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Troubled Waters: Colorado River Crisis – On The Table

More than 40 million people rely on the Colorado River. But with more people than ever using it, and the river drying up, the federal government has mandated that the seven states using this water take less. States have until 2026 to figure out a permanent solution.

"That's the question on the table is who get whose ox gets gored? Who is going to take the burden of cutbacks?" said Bart Fisher, a Blythe farmer and president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District. 

For now, California, Arizona and Nevada have agreed to a temporary solution, taking voluntary cuts to keep the river at a stable level until 2026. The Biden administration has dedicated $15.4 billion dollars to help reduce water demand. California takes the lion's share of water, with most of it going to farmers. 

In the Coachella Valley, the eastern end is populated with dozens of farms. These farms, along with ones in Imperial and Palo Verde Valleys as well as Yuma, Arizona, provide up to 90% of the nation's winter vegetables, according to the Palo Verde Irrigation District. And they all use Colorado River water to irrigate their crops. 


"Production from this valley is really feeding North America," said John Powell Jr., the president of Peter Rabbit Farms and board president of the Coachella Valley Water District. 

The waters of the Colorado River travel a remarkable way to California from La Poudre Pass Lake in Colorado, where the News Channel 3 team hiked miles to see the quiet origins fueling the lifeblood of the American Southwest. That water flows to California by gravity and into the city of Coachella via the 223 mile All-American canal.

"The Colorado River is everything," Powell Jr. said. "The amount of economic activity in this valley would be very, very small if we didn't have the Colorado River."


A whopping 80% of all water taken from the Colorado River is used for farms to grow the food we eat.

On paper, policymakers attributed a total of 16.5 acre-feet for water to be taken from the Colorado, though it is now known that the river producers far less, from 12-13 million acre-feet each year. Legally, because of the prior appropriation system and California's senior water claims, California is owed 4.4 million acre-feet, which is about 26.6% of the river water used by seven states, 30 tribes, and Mexico.

"So as a farmer, we pretty much rely on the Coachella Valley Water District to to maintain those rights," said Powell, Jr. "They're constantly under attack by whoever else wants water outside the Coachella Valley."

"That's why we're the biggest target. And when it comes to conservation, obviously the other users look to the big user to conserve more," said Fisher. "And so that's hence the pressure on California." 

And California has conserved. In a recent agreement with Arizona and Nevada, the three states plan to conserving 3 million acre-feet until 2026. In exchange, the states will get $1.2 billion dollars from the federal government for not using their full allotment of water. A lot of money will be given to farmers to become more water efficient, like using drip lines instead of sprinklers.

Drip lines and other water-efficient practices are something coachella valley farmers say they are already doing.

"You don't really see any water because these beds have a drip tape that runs right down the middle. And it's in between all the roots of these plants." said Powell, Jr., showing News Channel 3 anchor Angela Chen, as they walked along a row of green bellpepper plants on the fields of Peter Rabbit Farms.

California is willingly taking the punch for now, making about half of the cuts, which means farmers will need to fallow land and not plant anything.

"Less farming equals less crops. And I suspect you'll see different crops affected differently because [of] the economics. All farmers are in business to make a profit. And so they will choose the crops that render the least amount of profit and they'll choose not to grow those crops," said Fisher.

Farmers believe the public will see an impact on the land available to produce winter vegetables, like broccoli and cauliflower as well as traditional salad, like lettuce, romaine, and spinach. Mandatory water cutbacks likely mean the prices of your vegetables will go up.

Policymakers have until 2026 to come up with a permanent solution, but it's murky at the moment. Negotiations have barely started, and it's clear, entities in every state will be on the defensive; after all, who wants to give up a precious resource that leads to growth and money?

For now, because of the recent rain and abundant snowpack from this year, the federal government has accepted these voluntary cuts, with officials agreeing the conservation efforts by Californa, Arizona, and Nevada are enough to keep the river levels stable until 2026. 

But critics point out giving farmers federal money every year to not​ farm is not a sustainable, and that there needs to be an alternative plan.

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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