California drought 2022: Two water districts eye hefty Colorado River cuts
Two powerful Southern California water districts are actively negotiating an agreement for hefty voluntary cuts of Colorado River supply to farmers and reduced delivery of water to greater Los Angeles, as part of urgent efforts across seven states and Mexico to stave off the collapse of the drought-stricken river system that provides drinking water and irrigation for nearly 40 million people.
Responding to a June mandate from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for all those who rely on the river to cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water usage within 60 days, Imperial Irrigation District and Metropolitan Water District officials are negotiating "around half a million, between 400,000 and 500,000 acre-feet" in combined reductions, IID general manager Enrique Martinez said on Monday.
He emphasized that the negotiations were fluid and numbers could change, but he said his agency, which serves Imperial County and holds by far the largest and among the oldest California rights to Colorado River water, recognizes serious action must be taken to keep water flowing to the region amid prolonged drought and a changing climate.
"We definitely have a challenge on our hands, and our assumption here is we're not going to be able to rely on snowpack or rainfall at historic levels" to restore flow naturally, Martinez said.
"Ultimately, the devil's in the details, but we think that IID can contribute. ... Part of it is self protection — this is our only source of water — but more importantly, we want to make sure our economy is not negatively affected," he added. "We basically have to come up with numbers that make a difference, that move the needle in the right direction."
Late Tuesday, the Metropolitan Water District's Colorado River resources manager, Bill Hasenkamp said the 500,000 acre feet number was "out of date," but he declined to provide current numbers. An acre-foot of water, or 326,000 gallons, is enough to supply one to two California households for a year. MWD serves parts of Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino, Ventura and Riverside counties, though not the Coachella Valley.
Drought map: See which areas have extreme drought
But Hasenkamp confirmed the outlines of the emerging plan, and said smaller contributions could also come from the Coachella Valley Water District and Palo Verde Irrigation District, which serves the Blythe area.
CVWD did not respond to requests for comment, other than brief messages from board member Peter Nelson, who also chair's California's Colorado River Board, to say the district has already committed to cuts if necessary under a signed 2019 drought contingency plan. Federal reclamation officials want steep reductions on top of that plan, though.
MWD could contribute a significant amount fairly easily. It has for years banked surplus water in Lake Mead, including paying IID for transfers of imports to its accounts. Hasenkamp said that by year's end, the district would still have an estimated 1 million acre-feet of reserves, though not all of that could be contributed in one year or as part of a single agreement.
"We are in constant discussions, in fact we had a call at 3 o'clock today and things continue to evolve. Our goal is to roll out a plan on Aug. 16," Hasenkamp said Tuesday. "There's no deal until you have a deal, and there's no deal yet, so we have targets more than exact numbers."
Martinez could not be reached for clarification on the latest working numbers, but an IID spokesman said Wednesday that "while the range of volumes being discussed is technically up to 500,000 (acre-feet), the California totals are not as aggressive as that upper limit."
Two other sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said the maximum amount is closer to 400,000 acre feet.
California drought and farms
IID would likely achieve its reductions by paying farmers and landowners a per-acre-foot fee to forgo planting crops, or to install costly but efficient low-drip systems, pump-back recycling and other equipment that uses less water to grow crops. The plan would not be cheap — billions of dollars in public funds would be needed for fallowing and equipment programs that could last through 2026, Martinez and others said.
No dollar amount per acre-foot has been agreed upon, and wildly divergent numbers are being proposed. At the high end, the Imperial County Farm Bureau sent a five-point plan to the Bureau of Reclamation last month, and said its members would need $2,300 per acre-foot to not plant crops or implement other on-farm conservation measures.
"We wanted to send a strong message to these cities that want to keep growing, and keep having their green lawns and parks and sports, that you can't keep coming to farmers for cheap water," said Larry Cox of Lawrence Cox Ranches, who heads the farm bureau's water committee and sits on its board. "When the farmer sits down for breakfast, there's some harm to the chicken providing the egg, but there's significantly more damage to the pig (for the bacon)."
Cox said farmers did not want to be caught in the same situation as the pig, among other metaphors. He noted that growers in Yuma, Arizona, have asked for $1,500 per acre-foot of reduced water, and he said Imperial Valley farmers might be willing to "harmonize" efforts with their neighbors to the east.
CVWD earlier this year announced it would pay $200 per acre-foot of water saved to agricultural customers, for a maximum of 10,000 acre-feet saved, but "uptake is slow," said Nelson. "Small applications are trickling in. Yes the cap is at 10,000 acre-feet but it is doubtful that number will be met."
Reasons for low participation in the CVWD program include complex verification processes, and high dollar crop returns, Nelson said. Farmers in the lower Colorado basin states are finally having a good year in terms of crop prices, after significant losses during the pandemic. Alfalfa is netting $1,500 an acre, and onions and other row crops are also doing very well, said Cox.
To date, neither Palo Verde Irrigation District nor CVWD has offered to save any additional water. In fact, CVWD has drawn criticism from community activists for including increased river imports in its long-term planning late last year. Both agencies are involved in the "intense" negotiations.
"Coachella Valley has offered us the sweat of their brow basically, nothing more," said Martinez.
With banner prices for wheat, alfalfa and other forage and food crops this year, the timing is poor to ask growers who just survived lean years due to COVID and supply chain delays to hold off on planting now-profitable crops. But farmers who depend on the Colorado River supply understand the stakes.
"It's a terrible thing ... because the water is not there," said Trevor Tagg, a young fourth- generation Imperial Valley farmer. "There isn't anything that I wouldn't entertain. I would listen to anything they have going on," he said of possible payment programs.
But he said "it needs to be very clear" that IID has legally protected rights to the water that trump those of any of the newer cities.
Palo Verde Irrigation District is currently part of a three-year fallowing program that could be counted toward total California reductions, Hasenkamp said, but its board vice president has said further reductions could cripple the Blythe-area economy.
IID and its farmer customers have also participated in fallowing and conservation programs before. These pay or have paid a range of prices, including a past fallowing program of $175 per acre-foot, and a current one that pays growers $285 per acre-foot conserved. IID receives a higher amount — about $700 per acre-foot — from the San Diego County Water Authority for conserved Imperial County water that is instead sent there.
Water managers say a $1,500 per acre-foot is likely not going to happen.
"Those are pretty wild numbers," said Martinez.
Other possible strategies include amending the Manchin-Schumer Reduction in Inflation bill or asking members of Congress in all seven states that depend on Colorado River water to authorize funds in separate, new legislation.
Other drought impacts and conditions
Beyond compensating farmers, government funding should also be considered to mitigate other potential impacts of slashing water deliveries to California's rural southeastern end, some say.
U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-La Quinta, wrote to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Wednesday, urging her and Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton to fully evaluate the health and wildlife impacts of any water cutbacks to the Salton Sea region, and to identify funds to pay farmers who have to fallow their fields, as well as identifying what can be done to help farmworkers and others who would be affected.
"We are currently exploring ways to make sure that the Department of Interior and Bureau of Reclamation have funding available to properly encourage voluntary reductions in water use," said a spokeswoman for Ruiz. She also noted that a drought and wildfire package that passed the House of Representatives last week allocated "$500 million for actions to prevent key reservoirs of the Colorado River from declining to critically low water elevations." It still needs to clear the Senate.
The new conservation of Colorado River water by IID would come atop 500,000 acre-feet it has already transferred to urban water districts, said spokesman Robert Schettler. But its historic "preferred, preferential rights" to river water would be preserved, a nonnegotiable condition, IID board members and Martinez said.
Other conditions for IID include state and federal commitments to make up for further damage to the fast-dwindling Salton Sea, and studying impacts and possibly also making payments to impacted rural communities and related businesses, such as fertilizer or trucking companies, that along with farming make up the backbone of rural Imperial County's economy. An estimated $4.9 billion in revenue from agriculture production and processing flowed to the county in 2019, the latest year for which published numbers are available.
Salton Sea hit again
IID also wants to be released from liability for further damage to the Salton Sea, with state and federal agencies and taxpayers potentially left on the hook instead. The sea, California's largest inland water body, is shrinking rapidly since a 2003 multi-agency agreement was implemented that now diverts much of rural Imperial County's Colorado River legal allocation to San Diego and the Coachella Valley instead, sharply reducing the farm runoff that previously kept the sea at higher levels.
Internal modeling by California Natural Resources Agency staff was presented to the Salton Sea Authority last week. A copy of the slides obtained by The Desert Sun shows the impacts of reducing between 250,000 and 350,000 acre-feet of Colorado River imports to the Imperial Valley, and much smaller reductions of up to 25,000 acre-feet to the Coachella Valley, including further exposure of choking, dusty lakebed and even higher levels of salinity in the sea.
Those brine levels, already double the salinity of the Pacific Ocean, led to massive fish die offs that once fed millions of birds annually. California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said this week that state and federal officials and water agency officials are working hard on a separate Salton Sea agreement that would be "nested" inside the state's Colorado River proposal.
Deadlines on drought reduction
In testimony to Congress in June, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told seven states and Mexico to come up with 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of voluntary reductions in 60 days or the federal government would step in and mandate cuts, possibly upending century-old legal agreements.
But late last week, Assistant Interior Secretary Tanya Trujillo told state negotiators in a private call that the deadline is not hard and fast, according to a source who heard her remarks and a second who was briefed on them.
Publicly, the federal government is sticking with the announced deadline. In response to questions from The Desert Sun about whether the deadline had been relaxed, an Interior Department spokesman said: "Assistant Secretary Trujillo, Commissioner Touton, and Department leaders are hard at work with Basin states to release the updated 24-month study and operating conditions for the Colorado River Basin by August 16.”
Each August, Bureau of Reclamation officials release a study predicting how much water will be available from the Colorado River in its two massive reservoirs for the next two years, based on likely precipitation, heat and other factors. Based on those numbers, allocations will be approved for upper basin states from Lake Powell for October 2022 through September 2023, and for Lake Mead for calendar year 2023.
Both Hasenkamp and Martinez said even after August's announcement of likely projected shortages for next year, they would still need several months to iron out legal details and agreements, and for funding to be obtained.
Dead pool in Lake Mead, Lake Powell
While state water officials do not want to anger federal officials or jeopardize their longstanding legal rights to river water, an even greater threat is galvanizing them: the possibility of dead pool, or no water at all.
Dead pool is the point at which levels sink so low in Lake Powell, Lake Mead or both that water can no longer be pumped downriver for households and farms. Equally grim, and likely to happen first, is the possibility of slipping below minimum power pool elevations, at which point hydroelectric power can no longer be created.
The United Nations this week declared ongoing aridification of the two reservoirs — among the largest in the U.S. — an international threat.
"Everyone recognizes we're two average years of rainfall away ... from the reasonable possibility or even probability of both reservoirs reaching dead pool, and nobody gets any water," said Crowfoot, the California Natural Resources Secretary. "We all recognize that voluntary agreements are essential to stabilize the system, and it's everyone's responsibility to shore up the system."
Lake Mead is currently at an unprecedented low of 1,040.8 feet of elevation, just 40 feet from minimum levels for producing power, and 145 feet from dead pool. Upstream, Lake Powell is at 3,536 feet, a scant 46 feet above what's necessary to keep power on, and 66 feet above dead pool.
That sobering backdrop, along with new top leadership at IID, MWD and at the Bureau of Reclamation, have made negotiations less acrimonious than in 2019, officials say, when IID tangled with MWD and federal officials over whether and how much it should contribute to a drought contingency plan. Ultimately, it did not sign on after being boxed out by MWD.
Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada already experienced cuts this year under that plan, and in California, MWD and CVWD could face cuts if the reservoirs hit even lower trigger points next year.
Martinez stressed that any reductions from Imperial County would be "wet" water that would otherwise actually be used, not "paper" water like the banked surplus reserves held by MWD.
He said while it was critical to keep the river flowing, it was also crucial not to create another crisis by taking too much water from farmers.
"When you start cutting back, be careful what you ask for," Martinez said. "IID's water, 97% of that is for agriculture, that's creating food for people, for cattle, you've got dairy and other products being created for many parts of the state and nation. You've got to keep that in mind, and keep listening to the farmers, because ultimately, you don't want to get to the point of creating a food crisis to solve a water crisis."
Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter for The Desert Sun, and co-authors USA Today's Climate Point newsletter. She can be reached at email@example.com or @janetwilson66 on Twitter.