6 western states agreed on a plan to make major cuts to water usage from the shrinking Colorado River, but California — the largest user of them all — wouldn't get on board

Colorado River. Low water level strip on cliff at lake Mead, taken from the Hoover Dam at Nevada and Arizona border.
Colorado River. Low water level strip on cliff at lake Mead, taken from the Hoover Dam at Nevada and Arizona border.Getty Images
  • The federal government has called on western states to come to agreement on water cuts.

  • California couldn't come to an agreement with six other states on the Colorado River.

  • The proposed cuts come as decades of drought have dwindled water supplies relied on by millions.

Western states failed to come to an agreement this week on how to cut water usage from the Colorado River, even as the waterway is drying up and failing to replenish the water supplies that cities, farms, and millions of people rely on.

Well, six of the seven states that are part of the Colorado River basin did come to an agreement, but California — the largest user of water from the river — wouldn't get on board.

The six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — submitted their proposal for water cuts on Monday, after all of the states missed a deadline in August per a request from the US Bureau of Reclamation. The new deadline asked the states to propose a plan by the end of January that would cut water usage from the river by 15 to 30%.

But after failing to sign on that plan, California submitted its own proposal on Tuesday.

"Both proposals recognize that something major needs to be done," Sharon B. Megdal, the director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona, told Insider, adding: "We need a total readjustment or a total recalibration of what we're doing."

"They at least put things down on paper, which is a lot better than not having anything to go off of," she said of the dueling proposals.

Both plans propose major cuts, though differ in how, when, and from where those cuts would be made. According to Jeff Fleck, a professor at the University of New Mexico and an expert in the Colorado River, both proposals get to the same place over time, but the difference is "in timing."

"California's cuts don't kick in until later – essentially a gamble on good hydrology once again helping us avoid conflict by letting us use more water in the short term," Fleck wrote in an analysis of the proposals shared on his blog, adding "the six-state proposal says 'go big'" when Lake Mead drops beneath a certain level that would be sooner than under California's plan.

"The six-state proposal yanks the bandaid off now," he added.

The proposals also differ in how the cuts would be allocated

California, which has the largest allocation of Colorado River water, also has senior rights that allow it to be one of the last states to cut when there is a shortage.

"The strongest thing that the other basin states have going for them is some relative level of consensus. And the strongest thing California has going for it is the law," Rhett Larson, a professor of water law at Arizona State University, told the Los Angeles Times.

Still, despite failing to come to an agreement by the federal government's deadline, the states may still ultimately agree on a plan, and state officials have said they are all continuing to cooperate.

"I don't view not having unanimity at one step in that process to be a failure," John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told the Associated Press. "I think all seven states are still committed to working together."

If the states cannot come to an agreement on their own, that may require the federal government to step in, which raises the risk of court battles, dragging out a situation where "time is of the essence," Megdal said, adding "going to court does not create water."

She also emphasized the significance of having these written proposals, which could be used to build on and help reach consensus, but said most importantly every states appears willing to make major water cuts. The harder part may even come after an agreement on cuts is made, when states have to determine how all the various water users — municipal, agricultural, industrial, tribal — will be impacted.

"The challenge is that we need to get back to balance in relation to water usage and what the system is producing," she said. "We've been living on borrowed water."

Megdal explained that many states have been relying on water from reservoirs fed by the Colorado River, like Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which have reached historic lows after decades of drought and climate change impacts.

"That storage isn't being replenished," she said. "We need to get into balance with what nature is providing us."

Have a news tip? Contact this reporter at kvlamis@insider.com.

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