What the Colorado River Deal Means for California

Finally, a deal.

After a standoff that lasted months over how to keep the depleted Colorado River from running completely dry, an agreement was announced on Monday: California, Arizona and Nevada will each take less water from the river, which supplies drinking water to 40 million Americans, irrigates 5.5 million acres of farmland and helps power millions of homes and businesses.

In recent years, the flow of the Colorado River has shrunk by one-third from its historical average because of drought, population growth and climate change. One expert called the diminishing water supply in the Colorado Basin a “slow-motion disaster.”

To avoid catastrophe, the Biden administration told the seven Western states that rely on the river — California, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah — to come up with a collective plan by Jan. 31 to reduce the amount of water they drew from the Colorado. But the states blew past that deadline.

The federal government responded by threatening to make cuts unilaterally, but the deal announced this week should prevent that.

“The charitable account is that water negotiations are complicated, and states needed time to reach an agreement they could live with,” said my colleague Christopher Flavelle, who reported on the deal. “It’s also possible that states were unable or unwilling to commit to significant reductions in water use until they feared the federal government might otherwise impose cuts on them — a point that was fast approaching.”

Under the new agreement, most of the reductions would be made by water districts, farm operators, cities and Native American tribes in California, Nevada and Arizona, which would take less water from the river in exchange for $1.2 billion in federal grants. The three states, which receive their share of the river’s water from Lake Mead, the reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam, also agreed to make additional cuts that were not tied to payments.

Overall, the reductions called for in the deal would save about three million acre-feet of water from now through 2026 — enough to supply six million to nine million households for a year. The deal still has to be approved by the federal government, and it remains unclear how the cuts would be shared among the states.

California has typically received the largest allocation of water from the river, and we don’t yet know how the pain will be spread among residential and agricultural areas in the state. Southern California is immensely reliant on the Colorado River, which supplies irrigation water for Imperial County and drinking water for Los Angeles, San Diego and other cities.

California is in a relatively good position this year to absorb cuts, because our extremely wet winter left behind an unusually large snowpack in the mountains. But deciding what to do after the plan expires in 2026 will be far more difficult, because the odds of such a wet winter recurring are so slim, Christopher told me.

Negotiations over what to do after 2026 are set to begin next month.

For more:

Today’s tip comes from Margie Shamonsky, who recommends Death Valley National Park:

“Fascinating geology, great camping, unique and interesting history, huge variety of elevation and ecologic zones, excellent rock and fossil hunting, long quiet drives through huge open spaces, magical lighting and awesome stars at night.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Patrick Coyne, a photographer from Torrance, has spent years searching for bioluminescent waves in Southern California, The East Bay Times reports.

Early Friday morning at the Manhattan Beach Pier, Coyne captured the glowing, electric blue waves for the first time since 2020. “I’m thrilled it’s back,” he wrote about the phenomenon in an Instagram caption accompanying a video of the stunning, iridescent water.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Johnna Margalotti and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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