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Can the Colorado River be saved without cutting Calif.’s cord?

Where will all that water go when it melts?

Todd Fitchette

March 6, 2023

2 Min Read
Brave new water management decisions will need to be made to avoid the catastrophic drying of the Colorado River and the loss of communities downstream from Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border.Todd Fitchette

This winter will be one for the record-books in California. It looks like the winter I spent playing on 40-feet of snow in Mammoth Lakes in the mid-1990s will be topped by this year’s epic snowfall. So where will all that water go when it melts?

Living in Bishop at the time, we had flooding in August as the runoff came off the mountains and made it to the Owens River – or as some might call it: the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Here’s my thought on this. Follow along.

Los Angeles gets much of its water from the Sierra Nevada and runoff in various places in California. Yes, it gets water too from the State Water Project, but the mismanagement of that system tends to push more water out to sea than for human use.

Given the record-setting year the state is experiencing, perhaps it’s time to permanently pull California’s straw from the Colorado River. Is there a better solution to save the Colorado River? Even those with senior rights to the river will be left with nothing more than a crumpled piece of paper when water can no longer pass through Hoover Dam. We’re dangerously close to dead pool now at Glen Canyon Dam, which will only speed up the decline at Lake Mead.

The predictions of water scarcity on the river are frightening. If the needs of the river suggest that it’s overtaxed by more than four million acre-feet annually, no amount of conservation by southern Nevada or Arizona will make up that difference. Only California can make up the difference, and it won’t come from conservation alone.

Deadpool at Lake Mead will evaporate every town downstream from Hoover Dam and force several U.S. military installations to relocate. It will also dry up Mexico’s allocation of the river.

Does this mean a complete paradigm shift in water rights law in this country or would a total rewrite of the Colorado River Compact suffice? How do we account for a changing climate and rapid urbanization in the West? How do we divvy up the river for the common good?

I’ve heard twice now during keynote presentations the thoughts of an Arizona water attorney who spent 17 years negotiating a water agreement between the federal government and an American Indian tribe. “We don’t have 17 years to fix this,” he says regarding the Colorado River.

Real fixes to the Colorado River won’t be popular, but they are necessary. Cutting California’s umbilical from the Colorado River may be the only remaining solution. The clamor from senior water rights holders and their attorneys will surely be loud and legally defensible under existing law. Should someone have a plan to save the river and not change existing water law, they are running out of time to propose a solution.

About the Author(s)

Todd Fitchette

Associate Editor, Western Farm Press

Todd Fitchette, associate editor with Western Farm Press, spent much of his journalism career covering agriculture in California and the western United States. Aside from reporting about issues related to farm production, environmental regulations and legislative matters, he has extensive experience covering the dairy industry, western water issues and politics. His journalistic experience includes local daily and weekly newspapers, where he was recognized early in his career as an award-winning news photographer.

Fitchette is US Army veteran and a graduate of California State University, Chico. 

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