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EDITORIAL: Proposed water ‘cuts’ ignore California

Monsoon rains in recent weeks have halted the decline of Lake Mead for now, but that wasn’t enough to stop the Bureau of Reclamation this week from declaring a shortage on the Colorado River for the second straight year. The federal agency, however, continues to treat California with kid gloves.

Under a previous agreement, the declaration will trigger reductions in the 2023 allocation limits for some states, including Nevada. But that will have little practical effect on Nevada, which is on track to use less than 240,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water this year, well below its adjusted limit of 275,000.

Yet the Bureau’s actions are revealing. The agency originally threatened to impose draconian cuts of up to 4 million acre-feet a year unless the seven river states agreed to voluntary restrictions. Yet when the self-imposed deadline for such a deal passed, the Bureau failed to follow through and issued the more modest order, which hits Arizona the hardest while declaring “no required water savings for California in 2023.”

California’s exemption is inexplicable if the goal is to address a system stressed by drought and over-allocation. CalMatters attributed the state’s golden ticket to “recognition” that Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District “was already making serious conservation efforts and, it would appear, the fact that the Imperial Irrigation District has very senior rights to more than 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water each year.”

Yet virtually every major municipality that relies on the Colorado — including Las Vegas and Phoenix — has also made significant conservation gains in recent years. As for the Imperial Irrigation District … well, here we’ve identified the elephant in the room.

There are those who hold the mistaken notion that Southern Nevada must pull up the drawbridge to prevent further population growth and development or risk becoming a ghost town that ran dry. This is impossible practically on a number of fronts, unwise on many others and a misreading of the region’s future. Most importantly, however, it ignores the fact that 80 percent of the Colorado River’s water is sucked up by agricultural interests — primarily in California — much of it growing water-intensive crops. The Imperial Irrigation District’s “senior” water rights account for nearly 70 percent of California’s entire allocation.

Agricultural interests have also made conservation strides. But any plan to re-examine use of the Colorado must focus on an analysis of where we grow crops and why.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that cotton growers in the Southwest are, due to drought, “abandoning millions of acres” that they planted this year, driving up prices. Why would anyone grow cotton — perhaps the largest water user of all commodities — in Phoenix or Fresno? Good question.

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