Tiny, endangered fish hinders California’s Colorado River conservation plan

Southern California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which supplies water to farmers who grow most of the nation’s winter vegetables, planned to start a conservation program in April to scale back what it draws from the critical Colorado River.

But a tiny, tough fish got in the way.

Now, those plans won’t start until at least June so water and wildlife officials can devise a way to ensure the endangered desert pupfish and other species are protected, said Jamie Asbury, the irrigation district’s general manager. The proposal to pay farmers to temporarily stop watering feed crops such as alfalfa this summer has environmentalists concerned that irrigation drains could dry up, threatening the fish that measures the length of an ATM card.

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“Drains are created for farmers to be able to convey irrigation runoff, and the pupfish decided it was a good place to live,” Asbury said.

Protecting the desert pupfish, listed as endangered since 1986, has been one of many vexing problems facing the Colorado River and the people and species that rely on it.

The 1,450-mile (2,334-kilometer) river provides water to 40 million people in seven U.S. states, parts of Mexico and more than two dozen Native American tribes. It’s long been over-tapped, a problem aggravated by recent years of prolonged drought. The Western states are negotiating a new long-term use plan meant to stabilize the river.

Last year, Arizona, Nevada and California offered to cut back on their use of Colorado River water in exchange for money from the federal government to avoid forced cuts. California, which gets the most water of all the states based on a century-old water rights priority system, agreed to give up 1.6 million acre-feet of water through 2026, with more than half coming from the Imperial Irrigation District. An acre-foot serves about two to three U.S. households per year.

The Imperial district envisioned a summer idling program in which farmers could turn off water for 60 days for feed crops since yields already are down at that time of year and growing requires much more water. But environmental officials worried that limiting the flow of water through irrigation drains could harm the desert pupfish. They also raised concerns about the impact on migratory birds that frequent the Salton Sea, Asbury said.

Now the district, the biggest user of Colorado River water with more than 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) of canals and drains, is in talks with state and federal officials on how it can proceed while setting up a monitoring program to ensure the fish isn’t further threatened, Asbury said.

The curious fish — the males turn blue during breeding season while females are tan or olive — was once plentiful. But with the introduction of invasive species in the Colorado River, its numbers dwindled, according to California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. The fish feeds on invertebrates and snails and can handle an extreme range of water temperatures and both fresh and saltwater.

Today, it lives in a few areas in California, Arizona and Mexico, including the Imperial Irrigation District’s drains, which funnel water runoff from farms in California’s Imperial Valley into the saline Salton Sea, a drying lake with no outlet that’s a stopover point for migratory birds.

Often, the district’s drains have more fresh water than the Salton Sea, so the fish seek out those spaces, said Ileene Anderson, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. The fish has proven remarkably resilient and can survive in water with low oxygen levels, high salinity and temperatures of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 degrees Celsius).

“A lot of them do live in these really bizarre drains, these agricultural drains,” she said. “These fish are incredibly tough — they basically just try to find a space where they can carry on their lives.”

The desert pupfish is a key part of the ecosystem in the Salton Sea, feeding on biting flies and serving as a food source for birds, said James Danoff-Burg, vice president of conservation at the Palm Desert-based Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, which works on desert conservation. In the summer, creeks that flow into the Salton Sea can dry out so much the fish risk getting stranded, so they are moved to special ponds as an insurance population, he said.

California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife declined to discuss the water conservation plan. The department said in an emailed statement that officials support water use reductions on the Colorado River and will work with other agencies to “find solutions that proactively minimize and mitigate any potential impacts to the great work underway.”

The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates major dams in the Colorado River system, did not immediately comment.

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California agrees to long-term cuts of Colorado River water

Bracing for an ever-growing gap between supply and demand of Colorado River water, three Southwestern states today unveiled an agreement that would cut California’s portion by about 10% in most years. 

California, Nevada and Arizona submitted their plan to the federal government, which is weighing how to manage the drought-plagued river after 2026, when another historic deal expires. The decision will shape long-term management of a vital water source for 40 million people, including 30 tribal nations and 5.5 million acres of agriculture

For more than a century, the river’s water has been allocated among seven states, tribes and Mexico through a collection of deals, acts, treaties and legal decisions known as the Law of the River. But a decades-long mega-drought, culminating in the driest 23-year period in more than a century, has shriveled the river’s already over-allocated flows. 

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Despite recent improvements after storms, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the basin’s major reservoirs, remain “historically low, and long-term conservation measures will still be necessary,” the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported Tuesday.

California takes the biggest share of Colorado River water, with a yearly allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet. And Imperial Valley growers are, by far, California’s biggest user — allocated 3.1 million acre-feet a year, or more than two-thirds of the state’s supply, to irrigate half a million acres of alfalfa, winter vegetables and other crops via the Imperial Irrigation District. 

The Metropolitan Water District, which provides water for 19 million Southern Californians, is another large user, typically receiving about 1 million acre-feet every year, according to Bill Hasencamp, the district’s manager of Colorado River resources. (An acre-foot is enough to supply three Southern California households for a year.)

“It’s a big change that we will have to adapt to as a state,” Hasencamp said, adding “it’s 10%, so we should be able to tighten up our belt 10%.”

In the new proposal, the three states agreed to collectively cut their water use when  levels dip below 69% capacity, ramping up to at least 1.5 million acre-feet a year below 58% of capacity. That’s about 17% of their total allocations, enough to supply 3.75 million Southern California households for a year. Over the past ten years, the reservoirs have largely stayed below that threshold. If the system dips lower than 38% of capacity, any additional cuts up to 3.9 million acre-feet would be shared equally between the Upper and Lower Basin states. 

Arizona would shoulder much of the burden by cutting use about 27% in most years. Nevada would cut back by about 17%, and Mexico — if it agrees — by 250,000 acre-feet, or about 17% of the 1.5 million acre-feet it’s entitled to under an agreement with the U.S.

The three states also proposed a new way to trigger the cuts — based on seven reservoirs across the basin, not just Lake Mead, Hasencamp said.

John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said at a briefing today that the aim is to avoid suspicions of states manipulating the system. Withdrawing water from Lake Mead or holding it in Upper Basin reservoirs could result in massive changes in water releases. 

The current system “has led to a number of conflicts between the states since it was implemented in 2007 because literally one foot of elevation difference in Lake Mead or Lake Powell can result in more or less water being released,” Entsminger said. “There were constant suspicions about states gaming the system, being able to manipulate those elevations. And we believe what we are presenting today will remove the ability for this, any even suspicion.” 

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Colorado River Deal: What Does It Mean for California?

After nearly a year of intense negotiations, California, Nevada and Arizona reached a historic agreement today to use less water from the overdrafted Colorado River over the next three years.

The states agreed to give up 3 million acre-feet of river water through 2026 — about 13% of the amount they receive. In exchange, farmers and other water users will receive compensation from the federal government.

The Biden administration has been pushing the states since last spring to reach an agreement to cut back on Colorado River water deliveries. The three-state deal is a historic step — but it is not final: The U.S. Interior Department must review the proposal. And everything will have to be renegotiated before the end of 2026.

In California, the agreement would mostly affect the water supplies of farmers in the Imperial Valley. Coming up with a plan to fairly cut water use has created tensions between farms and cities and between states, especially California and Arizona.

Here’s what you need to know about the new plan, how it will affect California and whether it will bring relief to the West’s vital water supply system:

Why was this agreement needed?

The Colorado River basin has been overdrafted for decades. Its major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have been steadily declining, threatening 40 million people in the West with a water supply crisis. 

In response, last June, a top Interior official asked the seven basin states to reduce water use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet per year, or a 15% to 30% annual reduction. The states failed to meet their deadlines to come up with a plan. So the Interior Department presented its own proposed actions last month, including a controversial one that would cut into the senior water rights of Imperial Valley farmers.

Unhappy with those federal proposals, California, Arizona and Nevada doubled down on their negotiations and tried to come up with an alternative. Today’s agreement by the three states to cut water use through 2026 is considered a major, albeit temporary, step. At least half of the 3 million acre feet will be conserved by the end of 2024. 

The Interior Department has now retracted its plan so it can add the states’ new agreement to the package of options it is considering.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called the agreement “an important step forward towards our shared goal of forging a sustainable path for the basin that millions of people call home.”

Who in California does this affect? Will they have to use less water? 

The agreement would affect the water supplies of about 19 million Southern Californians in six counties who receive imported water from the Metropolitan Water District.

But the impact will be minimal. The district will sacrifice 130,000 acre-feet per year that it usually receives through a transfer arrangement from farmers in the Palo Verde Irrigation District in Riverside and Imperial counties. That water, explained Metropolitan’s manager of Colorado River resources, Bill Hasencamp, will be left in Lake Mead instead. The federal government will reimburse the growers at the rate of $400 per acre foot.

Metropolitan will also voluntarily leave 250,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead this year. That water will be available for the district in the future.

These cuts will not affect Southern Californians this year, Hasencamp said. That’s because rains have greatly boosted supplies from the State Water Project. The state aqueduct delivered only about 100,000 acre-feet to Metropolitan last year, but will deliver 2 million this year. (An acre foot is roughly the amount that three households use per year.)

Still, Hasencamp said water conservation, both in communities and on farms, should remain a way of life.

“We need to be cognizant that the West is getting drier,” he said.

Farmers in the Imperial Valley are the biggest users of Colorado River water. The Imperial Irrigation District announced today that it will reduce usage at farms by roughly 250,000 acre-feet per year, about 10% of its average amount.

The district said it expects to receive $250 million from the federal government to reward the growers who cut back water deliveries. The money could be used to compensate growers who fallow crops.

Imperial Irrigation District General Manager Henry Martinez applauded the agreement, saying it is “is based on voluntary, achievable conservation volumes that will help protect critical Colorado River reservoir elevations, and in particular Lake Mead.”

With water from the Colorado River, arid Imperial County has become the ninth largest agricultural producer in the state, reporting $2.3 billion in sales in 2021, led by cattle and lettuce.

By acreage, alfalfa and other water-intensive crops used to feed dairy cows and cattle dominate in the Imperial Valley, covering more than half of its farmland. Imperial also produces two-thirds of the vegetables consumed in the U.S. during winter months.  

The Interior Department said it would use the Inflation Reduction Act to pay farmers and other users for saving 2.3 million acre-feet of water. The remaining 700,000 acre-feet “will be achieved through voluntary, uncompensated reductions by the Lower Basin states.” The Interior Department did not release how much it will spend or who would get the money.

What does the Colorado River need in the longer term? 

In most years, farms, cities and tribes use around 13 million acre-feet of the Colorado River’s water, which is significantly more than the 11 million acre-feet of rain and snow that feeds into the river system in an average year. Unless drastic cuts are made, these supplies — most importantly Mead and Powell, which together contain about 50 million acre-feet — could essentially run out of water within several years. 

While the new agreement amounts to saving about 1 million acre-feet per year, that’s not enough. Experts say at least twice that much must be conserved.

Since the lower basin states use most of the Colorado River’s water, the onus is on them — especially the biggest user, California — to come up with the water savings.

A wet winter has eased the emergency. But the relief will probably be short-lived in the arid West, where population growth and worsening droughts are sapping water supplies.

Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy, said the agreement represents progress, even though more action is needed. 

“This is another step toward the long-term downward adjustment in how much Colorado River water we as a region can expect to take out of the system,” she said. 

Porter noted that this plan, because it’s a voluntary one, “gets us toward our 2026 goals without risk of litigation.”

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

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