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Feds to states: Fix Colorado River problems or we will

Lake Mead bathtub ring

Lake Mead bathtub ring

The Secretary of the Interior is telling the seven states who rely on Colorado River water to fix ongoing water problems or the feds will do it for them. The biggest problem is the agreement governing water usage is decades-old, insanely complicated, increasingly unworkable, yet no one wants to change it for fear they will end up with less water allocated. But fix it they must.

The river, particularly the Lower Basin, faces three potential water shortage problems rolled into one.

First, there is the short-term risk of Lake Mead dropping over the next decade to levels low enough to force severe cutbacks. Second, the Lower Basin river system faces a longer-term “structural deficit” of about 1.2 million acre-feet of water use compared to supply, which must be solved over a longer period, water officials say. Third, the entire Colorado River Basin faces a supply-demand deficit of about 3.2 million acre-feet by 2050

It’s complicated. The Imperial Valley in California, due to its ancient water rights that come before all others, gets 20% of all water from the Colorado. Yet it grows lots of food. And if supplies are cut back the Salton Sea could turn toxic.

Many outside officials, including some in Arizona, have fingered the Imperial Irrigation District in the California desert west of Yuma as a prime target for water-use efficiencies. It has by far the largest share of river water of any user: about 2.6 million acre-feet used this year. But if Imperial Valley farmers use less water, that’s less runoff going into the already shrunken Salton Sea to the west. The Salton is an internationally recognized bird sanctuary that’s in danger of turning into a sea of toxic dust if the water keeps receding.

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