Deadline after deadline has passed, but the seven states that draw their water from the Colorado River system have yet to agree on the cuts required to save the fast-shrinking river. Despite a short reprieve delivered by this year’s unusually wet winter, the river is still heavily over-allocated. Climate change and aridification guarantee that the problem won’t resolve itself. The federal government has asked for a cut of up to 30 percent in water use as the river approaches “dead pool”—water levels too low to flow downstream from the reservoirs at the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams. Reaching dead pool would threaten the water and electricity supply of California, Nevada, Arizona, and several Indian reservations.
While both Upper and Lower Basin states have been involved in the negotiations, the Biden administration has the power to impose cuts only on the three Lower Basin states, which draw their water from the reservoirs rather than directly from the river. The administration’s preliminary recommendations propose various alternatives for how the water could be divided. One option would be to prioritize senior water rights, protecting California agriculture at the expense of Nevada and Arizona residents, who would receive almost no water after California had taken its share. Another option would be to impose more uniform cuts across all three states. Overriding senior water rights would invite lawsuits and raise prices on the quarter of the nation’s food that comes from the region, as well as for all the dairy and meat from cows fed by the alfalfa grown there. But the administration has signaled its willingness to set aside longstanding rights to ensure that tribes and residents in the other states have access to clean water—a more urgent need than granting virtually limitless water to mega-farmers to grow whatever thirsty crops maximize their profits.