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Climate and Environment

As The Drought Continues, Colorado River Talks Still At A Crossroads

A river curves around between dusty hills. There is thick greenery along the banks. The sky has a yellow-reddish hue.
The All American Canal winds through the tall sand dunes of the American Sahara, also known as the Algodones Dunes or Imperial Dunes, as it carries water from the Colorado River to California.
(David McNew
Getty Images)
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The seven states that draw from the Colorado River missed another deadline from the federal government to come up with a plan to cut water use by as much as 4 million acre-feet per year. Six states came up with a proposal to cut 1.5 million acre-feet, but California didn’t sign on.

Why it matters: The Colorado River provides water to farmland and cities from Wyoming to Mexico (it feeds Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California and Nevada). It’s also one of our biggest sources of water in the Southland. The river has long been overused — and the climate crisis is pushing a reckoning with a century-old water rights law that many say is outdated in our hotter and drier reality.

Why now: Last year, the federal government told Colorado River users to come up with a voluntary plan to cut water use by as much as 4 million acre-feet — about as much as California can get in a whole year — or face mandatory restrictions. After missing an initial deadline last August, on Tuesday six of the seven states released a proposal to cut water use by about 1.5 million acre-feet per year. But California didn’t sign on, citing senior water rights.

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What's next: The lack of consensus could spur federal mandates and legal disputes. The current rules expire in 2026. By then, the states and federal government will need a more permanent plan for Colorado River water use in a hotter, drier reality.

Go deeper: Southern California Has A Plan To Ease The Colorado River Crisis. And It Starts Right Under Your Feet

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