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In Rapidly Warming Colorado River Basin, The Negotiating Table Is Being Set

Anyone who has hosted a good dinner party knows that the guest list, table setting and topic of conversation play a big role in determining whether the night is a hit or the guests leave angry and unsatisfied.

That concept is about to get a true test on the Colorado River, where chairs are being pulled up to a negotiating table to start a new round of talks that could define how the river system adapts to a changing climate for the next generation.

Arizona Changes ‘Use It or Lose It’ Water Law

A change in Arizona water law will let farmers and ranchers conserve water without worrying about losing their rights to it in the future.

Like most western states, Arizona water rights are “use it or lose it,” meaning that if farmers or ranchers don’t use their full amount for a certain number of years they risk forfeiting their rights forever. Kim Mitchell, senior water policy advisor with Western Resource Advocates, said that disincentivizes conservation at a time when we increasingly need more of it.

“We’re on the heels of 20 years of drought and now we have these recent commitments to divert less water from the Colorado River. And annual flow in many of our water courses have been decreasing with climate change and the drought that continues to grip the region,” Mitchell said.

Colorado River Study Means It’s Time to Cut Water Use Now, Outside Experts Say

Less water for the Central Arizona Project — but not zero water. Even more competition between farms and cities for dwindling Colorado River supplies than there is now.

More urgency to cut water use rather than wait for seven river basin states to approve new guidelines in 2025 for operating the river’s reservoirs.

That’s where Arizona and the Southwest are heading with water, say experts and environmental advocates following publication of a dire new academic study on the Colorado River’s future. The study warned that the river’s Upper and Lower basin states must sustain severe cuts in river water use to keep its reservoir system from collapsing due to lack of water.

That’s due to continued warming weather and other symptoms of human-caused climate change, the study said.

Opinion: An Independent Colorado River Aqueduct Could Be a Money Saver for San Diego

There’s an old saying that those who don’t remember history are destined to repeat it.

And that certainly holds true when it comes to securing water for this semi-arid place we call home. Those who have been around here since the early 1990s remember when we relied on a single Los Angeles-based water agency to meet almost all of our water needs — and we paid for it with traumatic supply cuts that crippled our economy.

Thankfully, three decades of regional investments have changed San Diego’s story for the better. Planning and investments by the San Diego County Water Authority and our 24 local retail member agencies have produced and will continue to ensure one of the most reliable water supplies in California.

Water Agencies Disagree on How Much Water San Diego Needs

The San Diego Water Authority thinks the region is going to need way more water over the next few decades, but the smaller agencies that buy water from them aren’t so sure.

Water Authority Exploring New Aqueduct Plan

Addressing the San Diego region’s limited local water supplies with innovative ideas is something the San Diego County Water Authority has become known for. Using expertise gained from decades of successful planning and projects, the Water Authority is developing strategies to reduce the future cost of water that sustains the economy and quality of life across the county.

Opinion: Debate Begins Over $5 Billion Water Proposal for San Diego

Over two decades, I’ve watched opponents resist San Vicente Dam, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, Olivenhain Reservoir, San Diego Pure Water and other projects because they refused a meaningful, fact-based dialogue. Thankfully, in each of those cases, a rational, long-term approach to securing our future prevailed.

The Colorado River Crisis is a National Crisis

The Colorado River supports over 40 million people spread across seven southwestern states, 29 tribal nations, and Mexico. It’s responsible for the irrigation of roughly 5.5 million acres of land marked for agricultural use. Local and regional headlines show the river is in crisis. The nation mostly isn’t listening.

Precipitation-Snowpack Survey-Sierra Nevada-DWR

Precipitation Below Average in California

Precipitation is below average in California for the current water year. Despite recent storms that increased the statewide Sierra Nevada snowpack to 70% of average to date, the state is experiencing its second consecutive below average year for rain and snow. The water year starts on October 1 and ends September 30.

The Department of Water Resources Feb. 3 conducted the second manual snow survey of the season at Phillips Station. The manual survey recorded 63 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent, or SWE, of 17 inches, which is 93% of average for that location, according to the DWR. The SWE measures the amount of water contained in the snowpack and is a key component of DWR’s water supply forecast.

“The recent blast of winter weather was a welcome sight, but it was not enough to offset this winter’s dry start,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “While there is still a chance we will see additional storms in the coming weeks, the Department and other state agencies are preparing for the potential for a second consecutive year of dry conditions.”

 La Niña-Sierra Nevada-snowpack-climate-snow survey

Below normal precipitation is favored throughout most of the southern tier of the United States in late February to early March, according to the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center. La Niña conditions remain over the Pacific Ocean.

Precipitation below normal

Statewide snow survey measurements reflect those dry conditions. Measurements from DWR’s electronic snow survey stations indicate that statewide the snowpack’s SWE is 12.5 inches, or 70% of the February 3 average, and 45% of the April 1 average. April 1 is typically when California’s snowpack is the deepest and has the highest SWE.

“The recent atmospheric storms have brought rain and snow to the northern Sierra Nevada, but conditions are still well below normal,” said Goldy Herbon, San Diego County Water Authority senior resources specialist.

Following last year’s below average water year, northern California is now experiencing its second straight water year of below average precipitation.

Colorado River Basin

Another source of the state’s water supply, the Colorado River Basin, isn’t faring much better. The water year 2021 precipitation at the end of January for the Colorado River Basin is 66% of normal, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Precipitation totals to date are behind historical averages for two of the main sources of San Diego County’s supply, with two months to go in the winter season but, a couple of atmospheric rivers can change that quickly.

“The San Diego region will have a plentiful and reliable source of water due to actions taken by the Water Authority and its 24 member agencies to diversify the water supply,” said Herbon. “Continuing efforts to expand supply sources, including desalination, water reuse, and recycling, will ensure that the water needs are met for the region’s 3.3 million people and its $245 billion economy.”

Fall 2020 was extremely dry, especially in the Sierra Nevada, and follows last year’s below-average snow and precipitation, according to the DWR. With only a couple months remaining in California’s traditional wet season, DWR officials say Californians should look at ways to reduce water use at home.

snowpack-reservoirs-Snow survey

Statewide Sierra Nevada snowpack is 71% of average for February 4, 2021. Graphic: California Department of Water Resources

Opinion: Drain Lake Powell, Not Colorado Farms

Experts agree the amount of water in the Colorado River basin has declined because of drought and climate change, and that population growth is fueling demand for water higher and higher. One result is the level of Lake Powell in Arizona, behind Glen Canyon Dam, has steadily declined and is now at 43% of capacity.