so-called "consensus based modeling alternative," a proposal on how to conserve water.

"The approach includes explicit consideration of evaporation losses that are currently unallocated in the Lower Colorado River," said Chuck Cullom, Executive Director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Cullom said the proposal made by the six states would technically satisfy the Bureau of Reclamation's request, which amounts to a third of the water the Colorado River produces on average. Cullom, however, says while the proposal is a start, more work needs to be done.

"Six states is imperfect," said Cullom. "We need to broaden that coalition to include all states, tribes, and water users and renewed commitment to work together."

"I think we're at a critical moment in the management of the river. It's critical for many reasons. It's important that people understand that even though it's been raining recently, we still need to work on these problems," said Kathy Jacobs, Director of the Center for Climate Adaptation with the University of Arizona.

California offers counter-proposal

On Feb. 2, California released a counter-proposal that is much different from the "consensus based modeling alternative" Arizona and 5 other states have put forward.

Both California's plan and the "consensus based modeling alternative" basically agreed to the Federal Government's idea of cutting Colorado River water usage by 15% to 25%. The plan, however, does differ on which states should shoulder the bigger burden.

Under California's plan, they are willing to make cuts now, and maybe more if and when things get worse, but at a level about one-third less than Arizona.

"The California proposal assigns shortages to a degree, but then acknowledges deeper cuts may be necessary," said Deven Upadhyay with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. "Those specific allocations of shortages will have to be figured out in the coming months."

The six other states, meanwhile, want things like seepage and evaporation included as factors in their cutbacks, and also want California, which uses the most water, to conserve the most water.

"We will be continuing to be at the negotiating table, trying to hammer out what those reductions look like, and how we share in those reductions," said Upadhyay.

"We will do our best to find a common solution for all seven states, but not at the expense of Arizona being unfairly cut in an inequitable way," said Tom Buschatzke with the Arizona Department of Water Resources. "I am way past retirement age, by the way, but I want to keep doing this. I want to leave this place a better place than it is right now."

Federal officials have yet to offer much advice, but they are expected to come up with their own solutions this summer if all seven states don't do it first.

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