If California fails to implement guidelines to comply with a non-partisan seven-state agreement to reduce use of Colorado River, the U.S. Department of the Interior is required by federal law to limit the state to 4.4 million acre feet in 2003.
"If specific California agencies choose not to adopt agreements necessary for the graduate, voluntary reductions contemplated under the plan developed by the seven Colorado River Basin states, California will lose access to extra Colorado River water," indicated U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton during a meeting of Western water officials last week.
The United States Department of the Interior serves as the watermaster for the lower Colorado River. The agreement regulates the amount of water Utah receives from the river.
"The state will be forced to live within its 4.4 million acre-feet apportionment from the Colorado River beginning on Jan. 1, 2003," added the federal official.
California participated in crafting the historic agreement on Colorado River water use. The agreement was negotiated and approved by former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. The principal issue of the negotiations was how to achieve certainty that California would actually reduce the state's overuse of the Colorado River.
The agreement is embodied in what is known as the interim surplus guidelines, which implements the law of the Colorado River and an order of the U.S. Supreme Court. After review of the guidelines when Norton took office, the secretary endorsed the agreement and decided to stay the course.
"We are at a turning point in the history of the Colorado River," pointed out Norton at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas, Nev. "Our common future is shaped by record drought and population growth within the Colorado River Basin. These factors herald a new era of limits on Colorado River water use- limits that shape the decisions that will guide the future course of the river.
"While drought and population growth are causing change, what must not change is our commitment to honor treaties, compacts, decrees and agreements. Otherwise the legal foundation upon which this river is administered will be at risk," Norton said.
Under the multi-state agreement, California can continue to have enhanced access to surplus water by taking specific actions to reduce its Colorado River use to 4.4 million acre-feet by the year 2015.
Alternatively, if the California entitiess do not take the required actions, the state would immediately lose enhanced access to surplus water, beginning Jan. 1, 2003.
The choice will be determined by whether Californians sign a document known as the quantification settlement agreement by Dec. 31, 2002.
Norton sounded a note of urgency because of a Dec. 9 vote of California's Imperial Irrigation District to reject a water sale to San Diego County that is a linchpin of the voluntary approach.
It appears that the irrigation district may not sign the quantification settlement agreement. Other California water agencies required to sign the QSA appear ready to execute the agreement.
Cities in southern California would bear the immediate shortfall, potentially losing as much as half of the Colorado River water the municipalities currently receive.
Because the Metropolitan Water District in southern California has developed alternative water supplies, people there will continue to see water flow from their taps. But over time, the reduction in Colorado River water could have very real impacts to all water users in southern California.
California agreed in 1929 to limit the state's annual use of water from the Colorado River to 4.4 million acre-feet.
During the years, California grew accustomed to using more than 5 million acre-feet of water per year.
The situation did not cause problems at that time because other Basin states were not using their full allocation.
California's agricultural users have a priority right to 3.85 million acre-feet of the state's apportionment of Colorado River water. The small remainder is all that is left for southern California cities serving more than 17 million people.