The story of the American West is deeply rooted in the Colorado River, which delivers fresh water to seven thirsty states before crossing the border into Mexico. But every year, 41 million Americans take more water out of the Colorado than nature puts into it.
Now climate disruption is making the situation even more troubling. Californians already know the pain of water conservation; water levels in Lake Mead have dropped so low that they will soon trigger mandatory water cutbacks in Arizona, Nevada and other states that haven’t previously experienced them.
The original Colorado River Compact of 1922 divided the river’s water between California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah. But since then, says ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, the amount of water flowing down the Colorado has dropped from 18 million acre-feet to about twelve and a half million. “When we talk about the share that each of the states get,” says Lustgarten, “they’re dividing from that whole still 90 years later, or whatever we are. And they’ve never adjusted that amount to be sustainable with the amount of water that actually flows into the river.”
A new agreement, negotiated in 2007, was an attempt to deal with that shortfall by readjusting the amount of each state’s allotment. California’s share now stands at 4.4 million acre-feet – which must be further divided throughout the state: irrigating crops in the Imperial Valley and running carwashes in Los Angeles, not to mention supporting countless wildlife species in its streams and deltas.
Helping to maintain a balance between all those stakeholders is the job of the California State Water Resources Control Board.
“We try to not tilt in any particular direction,” says vice-chair Fran Spivy-Weber. “We balance between agriculture, environment and …urban areas as well.”
But that balancing act can be costly, she cautions. “Because if you take water away from someone, in order for them to be whole, they usually have to build something or operate things in a different way.”
One attempt at balancing the scales – and mitigating the water wars – was the Quantification Settlement Agreement of 2003.
“A lot of the impetus was from the federal government at the time to get a water sharing agreement among the parties and to settle disputes,” recalls Kevin Kelley of the Imperial Irrigation District. “And it authorized what became these water transfers that will ultimately transfer up to half a million acre-feet of water from [the central] valley, from our farms and fields, to urban Southern California.”
Under the agreement, some Southern California cities have struck deals with northern farmers to fallow their fields in dry years and redirect their water allocation to thirsty metropolitan areas.
“Not all the time, not every farm, not every farmer – but an exchange of money in exchange for a change in behavior,” Kelley explains. “And those sorts of trade-offs, I think, are part of an increased efficiency that has to happen, that will ultimately happen.”
Lustgarten hosts the Discovery Channel documentary “Killing the Colorado,” which documents the decline of what was once an abundant resource and asks the questions: Did we engineer our way into this crisis? Can we engineer our way out?
“I am more optimistic than pessimistic,” about the outlook, says Lustgarten.
“And the reason gets back to efficiency,” he continues. “There is an enormous amount of water in the Colorado River system…there is the opportunity to save water in the ways we're talking about earlier.”
Revisiting laws surrounding water rights and usage is imperative, however, if Californians hope to ride out the drought.
“Those are very difficult kinds of issues,” Lustgarten acknowledges. “But if you can do that, if you can handle them…there's a lot of water to go around, if it were used more efficiently and distributed more equitably.”