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Western States Play Game of Chicken Over Colorado River



Lightning strikes over Lake Mead near Hoover Dam that impounds Colorado River water at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Arizona. (AP File Photo/John Locher)
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You would have to be at least a septuagenarian to remember “Rebel Without a Cause,” a 1955 movie that starred James Dean and depicted the lives of aimless teenagers.

The film’s most memorable scene was a game of chicken in which two boys raced cars side by side toward a cliff and the first one to bail out was the loser. The “winner,” however, died when his car hurtled over the cliff.

Ever since, the term has been applied to other high-stakes confrontations and it’s an apt description of a conflict between California and the six other states that draw water from the Colorado River. Years of drought and overly optimistic assumptions of how much water the Colorado can produce, dating back to a 1922 multi-state pact, have left the river in crisis.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters



The Colorado’s two major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have fallen so low that their power generators could soon cease operating. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river, has called on the states to reduce their diversions, set at 16.4 million acre-feet a year in the 1922 agreement but recently averaging about 14 million, by 2-4 million acre-feet. The agency threatened to impose the cuts unilaterally if there’s no agreement.

Fitful negotiations have been underway for years, but a Jan. 31 deadline for submitting a unified plan passed without agreement. The six other states submitted a plan for reducing use by 2.9 million acre-feet, a third of which would come from California, which is by far the heaviest diverter. California officials have rejected that scenario and instead have offered a 400,000 acre-foot reduction.

California is an outlier largely because agricultural irrigation districts along the river, particularly the Imperial Irrigation District, which are the state’s biggest users of Colorado and have very senior water rights, are so far unwilling to make more than token cuts.

Major reductions would probably require ceasing farming on thousands of acres of land, much of which now grows alfalfa for dairy farms and cattle ranches, some as far away as China. If they are imposed involuntarily, farmers would probably sue, citing their historic legal rights.

“The strongest thing that the other basin states have going for them is some relative level of consensus. And the strongest thing California has going for it is the law,” Rhett Larson, a water law expert at Arizona State University, told the Los Angeles Times.

The political – and perhaps legal – game of chicken over the Colorado’s ever-diminishing flow may be over money as much as it is water. Southern California farmers have hinted that they would cooperate if they were compensated for taking land out of production.

“For most parties, the political game now is how to extract the most money from the federal government and the most water from California so other lower-priority parties can reduce water use less,” UC Merced engineering professors Jay Lund and Josué Medellin-Azuara wrote in a recent analysis of the situation.

The Colorado River’s dynamics mirror an even larger battle in Northern California over how much water can be extracted from rivers that flow into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The state Water Resources Control Board wants lower diversions to improve water quality and wildlife habitat in the Delta and has threatened mandatory reductions unless there are satisfactory “voluntary agreements” with agricultural water districts. The board is being pressed by environmentalists to take direct action, but if it acted unilaterally, it probably would trigger lawsuits over the state’s authority to abrogate long-standing water rights.

It’s another game of chicken, and as with the Colorado situation, who ultimately wins and who loses is very uncertain.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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