Feb 16, 2023

The Colorado river water fight.

The Colorado river water fight.
Photo by Lindsay / Unsplash

More than 40 million people are going to be impacted.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 10 minutes.

The Colorado river fight. We're skipping our reader question today, but have some reader feedback, a story about Narcan and unlocked last week's Friday edition.

Reader feedback.

Yesterday, Matt from Mableton, Georgia wrote in with a piece of feedback about our UFO piece.

"Hot take: We don't need more transparency around unidentified flying objects in our airspace," he said. “I'm not sure why everyone wants more transparency into this. Maybe it's just curiosity (my favorite explanation). What will more information get us? We'll know for sure if it was foreign adversaries spying on us? We already know they do (via many methods). We'll know for sure if it was some research project? That would be quite unfortunate for the researchers involved, but why should anyone else care? Waste of tax dollars? Why choose this instead of thousands of other things we are wasting tax dollars on?

“We have well trained, well resourced, highly capable people whose job it is to worry about this stuff so that the rest of us don't have to. I say, let them do their job and stop adding additional political constraints to their important and difficult work."

See you tomorrow?

We're taking off Monday for Presidents’ Day. For those of you who are paying subscribers, we'll be in your inbox tomorrow with our piece on the East Palestine, Ohio train wreck.

Quick hits.

  1. The Justice Department said it won't bring charges against Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) in a sex-trafficking inquiry. (The decision)
  2. The United States is in danger of being unable to meet its financial obligations as early as July if the debt limit isn't raised, according to the Congressional Budget Office. (The warning)
  3. A gunman who killed 10 people in a Buffalo, NY, grocery store in May was sentenced to life in state prison without parole. He was convicted of a racially motivated mass murder. (The sentence)
  4. China imposed sanctions on Lockheed Martin and Raytheon for supplying weapons to Taiwan. (The sanctions)
  5. On Thursday, the judge is expected to release the grand jury findings from the investigation into former President Trump's alleged election interference in Georgia. (The findings)

Today's topic.

The Colorado River. In late January, the seven states that rely on the Colorado River for water failed to strike a water-sharing deal by the federally mandated deadline. Because the states were unable to come to an agreement, the Biden administration — led by the federal Bureau of Reclamation — may have to intervene and impose regional water cuts at a time when the states involved continue to battle droughts and historically low reservoirs.

Along with parts of Mexico, there are seven states that rely on the Colorado River: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Water is distributed to those states based on the Colorado River Compact, signed in 1922, and the allocations are largely based on the rate of precipitation and each state’s water usage at that time. Today, the distribution of what each state uses looks drastically different than it did back then, as does the region’s hydrology.

More than 40 million people get their water from the Colorado River, including 30 tribes. Along with populations soaring in several of the states that rely on it for water, regional agriculture has soared, too, and now accounts for about 80% of the river's water usage. The impacts of climate change on the southwest have compounded the strain, with 2000 to 2018 marking one of the driest periods ever in the region.

Last year, the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water and related resources, asked the seven states in the compact to reduce their use of the river by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, which is about 20% to 40% of the river’s flow in any given year. An acre-foot is how much water it takes to cover an acre one foot deep — or about 326,000 gallons. For context, a single California home uses one-half to one acre-foot of water every year, on average (so this would be the rough equivalent of 2 to 4 million households not using any water for a single year).

In January, all seven states, except California, submitted a plan to make cuts. California rejected the states’ plan, instead arguing that it had senior water rights, and proposing cuts that mainly targeted states who had fewer legal rights to the water. While California only gets 15% of its water from the Colorado River, about one-third of all the water for Southern California's 23 million residents comes from the river.

Central to all this urgency are Lake Powell and Lake Mead, two man-made lakes at the center of the Colorado River. Both were created by erecting dams, and the lakes are used as drinking water reservoirs. Both lakes have been at dangerously low levels for years, but are now approaching their ‘minimum power generating’ levels, at which point their dams will be unable to provide hydroelectricity. Soon after, they will be at risk of becoming "dead pools," reservoirs whose water levels are too low to enter discharge channels and release their water downstream . In that scenario, downstream states like California, Arizona, and Nevada would lose their main drinking and irrigation water, which would be a crisis unlike any the states have ever faced.

While scientists can't predict exactly when the river will fail to minimally fill the lakes, there are legitimate forecasts that it could be as soon as 2025.

The story of the Colorado River water dispute is extremely complex, touching agriculture, population growth, climate change, legal water rights, state's rights, a litany of Supreme Court rulings, and much more. Thanks to a 1963 court ruling, the federal government now has the power to adjudicate water conflicts, though it typically tries to give that power back to the states (as it has done here). With several deadlines having passed, though, and the threat of an ever-retreating river and the possibility of dead pools looming, the Interior Department appears poised to step in and mandate a settlement.

Because this story does not have any traditional left-right lines, and there are a lot of different arguments out there, today we are just going to share some opinions from across the spectrum on what to do next. I encourage you to read them all in full.

The opinions.

In The Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik wrote about California's position — and what it'll actually take to resolve this conflict.

"Over the last century, California has fought fiercely to preserve its legally sanctioned right to 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year," Hiltzik wrote. "California’s voracious appetite for Colorado River water was not necessarily an unreasonable concern in 1922: Although only 6,000 of the 244,000 square miles of the Colorado watershed are in California, the state was by far the most thoroughly developed of the seven states, accounting for 415,000 of the 587,000 irrigated acres in the river basin north of the Mexican border. Nor is it unreasonable even now: California’s population of 39 million is nearly twice that of the other six states combined.

"The impasse has resulted from California issuing its own restructuring proposal while the other six states agreed among themselves on a framework for negotiating reapportionment… California‘s plan would minimize its losses in the renegotiation while imposing more stringent reductions on Arizona and Nevada," he wrote. Is there a solution to the conflict over the Colorado? Yes, but at this time it’s confounded by history and politics. California and Arizona agriculture will have to be remade to accommodate new irrigation technologies and a shift to less thirsty crops. Urbanites will have to step up their conservation and recycling efforts. The states will have to recognize their shared interests in fairly distributing a shrinking resource. And federal officials will have to work toward a settlement that every interest group finds acceptable. Wish them luck."

The Washington Post broke down some of the potential solutions.

"Most stakeholders along the river agree that drastic cuts in water use are urgently needed," The board said. "Agreeing to cuts, while critical, is only the first step. Communities, including cities and suburbs across the Southwest, will then have to undertake the difficult process of reimagining their water use. Some localities have already managed to dramatically reduce their reliance on water. Las Vegas has been a standout, banning ornamental turf, limiting water deliveries to golf courses and reducing swimming pool sizes. This comes after decades of effective advertising to get households to voluntarily reduce their water use. Local authorities have also invested heavily in water recycling: Approximately 99 percent of indoor water in the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s service area is recycled, meaning that even the resorts on Las Vegas Strip waste very little water.

"Cities can also make existing infrastructure more efficient. That could involve reducing leakage in pipes by auditing water loss and setting up controls to reduce the drain. States could also establish high-efficiency standards for plumbing products so they require less water pressure," they wrote. "But urban areas account for only a fraction of the Colorado River’s use. Approximately 80 percent of its water goes into agriculture. Though farms and ranches have come a long way in the past two decades, there is plenty of room to make these systems more efficient. For a start, federal, state and local authorities can incentivize farmers to adopt more sustainable irrigation practices. This could involve switching from flood irrigation to sprinklers and drip, adding pump-back systems to reuse water and lining canals with materials that reduce drainage."

In Newsweek, Katharine Jacobs wrote about the underlying management systems of the river — and the need to focus more on them, not just the "megadrought."

"We need to consider structural alternatives to the allocation system that are phased in to avoid significant economic disruptions," Jacobs said. "One such alternative, which could insert more flexibility into the allocation system, is setting minimum firm allocations (that would be available even during the lowest flow periods) for states, Tribes, the environment, and Mexico, while setting up a "market system" for the water supplies in excess of that minimum over time. Existing large water right holders, such as agriculture, could be compensated for gradually reducing their withdrawals from their current levels, which now exceed 70 percent of the total water use... This approach has the advantage of providing guaranteed minimum water supplies to the environment (which currently has no rights at all in this system) and to Tribes (including phased investments in infrastructure).

"The two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell, could be used to store water for the banking system, along with substantial in-state investments in underground storage in groundwater aquifers (an approach already used at scale in Arizona and California)," she added. "This transition won't be easy or cheap, and most likely would require a new governance system, such as a Commissioner to manage the river as opposed to the current Compact-based interstate negotiating system overseen by highly constrained federal authorities. This new approach would require permanent reductions in some uses - but the certainty and flexibility of such a system would avoid the high costs of the ongoing crisis management approach—and the associated potential litigation."

During a recent spate of floods, Wall Street Journal editorial board criticized California for not being better prepared to recycle the water.

"California’s political leaders are obsessed with climate, so why don’t they prepare for droughts or deluges? One problem is the state’s lack of investment in public works, especially storage and flood control. Drought has recurred throughout California history, punctuated by wet winters like this one," the board said. "Two seven-year droughts that started in the late 1920s and 1940s spurred the construction of a massive system of canals, dams and reservoirs. But few large water projects have been built since the birth of the modern environmental movement in the 1970s. Species protections for salmon and the three-inch smelt limit how much water can be pumped south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which receives runoff from rivers in the North and the Sierra mountains.

"The amount of water surging into the Delta on Friday could have filled a reservoir the size of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy almost every 24 hours," it added. "Instead, nearly 95% of the Delta’s storm water this year has flushed into the Pacific Ocean. Such waste occurs whenever there’s a deluge and is why some reservoirs south of the Delta remain low despite the storms. Former Gov. Jerry Brown wanted to build massive tunnels under the Delta that can export more water to farmers in the fertile Central Valley and cities in Southern California. But environmentalists oppose this idea as they do expanding water storage... More reservoirs are desperately needed in the North to capture melting snowpack that would otherwise drain into the Pacific or overflow river banks. Reservoirs store runoff and help prevent flooding. Most reservoirs in the North are now above historical average levels so they may have to release water this spring to avoid overflowing."

In National Review, Edward Ring said water conservation alone cannot be the answer.

"To manage water scarcity, according to the prevailing wisdom among water bureaucrats and environmentalist activists, water must be used more efficiently. But for the most part this has already been done," he said. "For example, at the same time that annual water use from the lower Colorado has been relatively stable at 15 MAF per year, the population of Las Vegas has grown from 1.3 million to 2.9 million. The population of Phoenix has grown from 2.9 million to 4.7 million, and the population of Tucson has grown from 723,000 to just over 1 million," he wrote. "As the supply of water from the Colorado River dwindles, farm acreage will inevitably shrink. But simply accepting a drastic and permanent cutback in farm acreage in places such as Arizona and California’s Imperial Valley ignores many negative consequences.

"As we have just seen this winter, as well as in the late fall of 2021, even during multi-year droughts, tens of millions of acre-feet rain down onto California via 'atmospheric rivers,' but most of the water immediately drains into the ocean," he said. "Despite all this potential, investments to increase California’s water supply have been incremental at best. But this can change, and if it did, not only Californians but the entire Southwest would benefit. Imagine how much easier it would be to balance the Colorado River supply deficit if Californians were no longer transporting 5 MAF per year out of the lower basin to serve Imperial Valley agriculture and Southern California cities... Desalination is another option, but it is roughly twice as expensive as wastewater recycling."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

To be honest, I find this entire ordeal terrifying.

Folks in the media love to make small things big. Perhaps we just indulged in that this past week with our coverage of "spy balloons" and "UFOs." But water... water is essential, it is scarce, and it seems to be disappearing rapidly in the southwest.

While the dreaded "dead pool" is not going to happen this month, that is cold comfort in the short-term outlook. Reversing what has transpired over a century of mismanagement is going to take not just water cuts, but infrastructure builds, agriculture reforms, and new ways of thinking about how we grow food, store and transport water, and how best to harness flooding for our benefit. This is not the kind of thing that happens overnight, yet an overnight solution appears to be what we need.

Much as when I write about potential solutions to reducing our carbon emissions, I think an "all of the above" approach is the right answer. In this case, though, there seems to be a necessary order of priorities. Yes, we want California to be better prepared to catch and recycle massive melt and rainwaters. But that takes more infrastructure and investment, which will take years to build — building that has started in some places and needs to accelerate.

In the interim, difficult water cuts must be made right away. The Biden administration should move to force those cuts since the states were unable to come to an agreement on their own. In some ways, the details of the administration’s proposal almost don't matter — either the Bureau of Reclamation will force the states into cuts, or the states will be so unhappy with the proposal that they'll be forced to work together to agree on a path forward. But the sooner that proposal is made and adopted, the sooner the water cuts can start.

Obviously, when 70-80% of the river's use is agriculture, we can't ignore the necessity to reform that sector. Farmers and ranchers are already using far less water than they did 20 years ago, but they have to keep improving. Farmers are still pumping far more water than we can naturally replenish, which creates a huge strain on the ecosystem. The Washington Post editorial board's suggestions on how to reduce waste — like pump-back systems, moving to sprinklers and drips, and lining canals with material that reduce drainage — are all great ideas with huge upsides and relatively low cost.

The region needs water reform, and it needs it to start now. The first domino to fall has to be a new water allotment, which apparently has to come from the Feds, and the sooner that happens the sooner everyone else can start planning and acting.

Your questions, answered.

We're skipping today's reader question. Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Blindspot report.

Once a week, we present the Blindspot Report from our partners at Ground News, an app that tells you the bias of news coverage and what stories people on each side are missing.

The right missed a story about how Ron DeSantis wanted to ban guns at an event, but didn't want to be blamed for the prohibition.

The left missed a story about how a batch of documents with the names of Jeffrey Epstein's associates is going to be made public.

Under the radar.

The overdose-reversing drug naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, should be made available over the counter, according to U.S. health advisors. The panel of Food and Drug Administration experts voted unanimously in favor of the change after a day of presentations and discussions about whether untrained people could administer the nasal spray. The vote, though not binding, is expected to make the drug more widely available, a possibility that could help stem the number of overdose deaths in the United States. More than 100,000 people die each year from opioid overdoses in America. The Associated Press has the story.


  • 17.5 million. The estimated total of river flow, in acre-feet, that the drafters of the Colorado River Compact expected in 1922.
  • Less than 15 million. Since then, the river's average acre-feet flow each year.
  • 1,225. In July of 1983, Lake Mead's water level in feet, its highest ever.
  • 1,044. The water level, in feet, of Lake Mead last year, its lowest ever.
  • 950. The water level at which the Hoover Dam would no longer be able to generate hydroelectric power from the lake.
  • 895. The “dead pool” water level at which point no water would be able to pass the dam at all.

The extras.

Have a nice day.

To celebrate his 60th birthday, Michael Jordan just donated $10 million to the Make-A-Wish foundation — the largest ever donation in the organization’s 43-year history. Jordan, considered by many to be the greatest basketball player of all time, first supported the Make-A-Wish foundation in 1989 and is now the owner of the Charlotte Hornets. "For the past 34 years, it's been an honor to partner with Make-A-Wish and help bring a smile and happiness to so many kids," Jordan said in a news release. "Witnessing their strength and resilience during such a tough time in their lives has truly been an inspiration... I can't think of a better birthday gift than seeing others join me in supporting Make-A-Wish so that every child can experience the magic of having their wish come true." ESPN has the story.

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