Rose Garden Resident

Other Western states ganging up on California over river's water

- Thomas Elias can be reached at To read more of his columns, visit california­ online.

There's one word for what six of the seven Western 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 (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming) for their tactics. He's let Wade Crowfoot, the state natural resources secretary whom Newsom appointed, do the talking.

Newsom has a record of standing up to bullies, though, as in his attack ads during the last campaign season against respective Florida and Texas Govs. Ron Desantis and 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-19 policies 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 cut their own use. It's a case of bullying, for sure, a matter of 6 to 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 use 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 Colorado River water use. That river's two big reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, stand at levels lower than have been seen since they opened in the early and mid-20th century.

The other six states want use 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.

California is insisting on its rights under the 1920s-era compact that governs the Colorado, though. California is being consistent too. 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 population of 7.2 million.

California figurative­ly sucked up its gut and relied more on internal supplies, including Sierra 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.

Newsom is not standing for it, though, 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 re-election run next year.

Does he alienate some “purple” states by causing new water rationing there, or does he go after big cuts in California, the 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.

The reality is that slashes in Colorado River use will happen, 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, and a preliminar­y decision will likely come by midsummer.

As this state's U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla said, “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).”

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