Feds warn California must curb Colorado water use

By Ken Ritter, The Associated Press
Friday December 14, 2001

LAS VEGAS — California must meet a commitment to reduce its dependence on Colorado River water over the next 15 years, a federal Interior Department official warned Thursday. 

“If California is not successful, the results could be grave for California,” said Bennett Raley, the assistant interior secretary who handles water issues. 

Dennis Underwood, vice president of Colorado River Resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said he was confident the goals will be met through conservation and agreements to obtain water from other sources. 

The urban water district serves 17 million people from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border, but has to yield Colorado River water rights to agricultural users in three other districts — the Imperial Irrigation District, Coachella Valley Water District and the San Diego County Water Authority. 

“We’re the lower priority, so we’re the ones who would be hit the hardest,” Underwood said. 

Raley, speaking to an annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference, said several more dry years like 2001 could limit other states’ ability to send surplus water to California. 

He acknowledged that a cut in water to Southern California would have a ripple effect. He predicted battles about agricultural water use and the possibility of a north-south water war in the state. 

“In contrast,” Raley said, “we have so much to gain from successes.” 

Raley said he was Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s emissary to complete an agreement that former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt negotiated last year among California and the six other Colorado River Basin states — Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. 

It is due to be completed by December 2002. 

Dubbed the ”4.4 Plan,” it lets California receive surplus Colorado River water that would otherwise go to the other states, in return for California’s pledge to reduce reliance on the river within 15 years. 

California is entitled to 4.4 million acre feet of water a year under the 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act. That agreement was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964. Nevada is allotted 300,000 acre feet. Arizona gets 2.8 million acre feet. 

An acre foot of water is about 326,000 gallons, or roughly the amount needed for an average family of five for one year. 

In recent years, California’s annual draw has grown to as much as 800,000 acre feet above its allotment.