News Feature | February 7, 2023

Colorado River Users Can't Agree On How To Cut Back, Tempting Federal Intervention

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga


As water levels in one of the country’s most prolific bodies continue to sink, the states that share this dwindling resource have failed to agree on how to protect it, recently missing another major negotiating deadline.

“The seven states that depend on the Colorado River have failed to meet a … deadline for agreeing on a water-use reduction plan, raising the likelihood of more friction as the West grapples with how to manage the shrinking river,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Federal officials in June called for the seven states to come up with plans to drastically reduce water diversions by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, a reduction of roughly 15% to 25%. But negotiations among the states grew tense and acrimonious and didn’t produce a deal.”

As the states attempted to negotiate a more productive water-sharing agreement, California has apparently been singled out. Last year, an Arizona representative called California's water management “reckless and unacceptable,” referencing its growing consumption of Colorado River water. The next month, California proposed cutting this consumption by 130 billion gallons per year, but it seems that was not enough to reach a formal agreement.

“In a bid to influence federal officials after contentious negotiations reached an impasse, six of the seven states submitted a last-minute proposal outlining possible cuts to help prevent reservoirs from falling to dangerously low levels, presenting a unified front while leaving out California, which uses the single largest share of the river,” according to the Times.

But as the states continuously fail to reach an agreement, water resources grow scarcer. Federal officials will decide when and how to intervene, and they could be setting a precedent for similar disputes on the horizon.

“The dispute is an early glimpse of the type of fights the U.S. will face as the warming climate supercharges drought, wildfires, storms and floods, forcing wrenching choices over which communities get protected,” per Politico. “Those decisions pose a political minefield — something President Joe Biden’s Interior Department is learning from the fight over the West’s most important river, which is creating existential risks for some of the country’s most economically and politically powerful states and industries.”

With so much at stake in the West’s biggest water war, deadlines cannot keep being pushed back forever.

To read more about how water systems adapt to dwindling resources, visit Water Online’s Water Scarcity Solutions Center.