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San Diego avoids water cuts as federal deadline passes for deal on Colorado River

San Diegans on Tuesday continued to avoid any immediate repercussions from the 22-year megadrought that has ravaged the Colorado River, threatening the water supply of 40 million people across the American West. The region gets more than half its water from the river through a 2003 deal with farmers in the Imperial Valley, which has so far proved a prescient, albeit costly maneuver.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had threatened this summer to impose mandatory cuts across the Southwest — potentially upending a century of water law on the river — if the seven basin states didn’t agree on a blueprint to reduce consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre feet by Aug. 16.

However, with still no plan in place on Tuesday, agency officials talked more about collaboration than such hard-nosed tactics, which would have almost certainly triggered one of the biggest legal battles in the nation’s history.

“The solution to this basin is one of partnership,” agency Commissioner Camille Touton said at a press event Tuesday. “Reclamation remains fully committed to working in a consensus manner across the upper and lower basins, tribal nations and with the country of Mexico.”

The agency’s shift in tone didn’t surprise San Diego County Water Authority officials, who expressed little if any concern the federal government could abruptly turn off the spigot. That’s partly because the Imperial Irrigation District, or IID — which supplies the San Diego wholesaler — has some of the highest priority rights on the river.

“This conjecture about how the feds are going to come in and flip a switch and the world’s going to change, I don’t see that,” said Dan Denham, the water authority’s deputy general manager. “There is the law of the river. It’s the consent decrees. It’s the contracts.”

While San Diegans have been shielded from the drought by long-term investments in the Colorado River, a desalination plant in Carlsbad and raising the San Vicente Dam, they’ve also felt the resulting sting of soaring water rates. Utility bills will likely only get higher as new investments in recycling come online, such as the city of San Diego’s multibillion-dollar Pure Water endeavor.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Reclamation released on Tuesday a dire forecast for water levels at lakes Mead and Powell, which are now collectively at 28 percent of capacity. As a result of the projected water levels, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will take previously agreed upon cuts.

Specifically, allocations will be slashed in Arizona by 21 percent or about 592,000 acre feet, Nevada by 8 percent or about 25,000 acre feet and Mexico by 7 percent or 104,000 acre feet. An acre foot is enough water to cover an acre a foot deep or supply about two average households a year.

Boaters take to the water during a record-setting heat wave at San Vicente Reservoir

Boaters take to the water during a record-setting heat wave at San Vicente Reservoir on Aug. 16, 2020, in San Diego.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

California will narrowly avoid any of the voluntary reductions, which would have been largely shouldered by the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. IID is not subject to any immediate cuts under the current emergency drought agreements.

The agency has inked water transfers to urban areas, most notably San Diego, by fallowing farmland and investing in more efficient irrigation techniques. Those so-called conservation efforts have saved 7 million acre feet of water over the last two decades, according to IID.

Pressure is now ratcheting up on the Bureau of Reclamation, Metropolitan, IID, Central Arizona Water Conservation District and other agencies to draft a blueprint by the spring that outlines much deeper cuts.

The crux of the negotiations increasingly appears to revolve around how much the federal government can afford to pay farmers to fallow more land. President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law Tuesday, will provide about $4 billion for this and other related efforts.

“The district continues to be a willing partner in finding collaborative solutions and is strongly encouraged by the Inflation Reduction Act for its forward-thinking investments in water conservation projects and environmental restoration at the Salton Sea,” James Hanks, board president of IID, said in a press statement Tuesday.

Urban areas across Southern California, which also face the added impact of the state’s drought in the Sierra Nevada and other mountain ranges, will likely also be expected to double down on conservation, including ripping out more lawns and installing water-efficient appliances.

San Diegans have been at the forefront of this trend, cutting water use by roughly 40 percent over the last decade. The region’s wholesaler has argued with officials in Sacramento that mandating further conservation will only hurt ratepayers as agencies are forced to further jack up rates to offset plummeting revenue from declining sales.