SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — When Don Cox was looking for a reliable place to build a family farm in the 1950s, he settled in California’s Imperial Valley.
The desert area had high-priority water rights, meaning that access to water was difficult for everyone to take away.
“He felt that water rights were very, very important,” said his grandson, Thomas Cox, who now farms in the Valley.
He was right. Today, the Imperial Valley, which supplies much of the country’s winter vegetables and fodder, has one of the strongest grips on water from the Colorado River, a critical but overused supply for farms and cities in the west. In times of scarcity, Arizona and Nevada must cut first.
But even California, the country’s most populous state of 39 million, may be forced to give up something in the coming years, as hotter and drier weather causes the river’s major reservoirs to plummet to dangerously low levels. If the river became unusable, Southern California would lose a third of its water supply and vast tracts of farmland in the state’s southeastern desert would be left unplanted.
“Without it, the Imperial Valley will stop,” said JB Hamby, a board member of the Imperial Irrigation District, which has the rights to most of the Colorado River’s water.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River as the 100th anniversary of the historic Colorado River Compact approaches. The Associated Press, The Colorado Sun, The Albuquerque Journal, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Arizona Daily Star and The Nevada Independent are teaming up to examine pressures on the river in 2022.
A century ago, California and six other states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — created a compact that split the water into two basins and set rules for how much water each would get. A series of deals, laws, and lawsuits that followed resulted in California getting the most water and losing it last in times of scarcity.
Fear and frustration about using the river in California have driven the compact since its early days. In the Western water law, the first person to touch the well gets the highest right, and California towns and farmers have relied on the river for more than a century.
Other western states feared California would claim all of the river’s water before their own population grew. The agreement, and the series of deals that followed, sought to strike a balance to protect California’s supply and ensure that other states got some too. California, meanwhile, took advantage of the federal government beginning construction of the Hoover Dam to control the river’s flow.
Today, states are gearing up for a 2026 deadline to renegotiate some terms to better manage drought and protect two major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. But before that, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has required states to find a way to reduce their use by about 15% to 30% to avert a crisis. States did not meet the mid-August deadline to reach an agreement, but negotiations continue and no new date for an agreement has been set.
All eyes are on California and its major water rights holders — namely the Imperial Irrigation District and Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District — to see if they will give up some of their share. Both districts say they are willing to use less water or pay others to do so, especially if they can work together to prevent their seniors’ rights from being compromised.
But they play coy about what exactly they want to give.
The river is the only water supply for the Imperial Irrigation District, where farmers grow broccoli, onions, carrots and other winter vegetables, as well as alfalfa and other raw materials. The limited water underground in the region, near California’s border with Arizona and Mexico, is unusable and has no access to state water supplies.
The irrigation district has historically been entitled to more water than Arizona or Nevada, though it has given up some over the years in exchange for payment from cities like San Diego and Los Angeles. In 2019, the board rejected a drought emergency plan signed by other water users in Arizona, Nevada and California.
This time, officials say the district is open to leaving fields unplanted to temporarily conserve water. But neither Hamby nor board spokesmen would say how much.
State officials are looking to the $4 billion approved by Congress for the Colorado River as a potential source of money that can be used to pay for the district and, in turn, farmers to use less water.
The farmers are not familiar with all of the district’s bargaining tactics, but are trying to organize among themselves to avoid being forced upon them, Cox said. Many farmers have already installed drip irrigation lines that use less water, but they would be willing to adopt more conservation tactics if they were paid to do so.
Cox said he is making decisions about whether or not to plant all of his vegetable fields this fall because he is getting less water than usual under a new system adopted by the board.
“With water insecurity, there will be more uncertainty about the food supply,” he said.
And it’s not just farmers who depend on the Imperial Irrigation District’s water. Runoff from the farms feeds the Salton Sea, a huge inland lake created in the early 1900s when the Colorado River overflowed. It is now drying up quickly, exposing surrounding communities to toxic dust and destroying the habitat that birds and fish depend on. The state and federal government are now looking for other ways to support the sea in the absence of river water, and it is seen as a potential site for lithium mining.
“We’re talking about a body of water surrounded by communities that have been marginalized for so (long) time, that don’t have the infrastructure or capacity to protect themselves from climate change, from less water availability, from more dust,” said Silvia Paz, executive director from Alianza Coachella Valley, an organization fighting to improve the region’s economy and health outcomes.
Behind the irrigation district, the Metropolitan Water District is the second largest user of the river water. The Colorado makes up about one-third of the water supply the district uses to provide water for drinking, bathing, landscaping, and recreation for about half of the state’s population. Los Angeles County, the largest in the country, is one of many areas in Southern California that depends on the river’s waters.
It is allowed to store some of the water it doesn’t use in Lake Mead, which California officials say has helped avert a river crisis in recent years. But this year, in the absence of other supplies, the district may even attempt to extract some of that water as needed, a move that would likely create friction with other states in the watershed.
The district also receives water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the state’s primary source of water supply. But the Delta is also suffering from drought, and the state only approved 5% of the requested supplies this year. To stabilize its water supply going forward, the district is spending billions on a water recycling facility and urging people to use less water for their lawns.
Still, making sure the Colorado River is available in dry years when other supplies are unavailable is the district’s priority, said Bill Hasencamp, the district’s Colorado River manager.
Wetland water districts in the Coachella Valley and Riverside County also receive Colorado River water, which they use for crops such as citrus, melons and barley. The Fort Mojave Indian Reservation and Colorado River Indian Reservation are among the tribes in California with river rights.
As we look to the future, both climate change and politics come into play as California’s water users debate what it takes to keep the river alive.
“What they really want is reliability and predictability,” said Michael Cohen, a Colorado River expert at the Pacific Institute. “What they don’t want is Arizona screaming that Phoenix and Tucson have dried up and California isn’t getting a drop of discount.”
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