It comes down to seniority, says California about Colorado River

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January 31, 2023 – Meeting today’s deadline for proposals to cut Colorado River withdrawals, six of the seven basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the upper basin and Arizona and Nevada in the lower basin — submitted a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation yesterday.  The lone holdout was California.

Shortages in the system have been caused by drought and overuse. The Colorado River is a vital source of water for approximately 40 million people and is captured at Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam to generate hydropower.

Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative.

The six western states submitted a “consensus based modeling alternativeOpens in a new tab.” to the Bureau of Reclamation.  The proposal’s summary sates:

While the Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative is not a formal agreement between the Colorado River Basin States, it serves as an alternative framework for Reclamation to analyze in its SEIS (Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement) process. It provides an approach to help protect Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam infrastructure, water deliveries, and power production to mitigate the risk of either Lake Powell or Lake Mead reaching dead pool. The Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative includes, but is not limited to, the following modeling criteria for Reclamation to consider and analyze:

  • Adjustments to the existing ‘07 Guidelines, including reduced releases from Lake Powell and Lake Mead to ensure the deliverability of water downstream and power production.
  • Adjustments to Lower Basin contributions required under Drought Contingency Plan.
  • Accounting for more than 1.5 million acre-feet of losses within the Lower Basin that are necessary to protect infrastructure.
  • Additional combined reductions of 250,000 acre-feet to Arizona, California and Nevada at Lake Mead elevation 1,030 feet and below.
  • Additional combined reductions of 200,000 acre-feet to Arizona, California and Nevada at Lake Mead elevation 1,020 feet and below, as well as additional reductions necessary to protect Lake Mead elevation 1,000 feet.
  • Actions outlined within the Upper Basin State’s Drought Response Operations Agreement.
  • Additional voluntary conservation measures that take into account hydrologic shortage in the Upper Division States.

The full consensus based modeling alternative is available here.Opens in a new tab.

Senior Water Rights and Spreading the Burden.

The Bureau of Reclamation recommended last August that the states figure out how to cut 2-4 million acre-feet of water from the river.  In the plan envisioned by the six states, “the maximum amount of basin-wide cuts  is 3.1 million acre feet per year,” accounting for water conservation and evaporation.  The plan would, if approved, “kick in if reservoir levels fall to catastrophically low condition,” according to a report published on Colorado’s KRDN news.

California has senior water rights, as documented in the long-running U.S. Supreme Court case, Arizona v. CaliforniaOpens in a new tab..  In laymen’s terms, senior rights are “first in time, first in right” so long as the right was not abandoned or forfeited.  This makes sense.  Imagine your family settled in a valley with good farming soil in the 1800s and put tremendous effort into building an irrigation ditch from a nearby river to irrigate that soil.  Your family depended on the farm throughout the generations but as time went on, more and more people settled upstream and started taking water out of the river to the point that you could no longer operate the farm.  Because your family property was using the water first, you could sue to stop the upstream people from taking your water supply.

The Colorado Sun Opens in a new tab.reports:

Tina Shields, water manager for California’s Imperial Irrigation District — the single-largest user of Colorado River water — declined to comment Monday on the basin-wide discussions. But she said any multi-state agreement must be legally defensible.

“Frankly, that’s what the priority system was set up for … to make long-term planning decisions,” Shields said. “We have done so in California and looking to solve a larger Colorado River drought by pointing at those with senior water rights isn’t fair.”

In what is sure to be litigated, the six states say that the burden needs to be shared by all the states, including California, to address the shortfalls on the river.  Arizona has already been hit hard by the last federal water shortage declaration.  Its Rep. Greg Stanton (D)Opens in a new tab. released a press release yesterday, stating:

The depletion of the Colorado River is a slow-moving natural disaster—one that threatens the livelihoods of 40 million people across seven basin states. Saving it will require collaboration, compromise and some tough tradeoffs.

In that spirit, six of the seven basin states have come together on a modeling proposal for the Bureau of Reclamation to consider as it looks to make the necessary cuts to save the Colorado. This model is the result of months of challenging work and weighs every river user’s best interests, and I strongly encourage the Bureau of Reclamation to include this alternative in its review.

The Bureau’s deadlines for the basin states to reach agreement have come and gone with no action from the federal government. While many of the states have worked together to reach an agreement that works for everyone, California refuses to do its part—and in some parts of the state is using more water, not less. The Bureau of Reclamation must take action on this consensus-driven proposal. We cannot wait any longer.

Stanton sharply criticized California’s increased water usage in a June 2022 letter to the Commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation, following reports in the Los Angeles Times that California’s Colorado River region had actually increased water usage by nearly 41 percent in April 2022 compared to April 2020. [LINKOpens in a new tab.] In September 2022, Stanton appealed directly to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, calling on the state to help shoulder the necessary water cuts to prevent the Colorado River system from reaching deadpool. [LINKOpens in a new tab.]


Since 1995, Deborah has owned and operated LegalTech LLC with a focus on water rights. Before moving to Arizona in 1986, she worked as a quality control analyst for Honeywell and in commercial real estate, both in Texas. She learned about Arizona's water rights from the late and great attorney Michael Brophy of Ryley, Carlock & Applewhite. Her side interests are writing (and reading), Wordpress programming and much more.

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