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How California averted painful water cuts and made a Colorado River deal

For months, California officials, led by Gov. Gavin Newsom, felt like they were at the bottom of a multistate dogpile in the closely-watched stare down over water rights across the American West. Newsom and his top environmental aides viewed century-old laws as favoring them. And they tried to convince other states that California had already sacrificed by slashing its use. But they were getting crushed, not only in the P.R. war, but in the delicate discussions taking place between the various states behind closed doors. It is no secret that California has struggled with droughts throughout its history. However, that all changed in a dramatic way on Monday, when California went from the main villain over dwindling Colorado River supplies to something of a surprise beneficiary. The joint plan presented alongside Arizona and Nevada and roundly viewed as a victory by California officials — as well as environmentalists and business leaders alike — proposes to hold off a water crisis for at least three more years.

Under the proposal, the trio of states would take about 13 percent less water every year through 2026 in exchange for $1.2 billion in federal compensation. At the heart of their pitch was the notion that California’s loss would be felt far beyond its borders. “There was always this potential of mutually assured destruction if we don’t actually find a path forward,” Wade Crowfoot, California’s Natural Resources Secretary, told POLITICO in describing his backroom dealings on behalf of the Newsom administration. “We very much had clear and constructive pressure from our governors to find a solution”. 

This was a remarkable turnaround when many were expecting only the Biden administration — and then, likely, the courts — to be able to break the stalemate and enforce a lasting solution. And it helps demonstrate that more long-term agreements are possible in what are likely life-or-death negotiations over the river, where climate change, population growth and overuse have strained supplies for 40 million people and 5 million acres of farmland. Two factors helped close the deal: The West was blessed with a wet winter, which relieved some pressure in the short-term — at least inside California. Even more significant, to Newsom’s aides in California, was the November election of Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a fellow Democrat who chose cooperation over using her western neighbor as a foil.Hopefully, from here, California will be able to sustainably maintain a water supply. 


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