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California is going to take 9% less water from the Colorado River

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

California has stepped up to help end the Colorado River crisis. Southern California, specifically, is offering to use 9% less water a year, which could really help out neighboring states. But California wants something in return, too. Alex Hager reports on the Colorado River for member station KUNC and is here to explain. Hi, Alex.

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: Howdy. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So this summer, the federal government told the states that share the Colorado River that they needed to write plans to take significantly less water due to the decade-long drought. California has now been the first to respond. How do they plan to meet this goal?

HAGER: Yeah, Southern California is proposing to cut back by about 9%. And they're still sorting out the details of who exactly will give up how much water, but this is a deal that's bringing together suppliers for farms and cities alike. So the four agencies involved kind of have the ability to spread out the impact of those cuts. And this announcement comes amid mounting pressure for them to use less. The federal government asked the states that share the river to conserve. And, you know, a lot of those states responded by pointing fingers at California, which uses by far the most water from the river. So now this is California's response. They're coming out with the first major water conservation deal since the feds asked for cuts.

SUMMERS: OK. But what are they asking for in return?

HAGER: The California group is asking for federal money to help with the Salton Sea. It's this big, salty lake that gets filled with irrigation runoff from nearby farms. But when there's less water heading to California, that lake dries up. And then all the salt and dust that's left behind - it's causing an ecological and health crisis for the area.

SUMMERS: OK. And their request - how is that landing with the feds?

HAGER: It's hard to say right now. You know, this was just announced yesterday. But we do know that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the big dams on the Colorado River - they're getting $4 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act, and I've got sources telling me that the bulk of that will go to projects in the Colorado River Basin. So these California agencies could be trying to get a slice of that funding to help with Salton Sea issues in exchange for their plans to conserve water.

SUMMERS: Thinking big-picture here, you know, drought is ongoing. Reservoir levels keep dropping. And yet, 40 million people still depend on water from this river. Is all of that giving a new sense of urgency to these negotiations?

HAGER: Absolutely. This river is supplying people from Wyoming to Mexico, and right now it is just really on the ropes. There is a lot of demand. And every year for the past 23 years, there has been less water to go around. The situation is dire, and that's coming across in this deal. There's a lot of tension between cities and agriculture, so it's not every day you get them to sit down together and agree on something. Deven Upadhyay is the assistant GM for the Metropolitan Water District. They serve about 19 million people across Southern California.

DEVEN UPADHYAY: The nature and severity of the condition that we're facing right now on the river really has caused, I think, everybody in the states, but in particular in California - all of us - to try to band together as agencies and figure out how we can contribute and be part of a solution.

SUMMERS: All right, Alex, so in the time we have left, what is next for the rest of the states that use water from the Colorado River?

HAGER: Well, we haven't seen any other tangible plans for new conservation, you know, elsewhere along the river. When the federal government started putting on the pressure, they threatened mandatory cutbacks. But states called their bluff and said they didn't think the feds had the legal authority to do that. So far, the federal government has not followed through, so it is still up to the states to come up with conservation plans. There's a chance this California deal will help get the ball rolling for more states to do something similar. And when I talked to the designers of the plan, they said that was their hope.

SUMMERS: That was KUNC's Alex Hager. Alex, thank you.

HAGER: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIPSEY HUSSLE SONG, "DEDICATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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