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Climate and Environment

Colorado River Deal Won’t Slow SoCal Residential Water Use — For Now

Water shoots from pipes into a body of water surrounded by red rocks.
A boost to Rocky Mountain snowpack allowed Colorado River water to be released at high flows into Glen Canyon Dam to help restore some habitats in the Grand Canyon.
(Courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)
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After months of tense negotiations, the seven states that rely on the Colorado River have reached an agreement on how to cut water use for now.

Here are the main points of the agreement:

  • California, Arizona and Nevada will cut water use by about 3 million acre-feet between now and the end of 2026, on top of the existing cut requirements. Total river use annually adds up to about 15 million acre-feet. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to flood an acre of land 1 foot deep — about 326,000 gallons).
  • At least half of those cuts will need to occur by the end of 2024.
  • California, which uses the largest share of the Colorado River, will shoulder a large share of the reductions — up to 1.6 million acre-feet through 2026. That means cutting Colorado River water use by about 400,000 acre-feet each year. For comparison, the entire city of L.A. uses a total of about 500,000 acre-feet of water every year from all of its sources. 

The agreement keeps the river’s main reservoirs — Lake Powell and Lake Mead — from falling low enough to further jeopardize water supply and hydroelectric power that major Western cities, including Los Angeles, rely on.
Most of the cuts will have to come from agriculture, which uses the bulk of the river’s water. For now, residential customers are unlikely to see further restrictions to their water use (your specific local restrictions depend on your local water agency and should be listed on its website).

“For us here in Southern California [the agreement] provides a level of certainty that we can … be certain of our supplies over the next few years,” said Bill Hasencamp, the Colorado River manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, or MWD, which supplies water to 19 million people across the Southland.

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Are the cuts enough?

The Colorado River’s reservoirs are seeing some much-needed gains with this year’s huge snowpack in the Rocky Mountains. But Lake Mead and Lake Powell remain at about 50% of their typical storage levels for this time of year in relation to the last 30 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is in charge of those reservoirs. However, that number is expected to reach 149% of average with full summer snowmelt.

Last summer, when the drought was at its worst, the agency had called for the seven Colorado River basin states to cut their collective water use by about 2 to 4 million acre feet — or roughly 15% to 30% of yearly use. The current agreement lands on 3 million acre feet of cuts through 2026, when a century-old set of laws that govern the river officially expire.

This agreement is a bridge to that moment, said Hasencamp.

“We know we have to give up some water and we know we have to make some difficult choices, but at least we have a lot more certainty than an uncertain world of litigation and cuts that we really don't know how they would've been implemented,” Hasencamp said.

He said he hopes this is a turning point for the tone of negotiations, which will only ramp up in preparation for the expiration of the current rules in 2026.

“This is the first time in many, many months that the seven states are on the same page,” Hasencamp said. “I think that bodes well for the future.”

While the agreement is a momentous step forward, the worsening climate crisis and ongoing overuse are causing the river to continue to dwindle in the long-term. So permanent, long-term cuts to water use — from transitioning lawns to recycling and storing more water to growing crops with a lot less water — these cuts are only the beginning, experts say.

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A close call for more water restrictions

While some local water agencies are lifting their drought restrictions, others have not, including the L.A. Department of Water and Power, which is still limiting outdoor watering to twice per week (however, trees and food gardens can be watered as much as they need).

Hasencamp said that unless we head into another few years of exceptional drought, he doesn’t see more mandatory urban water restrictions as likely.

Last June, one-third of MWD’s service area was put under mandatory water restrictions because of the severely depleted snowpack in the eastern and northern Sierra Nevada mountains. That water is moved south via the State Water Project, the other main source of the Southland’s water.

But cities including Beverly Hills and Pasadena were exempt from those restrictions (though exempt cities, including those two, do have their own local water restrictions in place). That exemption came down to 100-year-old pipelines that could reach those cities from the Colorado River, which was what launched the MWD into existence.

A map of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's operations during non-drought years.
A map of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's distributions operations during non-drought years.
(Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

MWD relies more heavily on the Colorado River during dry years because it has more storage space in that water basin. In wet years, like this one, MWD distributes as much State Water Project supply as possible because it doesn’t have as many places to store the water. That’s a big reason why Gov. Gavin Newsom has recently signed executive orders to waive environmental reviews and expedite water storage projects in that region.

An October 2021 map of the Metropolitan Water District's distribution operations during drought years.
A map of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's distribution operations during drought years.
(Courtesy of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

“We were prepared with another dry year to extend mandatory reductions throughout our entire service area to recognize that both the Colorado River and State Project were in dire conditions, but now with much-improved conditions on the State Water Project and the improved conditions on the Colorado River, we rescinded those mandatory reductions,” Hasencamp said. “Frankly, we had thought that was gonna be the new normal for the next few years.”

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