Bloomberg Law
Feb. 1, 2023, 4:40 PMUpdated: Feb. 3, 2023, 10:12 PM

California Water Plan Sets Up Colorado River Conflict (Correct)

Bobby Magill
Bobby Magill

California proposed its own plan for Colorado River cuts late Tuesday, setting up a possible conflict with the river basin’s six other states a day after they submitted a consensus plan for water conservation amid the West’s 23-year drought.

The California plan increases water cutbacks from Lake Mead if reservoir elevations decline and aims to prioritize water supplies for human health and safety. It says the six-states proposal violates the law of the Colorado River.

The state said it attempted to work with the six upstream states on a solution to the water shortage, but they couldn’t reach a consensus “despite numerous meetings and intensive good-faith efforts.” California’s proposal says it makes an attempt to “uphold the Law of the River” while making voluntary water use reductions beyond what’s legally necessary.

“California has done its part and is willing to do more, but it’s time for the other states to step up and create their own conservation programs that sustain the quality of life in their communities,” Jim Madaffer, vice chair of the Colorado River Board of California, said in a statement.

Rebecca Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the six-states alternative is better because it would protect the Colorado River’s dams in a more balanced way.

“We are encouraged that there does appear to be recognition across the Basin of the need for much greater actions in the Lower Basin to address the long-term imbalance between supply and demand downstream of Lake Mead,” Mitchell said, referring to both the California and six-states proposals.

Representatives of the other five upstream states either declined to comment or didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

California submitted its proposal to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation as the agency considers how to protect the hydropower stations at Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams on the Colorado River, which provides water to 40 million people from Denver to Los Angeles.

The bureau in December asked the seven Colorado River Basin states—California, Nevada, and Arizona in the Lower Basin, and Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico in the Upper Basin—to submit a plan by the end of January to cut water use from the river through 2024 to protect Glen Canyon and Hoover dams from declining reservoir levels.

If a bureau-approved consensus isn’t reached, bureau officials said they will consider mandating water cuts—a move the states are trying hard to avoid.

No Clear Resolution

The bureau didn’t answer questions Wednesday about how it would resolve the conflicting plans, but said that states complied with the agency’s request to submit their plans by the deadline.

“This collaborative supplemental process is our strongest immediate tool to help improve and protect the short-term sustainability of the Colorado River System by empowering the Bureau of Reclamation with additional alternatives and tools needed to address the likelihood of continued low-runoff conditions across the Basin over the next two years,” Interior Department spokesman Tyler Cherry said in a statement.

The bureau is updating 2007 interim drought contingency guidelines for Colorado River operations before they expire at the end of 2025 in order to conserve water and protect the dams as the drought wears on.

Reservoir levels in lakes Mead and Powell have recently dropped to historically low levels, forcing the bureau to cut downstream water deliveries and call for states to cut water use by up to 4 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is the equivalent of one acre flooded by one foot of water.

California’s plan “provides a realistic and implementable framework to address reduced inflows and declining reservoir elevations by building on voluntary agreements and past collaborative efforts in order to minimize the risk of legal challenge or implementation delay,” the proposal says.

Salton Sea

The bureau’s draft environmental review of possible water cuts plans will be published this spring with a final version and decision to come over the summer, the bureau said.

The impact of the decision to cut water use from the river could be wide-ranging, hurting farmers and affecting air quality in southern California’s Imperial Valley.

Dust from the bed of the receding river-dependent Salton Sea affects air quality and can harm public health in communities around the sea if water supplies to the Imperial Irrigation District are further reduced, said Alene Taber, counsel for Hanson Bridgett LLP in Los Angeles.

“This is an environmental justice community,” said Taber, who previously represented Imperial County and the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District. “If the Bureau of Reclamation gets involved, then I think they’re really going to slash what goes to Imperial Irrigation District.”

(Corrects Alene Taber's previous affiliation as counsel for Imperial County and Imperial County Air Pollution Control District in final paragraph. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Renee Schoof at