LOS ANGELES — A century ago last November, seven states, including California, got together and signed the Colorado River Compact. The document divided the river’s water and provided certainty for the future.

What You Need To Know

  • In 2026, all agreements on the Colorado River are set to expire
  • Because of the low levels the nation's largest reservoirs fell to, the federal government asked the seven basin states to come up with an interim plan to cut water use on the Colorado River for 2024-26
  • The MWD released a statement Tuesday saying, "Based on our initial assessment of the draft SEIS, neither of the action alternatives presented today [Tuesday] is ideal. Both include significant supply cuts that would hurt Metropolitan and our partners across the Basin. There is a better way to manage the river"
  • The Interior Department says the draft SEIS released Tuesday analyzes alternatives and measures to address potential shortages in the event that such measures are required to protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety in 2024 through 2026, after which the current operating guidelines expire

One hundred years later, that certainty hangs in the balance, and history is evolving in front of us.

On Tuesday, the federal government proposed for the first time unilateral water cuts on the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada to save Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling to critically low levels.

Spectrum News took a media tour of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Colorado River infrastructure to see the lengthy path that water travels to arrive to Southern California’s faucets from Lake Mead.

The water gets to the state from The Colorado River Aqueduct or CRA, which is a 242-mile system of open canals, tunnels and siphons that began operating in 194. Water from the Colorado River system comes to SoCal from Lake Mead and enters the CRA from Lake Havasu at the Whitsett Intake Pumping Plant, the first of five different pumping plants along the aqueduct.

Water is lifted to higher elevations, and then flows by gravity to Lake Mathews in Riverside County, which is the final point on the aqueduct. On average, about 25% of Southern California’s water supply comes from the Colorado River via the CRA.

Water in Lake Mead has been dropping for 20 years because of overallocation, and a two-decades long drought made worse by climate change. Since 2020, the river system has hit a low point, prompting the federal government to declare its first-ever water shortage on the Colorado.

The seven states were asked by the feds to figure out a plan to cut 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water, but they couldn’t agree on a deal.

Bill Hasencamp is Metropolitan’s Manager of Colorado River Resources and joined Spectrum News on the media trip. He said that while the basin states agree that climate change is a big threat to the Colorado River, this winter’s snowpack buys them some time to strike the right deal together.

“For the short term, we think more moderate level of reductions are needed along with help from the federal government by providing funding through the Inflation Reduction Act, but in the long run, we’re still going to have those discussions about how we’re going to live and thrive in the Southwest United States knowing there’s significantly less water in the future,” Hasencamp said.