California says it’s committed to cutting 9% of its water use from the drought-stricken Colorado River. For months, the seven states that rely on the river have been debating how to reduce their water use — because the river is nearing critically-low levels.
The dispute turned bitter this week when all the other states released a plan that was rejected by California officials, who say the Golden State has senior water rights under a century-old legal compact, and the states with junior rights should make most of the cuts first.
“California's proposal is really focused around making voluntary cuts. … California has the highest priority of the lower basin states, which also include Arizona and Nevada. And they also have the highest water use,” says Elizabeth A. Koebele, associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. “And so under our system of water governance, which relies on this seniority, California is the most shielded from cuts. So California said that they would take voluntary cuts to the tune of 400,000 acre feet a year for the next three years.”
She adds, “All of the lower basin states know that cuts are going to be inevitable. It's really just how we distribute them among the states. And some of the states have a consensus and a cooperative approach. And California is really relying on its legal rights.”
Koebele notes that 80% of the water in the entire Colorado River basin goes to agriculture, so it’s important to look at which crops have the highest value, and significantly conserve water on farms in the future.