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Troubled Waters: The Colorado River Crisis – Water Rights

With so many people dependent on Colorado River to survive, how do policymakers decide who gets the water first? 

More than 40 million people rely on the river for drinking water, agricultural use, and more, with states historically battling over rights. California has the most users, with about 20 million people in the state dependent on the water. Entities within California have the oldest water rights claims, and because of that, natural resource experts say California's water rights are constantly under attack by other entities and states. 

The water we drink and shower with here in the Coachella Valley comes from the aquifers deep underground, which are replenished by Colorado River water. When it comes to water claims on the river, California is on top, but that senior position has come with constant challenges and fights. 

Morning anchor Angela Chen traveled to Colorado and Arizona to learn about the complex river system in crisis because of chronic overuse and decades of fighting between states.

There is an old Mojave tale telling of the creation of the Colorado River. It is said the great spirit Matavilya created the sky and earth. But he is murdered, and in his place, his son Mastamho takes charge of the world and people. He plunges a staff in the ground and gives life to the river. 

According to the story, Mastamho gives the river to the people, who flourish for thousands of years with trade networks all the way to the ocean. The gifts of the river were for them, for they are the Pipa Aha Maca, or "People by the River."

 "These are ancestral lands for us. Just because the reservation was formed in 1865 doesn't mean that these were new lands for the Mojave people," said Flores. 

The law of the river is first in time, first in right, and as such, tribes who have been here since time immemorial have the most senior rights. But that doesn't mean they can always access it. 

"About a third of the of the people that live on the Navajo Nation currently have no water to their homes," said Mark Squillace, a professor of natural resource law at UC Boulder. "They have to they have to pick up their water from trucks. They have no running water in their homes, even though the Navajo Nation has very senior water rights on the system. But they don't have the infrastructure to bring the water into their homes and onto their fields."

News Channel 3 traveled to the headquarters of the Colorado River Indian Tribes -- whose reservation was established in 1865 just across the border of California in Arizona, the river sweeps through their land. Here, water access is not a problem. But the ownership is.  The canals delivering river water to them are owned by the federal government. The tribe says they have not been maintained.

"We have a history of stepping up to the plate and repairing the system that's not ours just to ensure that that water gets delivered where it's needed," said Josh Moore, the general manager of Colorado River Indian Tribes Farm.

Cracks and traveling trees and unlined canals mean a loss of water. The tribe said only 54% of the water owed to them actually makes it to them. 

Indigenous people have historically been left out of water negotiations.

"One of the things that my grandfather would always say as a child was that if you're not at the table, you're on the table, and I've heard that reiterated in many forms, especially our tribal leadership," said Moore. "All tribes need to have a seat and representation with decision makers."

But the struggles of tribes have been largely pushed to the wings as the spotlight remains on the crisis between states, and between the seven that use the water, California is king. Where water flows, money follows, and that is what the fights and antler-locked negotiations center on.  

"Water equals dollars. Water equals growth and growth potential. And so it's really difficult for policy makers within their states to accept less water, less growth, less opportunity within their own economy," said Bart Fisher, a Palo Verde farmer & member of the Colorado River Board of California. "It's all about money." 

The Colorado River follows what's called a prior appropriation system; whoever claims rights first has priority over everyone else. After the tribes  are those who filed with the government first. And number one, filed in 1877, is Palo Verde Valley, right next to the Coachella Valley. Also high on the list is the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest water consumer along the Colorado, receiving 70 percent of California's share.

"What does IID do with all that water? Well, IID delivers it," said Robert Schettler, a spokesperson for the Imperial Irrigation District. "And then what happens there is we delivered to nine cities and communities, and that's a very small fraction of the overall water that we do deliver. 97% of it goes to agriculture."

Farms use most of the water to feed America. Between seven states, Imperial Valley, a relatively small valley next to the Coachella Valley with a county population of only 179,702 marking it as the least populous county in Southern California,  receives 20 percent of all Colorado River water. It makes IID powerful and it makes them a target. 

The Imperial Valley historically got 3.1 million acre feet of that water. So one irrigation district in southern california with some of the oldest rights in the system took up a vast amount of the water," said Squillace. "And again, the Imperial Irrigation district was paid handsomely to transfer some of that water...But the point is that they're still using a lot of water. and when you think about the other demands on the system, using that much water in a single irrigation district at the bottom of the system can become highly problematic and controversial."

"We're using this for the benefit of the greater good. And what it has been doing for 20 years is not only having its growers grow to meet the food supply," said Schettler. "It has been conserving and we've been conserving a vast amount of water for last 20 plus years."

Conserving -- because we've been in a drought for the past 23 years -- worsened by human-driven climate change and hotter temperatures.

"There's going to be more demand, more consumption, plants, vegetation, the transpire and evaporate more. There's more evaporation from lakes, wheat and pollen. So that means there is less water available for everybody else," said Balaji Rajagopalan, a professor of hydrology at UC Boulder.

With the drought and the drying of the river the federal government earlier this year -- mandated the states hammer out a solution to use up to 30 percent less water. This has led to other states calling for california to use less. Coursing underneath this conflict is a decades-long, venomous rift between California and Arizona, the most junior in water rights. For a while, it was California versus everybody. 

Here's why critics say California's usage might be unfair. The seven states that use the water are divided by the upper and lower basins. Each basin gets 7.5 million acre-feet total. But the thing is, the Upper Basin states don't always need to use their entire share, letting the water they don't use flow down to the Lower Basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California.

"The Lower Basin has always been using their 7.5 million acre feet, at least for the recent future or the recent past," said Squillace. "And that doesn't leave a whole lot for the Upper Basin. If you take 7.5 away from 11 million acre feet, you've got 3.5 million acre feet left for the Upper Basin. So they're short 4 million acre feet. They're claiming, well, you know, we're entitled to our full 7.5 million acre feet or we're at least entitled to use more water. You can't tell us we need to stop right now. But that's part of the controversy." 

And since lawmakers overallocated the water, users have never had enough to go around. If the day comes that Upper Basin states want to use their full share, it means California could have to cut all water use in half, drastically changing how life in SoCal would look. It's unlikely to happen, but it's also why California fights so hard for its full share each year. Then, there are the critics who say the water has been mismanaged for decades.

"We built this foundation of law and infrastructure to solve a problem, which is water scarcity. We spend billions of dollars to put in that infrastructure and we still have water scarcity," said John Weisheit, an environmentalist, co-founder of Living Rivers, and the Colorado Riverkeeper with the Waterkeeper Alliance. "I would propose that infrastructure is not how you solve this problem. I would say that infrastructure is what makes it more complicated and more impossible to deal with."

The states now have until 2026 to come up with a permanent plan to using less water along the Colorado. Negotiations are still in the earliest stages, and it's likely to be a tough showdown. 

This series was supported by The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

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Angela Chen

Angela comes to the Coachella Valley as KESQ’s morning anchor after teaching graduate school classes at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication. Learn more about Angela here.


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