California, the state with the most rights to the water of the Colorado River

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — When Don Cox was looking for a farm site in the 1950s, he looked to California’s Imperial Valley.

It was a desert region with priority rights to water, which meant that it was difficult to deny him access to that resource.

“The right to water was very, very important to him,” said his grandson, Thomas Cox, who farms in the valley.

I was right. Today, the Imperial Valley, which provides much of the vegetables and beef consumed by the United States in the winter, is one of the regions with the greatest access to the waters of the Colorado River, which supplies many of the farms and cities in the western United States and which has less and less water.

In times of scarcity, Arizona and Nevada must first reduce their consumption.

But also California, the most populous state in the country, with 39 million people, could be forced to make cuts in the coming years in view of the dangerously low level of rivers and reservoirs due to the heat. If the river were to dry up completely, Southern California would be left without a third of the water it consumes and it would be impossible to farm large tracts of land.

“Without that water, the Imperial Valley stops working,” said JB Hamby, a board member for the Imperial Irrigation District, which has rights to much of the Colorado River’s water.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a series on the 100th anniversary of the historic “Colorado Compact,” a 1922 agreement that regulates the use of Colorado River waters. The series is a collaboration between the Associated Press, The Colorado Sun, The Albuquerque Journal, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Arizona Daily Star and The Nevada Independent, exploring the pressures on the river in 2022.


A century ago, California and six other states (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) agreed to share the water. They created two basins and determined how much water each would receive. After a combination of rules, laws and lawsuits, California got the most water and is the last to cut back in times of scarcity.

From the beginning there was a lot of concern and frustration regarding California’s use of the river. Other Western states feared that California would claim all the water before their populations grew. It was about finding a fair balance, one that would protect California’s supply and ensure that other states would also receive water.

California, on the other hand, benefited from the national government’s construction of the Hoover Dam to control the flow of the river.

In 2026, a deadline expires for states to renegotiate the use of water in times of drought and protect the two main reservoirs, those of Lakes Mead and Powell. The Bureau of Water Management (Bureau of Reclamation), for its part, required states to reduce their water consumption by between 15% and 30% to avoid a crisis. They did not do so within the deadline, which expired in August, but the negotiations continue.

All eyes are on California and the two districts with the most rights to water, the Imperial Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. They want to see if they give up part of their rights. Both said they are willing to use less water or pay others to do so.

But it is not clear what concessions they would be willing to make.

The river is the only source of water for the Imperial Irrigation District, which produces broccoli, onions, carrots, and other winter vegetables, as well as alfalfa and other livestock feed. The region’s groundwater, close to Arizona and Mexico, is unusable and has no access to state water.

The district historically had access to more water than Arizona or Nevada, though it gave up some rights in exchange for money from cities like San Diego and Los Angeles. In 2019, its board rejected a drought contingency plan that Arizona, Nevada and California had signed.

This time, the district authorities say they would be willing not to plant crops on certain lands to save water. It would be a temporary, emergency measure. But no one has said how much water they would stop consuming.

State officials want Congress to approve $4 billion to pay the district so its farmers use less water.

The farmers are not very steeped in the district negotiations and are trying to organize themselves to prevent being forced to do things they do not approve of. Many farmers have already installed drip irrigation equipment that uses less water and would be willing to take other steps to reduce their water use if paid for it.

Cox is considering planting less than usual this fall as it will receive less water.

“With so much uncertainty around water, there will be uncertainty around food supplies as well,” he said.

Farmers aren’t the only ones who rely on water from the Imperial Irrigation District.

Water not used by farms supplies the Salton Sea, a body of water created by the overflow of the Colorado River in the early 1900s. It now dries up quickly, exposing neighboring communities to toxic dust and killing wildlife habitat. birds and fish.

“It is a body of water surrounded by communities that have been marginalized for so long that they don’t have the infrastructure or the ability to protect themselves from climate change. They have less water and that adds to the toxic dust,” said Silvia Paz, executive director of the Coachella Valley Alliance, an organization that fights to improve the region’s economy and health.

The Metropolitan Water District is the largest water user in Colorado after the Imperial. The river supplies a third of the water consumed by the district and is vital for half of the state’s population. Los Angeles County, the largest county in the country, relies on river water.

It can store some of Lake Mead’s unused water, which California officials say helped prevent a crisis in recent years. This year, however, it could try to use that water if necessary, which would surely cause friction with other basin states.

The district also receives water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the state’s main water source. But the delta is suffering from a drought, and the state has approved only 5% of the requested supply this year.

The district is investing billions of dollars in a water recycling plant and encouraging people to use less water in their gardens.

Looking ahead, both climate change and politics influence the debate about how to respond to current challenges.

“We want reliability and predictability,” said Michael Cohen, an expert on the Colorado River at the Pacific Institute. “What we don’t want is Arizona complaining that Phoenix and Tucson are drying up, while California isn’t reducing a drop of the water it consumes.”


Associated Press coverage of water and environmental news is supported by the Walton Family Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for the content.

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