Resisting bullies along the Colorado River
There’s one word for what six of the seven southwestern states that draw water from the Colorado River are trying to do to California: bullying.
The good news for Californians is that Gov. Gavin Newsom isn’t standing for it. No, Newsom hasn’t directly called out the other six states involved (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada) for their tactics. He’s let his appointee Wade Crowfoot, California secretary of natural resources, do the talking.
But Newsom has a record of standing up to bullies, as in his attack ads during the last campaign season against both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Both insult California at every opportunity. Newsom fired back in mostly symbolic TV commercials, once calling DeSantis “Gov. DeathSantis” because his laissez faire Covid polities probably resulted in tens of thousands more deaths from the pandemic than if he’d followed shutdown policies like Newsom’s.
The bullying this time comes from the other six Colorado
River basin states, which want California to cut its use of the river’s water more than they would their own usage.
It’s a case of bullying, for sure, a matter of 6-1. With 12 U.S. senators to California’s two, the other six states have been louder. It’s also a case of several smallish tails trying to wag the big dog, California. More than 20 million Californians depend directly on the Colorado, while the other six states total about that much population among them, not all using Colorado River water. California usage impacts many more people than direct users of the river water, too, because it takes pressure off the state Water Project and cuts the threat of drawing water from wild Northern California rivers like the Trinity, Smith and Eel.
For sure, cuts are coming in water usage along the Colorado. That river’s two big reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, stand at levels not seen since they opened in the early and mid-20th Century.
The other six states want usage cut in part in proportion to how much water disappears en route to a particular state via seepage and evaporation. That puts most of the onus on California, because it’s nearly the end point of the river.
But California is insisting on its rights under the 1920s-era compact that governs the Colorado. And California is being consistent. For example, this state did not resist when the Central Arizona Project aqueduct opened in 1993, taking billions of gallons daily from the river across hundreds of miles south to the Valley of the Sun, where it allowed huge growth in Phoenix, Tucson and their suburbs. Without that water, authorized under the compact, Arizona would be far shy of its current 7.2 million population.
California figuratively sucked up its gut and relied more on internal supplies, including Sierra Nevada Mountains snowpack and underground aquifers.
Now the other states essentially want to scrap the old compact, their main argument seeming to be that they agree mistreating Californians would be terrific.
But Newsom is not standing for it, insisting the law is on California’s side.
The dispute could eventually harm Newsom politically, as swing states like Nevada, Arizona and Colorado could be important for him in a future presidential bid.
That’s not intimidating him. The first referee of all this will likely be President Biden’s Interior Department, which demanded an agreement among the states by late January. That did not happen.
Now Biden is caught in the middle as he looks to a possible reelection run next year. Does he alienate some “purple” states by causing new water rationing there, or does he go after big cuts in California, source of his largest bloc of electoral votes? Any reduced use would especially hit the largely agricultural Imperial Valley, which grows most of America’s winter lettuce, broccoli, melons, onions, carrots and spinach.
Reality is there will be slashes in Colorado River usage, despite heavy snowpack at the system’s Rocky Mountain headwaters. Snowmelt will not nearly refill the big reservoirs.
Newsom’s administration has proposed substantial cuts. Said Democratic California Sen. Alex Padilla, “Six other Western states dictating (what) California must give up isn’t a genuine consensus decision, especially (when) they haven’t offered any new cuts” of their own.
A preliminary decision will likely come by mid-summer.