Solving the worsening drought in the western states will require all of us working together - San Diego Union-Tribune
Feb 24 2023
Originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune
Padilla and Feinstein both represent California in the U.S. Senate. Padilla lives in Los Angeles and Feinstein lives in San Francisco.
For Californians, drought has been a constant and inescapable fact of life for decades. Worsening drought in the Western United States is just one of the many life-threatening impacts of the climate crisis. And as drying conditions bring water reservoirs along the Colorado River to dangerously low levels, the impact of extended drought conditions is now threatening 40 million Americans’ access to water — unless we can come up with a plan to protect it.
That’s going to take all of us working together. But last month, in response to federal requests for a regional plan to curb water use and protect our dwindling water supply, the six other Western states (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) that rely on the Colorado River for survival chose to go it alone and submit their own plan without consulting California officials — avoiding tough choices within their own states.
This is especially concerning since nearly half of the 40 million Americans who rely on the Colorado River live in California. The other states’ plan would direct California to take a disproportionate share of new water reductions from the river — so that California alone would shoulder over half of the entire Colorado River Basin’s new cuts in water use beyond those already required by existing laws and agreements.
In a cause as monumental as this — with the fate of water access for an entire region in the balance — we must have everyone on board pulling in the same direction. No plan can be the consensus solution if it excludes half of those affected from the decision-making table. California remains ready to come to the table, to make the tough decisions necessary to preserve our water resources, and to offer creative plans to protect Americans living in the Western United States. In fact, California already has.
Last fall, California was the first and only state to put forward a plan to voluntarily reduce water usage. We know it’s going to take sacrifices to implement that plan, and we’re willing to make them.
But we will need all seven states to commit to making the politically difficult — but necessary — decisions about water usage in their states.
And we already have a blueprint for how this can be done. Twenty years ago, our state’s agricultural and urban communities came together to meet California’s commitment to permanently reduce its Colorado River water use by 20 percent. They negotiated agreements that facilitated the transfer of agricultural water to our cities in order to secure Southern California communities’ long-term water supply and keep our agricultural regions productive. This made California the first state to permanently reduce our Colorado River water use and live up to our legal and moral obligations. But the new six-state plan would risk upending these prior agreements and place California’s economy at risk by jeopardizing the Colorado River drinking water supply for 19 million people and nearly $2 trillion in economic activity. The health, well-being and jobs of millions of Americans rely on the ability of all seven states to come together and hammer out a deal that everyone can get behind.
But here’s the good news: We still believe that there’s more that unites Colorado River Basin states than divides us. All seven states agree that the threat of empty reservoirs and dried up riverbeds is unsustainable, and that large-scale water use reductions will be required as climate change continues to reduce the Colorado River’s flows.
All seven states agree on just how much water we need to save to secure our region’s long-term future. And although it has been lost in hyperbolic headlines, we want to make clear: We all agree on the fundamental human right to water. California’s plan unequivocally ensures that the taps won’t be turned off to tribes and cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas. We are not seeking a deal that would make anyone go thirsty.
We believe a real, consensus deal is possible. And in the U.S. Senate, we’ve already begun holding good-faith discussions with our colleagues from the other Colorado River Basin states. We have a shared goal of encouraging our states to reach a true consensus, and we’re confident that a deal is achievable.
In the coming months, each state needs to do the hard work of reconciling its internal differences over how water is allocated within the state, determine how to allocate cuts between its agricultural and urban sectors, and come to the table to work out a deal that reflects true consensus among all seven states and ensures everyone gets their fair share.
Every day we don’t is one step closer to “dead pool,” when critical reservoir levels fall to the point where water no longer flows downstream to the communities who need it. And drought won’t wait for our decision.
Let’s get to work.