SACRAMENTO, Calif. – 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 region had high priority water rights, meaning its access to water was difficult for anyone to take away.
“He had in mind 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 provides many winter vegetables and livestock feeds, has one of the strongest water grips on the Colorado River, a critical but overstretched supply for farms and towns in the West. In times of scarcity, Arizona and Nevada must first reduce their water consumption.
But even California, the nation’s most populous state with 39 million people, could be forced to give up something in the coming years as hotter, drier weather brings down major reservoirs of the river at dangerously low levels. If the river were to become unusable, Southern California would lose a third of its water supply. And vast tracts of farmland in the state’s southeastern desert would no longer be planted.
“Without it, the Imperial Valley is closed,” said JB Hamby, board member of the Imperial Irrigation District, which owns the rights to most of the Colorado River water.
A century ago, California and six other states – Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – created a pact that divided the water of the Colorado River into two basins and set rules on how much water each state would get. A series of subsequent agreements, laws and court cases led to California getting the most water – and making it the last to lose in times of scarcity.
Fear and frustration over California’s use of the river drove the pact from its inception. In Western water law, the first person to tap the source gets the highest right, and California cities and farmers have depended on the river for more than a century.
Other western states feared that California would claim all of the river’s water before their own populations increased. The pact and subsequent agreements attempted to strike a balance to protect California’s supply while ensuring that other states also got it. California, meanwhile, benefited when the federal government began building the Hoover Dam to help control the flow of the river.
Now, states are preparing for a 2026 deadline to renegotiate some of the terms to better deal with drought and protect two major reservoirs: Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Before that, the US Bureau of Reclamation asked states to find a way to reduce their usage by about 15-30% to avoid a crisis. The states missed a mid-August deadline to reach an agreement, but negotiations are continuing.
All eyes are on California and its major water rights holders, the Imperial Irrigation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, 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 cooperation means they can avoid challenging their superior rights.
But they play timidly on what exactly they are willing to give.
The river is the only water supply to the Imperial Irrigation District, whose farmers grow broccoli, onions, carrots, and other winter vegetables as well as alfalfa and other raw materials. The limited water below ground in the area, near California’s border with Arizona and Mexico, is unusable, and it does not have access to state water supplies.
The irrigation district has always been entitled to more water than either Arizona or Nevada, though it has given up some of it over the years in exchange for payments from cities like San Diego and Los Angeles. In 2019, its board of directors rejected a drought emergency plan signed by other water users in Arizona, Nevada and California.
This time, officials said the district would be willing to leave fields unplanted to save water on a temporary and emergency basis. But they won’t say how much.
State officials are looking to the $4 billion approved by Congress for the Colorado River as a possible source of money to pay the district, and in turn, farmers, to use less water. water.
Farmers are trying to organize to avoid having cuts imposed on them, Cox said. Many have installed drip irrigation lines that use less water, but would be willing to adopt more conservation tactics if aid allowed.
Cox said he is deciding whether or not to plant all of his vegetable fields this fall because he is getting less water than normal under a new system adopted by the council.
“With the uncertainty of water, there will be more uncertainty about the food supply,” he said.
Farmers aren’t the only ones who depend on water from the Imperial Irrigation District. Runoff from farms feeds the Salton Sea, a huge inland lake created in the early 1900s when the Colorado River was flooded. It is now drying up rapidly, exposing surrounding communities to toxic dust and killing the habitat that birds and fish depend on. The state and federal government are looking for other ways to support the sea in the absence of river water, and it is considered a possible site for lithium mining.
“We are talking about a body of water that has been surrounded by communities that have been marginalized for so long [long]who don’t have the infrastructure or the ability to protect themselves from climate change, less water availability, more dust,” said Silvia Paz, executive director of Alianza Coachella Valley, an organization that fights to improve the economy and health outcomes in the region.
Behind the Irrigation District, the Metropolitan Water District is the second largest user of river water in the state. Colorado accounts for about one-third of the district’s water supply, which 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 depend on water from the river. It is allowed to store some of the water it does not use in Lake Mead, which California officials say has helped avert a river crisis in recent years. But this year, short of other supplies, the district could try to withdraw some of that water if needed, which would likely cause friction with other states.
“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 are dried up, and California not taking a drop off the cuts.”