SCGA Public Affairs

Colorado Basin:  What’s Going On?

Friday, April 14, 2023

A glance at the front page of Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times tells you all you need to know about where California stands with respect to water.


The lead headline was “Deep snow adds months of flood risk.” The headline just below and to its side was “Water cuts: Varied or uniform?”

To live in Southern California, indeed, to live almost anywhere in the vast expanse of the American Southwest, is to understand how it is possible to face flood and drought at the same time. The winter rains may have been torrential – 31 atmospheric rivers in all – and the Sierra snowpack may be at record levels, but the Colorado Basin that supplies Southern California’s second major source of imports remains in the throes of a dry period unequaled in 1,500 years. And that is why the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation took the moment Tuesday to apply pressure to the three (3) states of the Lower Colorado Basin, the “Reclamation” states of Nevada, Arizona, and California, to come to some sort of negotiated agreement to cede as much as 2 million acre-feet of water between now and 2026, when all seven states in the Colorado Compact are going to be asked to negotiate as much as 4 million acre-feet of permanent givebacks to bring their collective allocations in sync with the River’s volumetric production.

The Bureau, very much in sync with the Biden White House, applied pressure by countering the options put forward in late January by six (6) of the seven (7) states on one hand and California on the other by offering three (3) “options” that provide a more focused framework for moving forward. There are really only two options, given that one of them is the standard do nothing scenario.

Under one of the two (2) do something options, the federal government would commandeer the Secretary of the Interior’s authority under “emergency conditions to provide for human health and safety” by issuing across-the-board cuts in equal percentages for both senior and junior rights holders that would amount to roughly 13% cuts in addition to the cuts agreed to by the three lower basin states (Nevada, Arizona, and California) back in 2019. Given that California is the holder of the most senior of the senior rights associated directly with the myriad covenants and actions that taken together have come to be called the “law of the river,” this option would prove disproportionately impactful on California, particularly its agricultural sector.

Under the other of the do something options, the federal government would issue cuts based upon the existing rights and priorities under the “law of the river,” which would mean minimal or even no cuts for California and devastating cuts for Nevada and Arizona, particularly Arizona, as the aqueduct that brings drinking water to Phoenix and Tucson would likely be cut back to near zero.

The across-the-board in equal amounts approach would no doubt cause California to litigate and at minimum cause undue harm through delay if nothing else. The senior rights approach would put Arizona out of business. The first option foolish; the second option unacceptable.

So, what’s going on? Only the Department of the Interior, its Bureau of Reclamation, and the Biden White House know for sure, but all the smart money is on the following: The federal government is making clear that it behooves California and the other six states to negotiate an acceptable compromise between a slavish adherence to an allocation formula inconsistent with what Mother Nature’s provision and a solution that vitiates all the prior agreements and arrangements upon which California in particular reasonably relied to create a water delivery infrastructure capable of supporting 40 million persons and the 5th largest economy in the world.

There is a political wrinkle in here to consider. As numerous pundits, politicos, and the New York Times have pointed out, Nevada and Arizona are very tight swing states with Senate seats up for election in 2024 that are held in one case by an incumbent Democrat and in the other an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats and with Electoral Votes in play that were in President Biden’s column by very slender margins in 2020. Given California’s politics, there is no political downside to being rhetorically tough on California at the expense of Arizona and Nevada.

Bottom line for golf in Central and Southern California: While coping with the floods sure to come, prepare to begin coming to terms with the fact that one of the major sources of imported water is almost certain to be curtailed, first temporarily and then permanently. This will mean different things in different places. Such is always the case with water – it’s always about local conditions and supplies. But it will mean something in almost every place that now imports water from the Colorado River. And that means that in each one of those places the golf community needs to either remain engaged, or in many cases get engaged, with its local retailer and the City or Special District that oversees it to anticipate and then cope with that meaning.

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