California's strategy fails as feds pressure states to conserve Colorado River water

By Ron Dungan
Published: Monday, April 17, 2023 - 5:26pm

The Department of Interior has indicated that if states don’t cooperate on dividing Colorado River water, more cuts may be on the way.

The agency indicated that California could also face cutbacks, which means that the state’s wait-and-see strategy may have fallen short.

California has senior water rights to the Colorado River, and so far, that has worked in its favor.

Arizona's junior position meant that the Grand Canyon state has been forced to take cutbacks.

But the government recently released an Environmental Impact Statement that could lead to changes in how the river is managed.

Gage Zobell, an attorney who specializes in natural resource and water law, said that while other states talked about making cuts, California was waiting to see what would happen.

"So I think they basically played a game of chicken," Zobell said. "Which was, we don’t think this is ever going to affect us, so we don’t need to worry about coming to the table for reductions."

He says that although the states have battled over the river in the past, those disputes eventually led to cooperation.

The Department of Interior recently urged states in the upper and lower basins to reach an agreement over the Colorado River.

"And so what the feds have done is try to re-change the game, to reset up the board to say ‘hey, everybody you’ve got incentives now. Go find a way to cooperate this out,'" he said.

The states, tribes and other water users have until May 30 to comment.