LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — A California plan for Colorado River arrived a day late and some water short.

The state’s plan, submitted to the federal government Tuesday night but released publicly Wednesday, completely ignores concerns about evaporation, and asserts its absolute right to water allocated in the century-old Colorado River Compact — the “Law of the River.”

Evaporation and seepage cost about 10% of the water supplied by the river each year, scientists estimate.

JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, makes the state’s approach to the problem clear near the end of his letter introducing California’s proposal. A title over the last section of the letter says: “The Absence of Consensus Agreement Between States Defaults to the Law of the River.”

The implication: Other states can propose whatever they want, but California’s right to its allocation is set in stone.

In this Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015 photo, mechanic John Harper walks onto the pipes conveying water pumped from the Colorado River at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Whitsett Intake Pumping Plant near Parker Dam, Calif. The pumping plant is the starting point of the Colorado River Aqueduct. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The letter chastises Arizona for not honoring California’s senior rights under the Colorado River Compact: “Just as the State of California was able to find ways to develop and implement intrastate agreements to drastically reduce water use and live within the state’s limited Colorado River water supply, so too may the State of Arizona be required to make similar arrangements to live within its available Colorado River water supplies. While California was able to complete the QSA (Quantification Settlement Agreement) only after a highly contentious legal, political, and policy process between various parties driven by the threat of unilateral federal action.”

Kyle Roerink of the conservation group the Great Basin Water Network put it this way: “There is no remorse from California as it relates to the terrible mistakes Arizona has made in over-developing its water supply.”

California’s water rights today equal 4.4 million acre-feet a year from the river. The state came forward with a plan to sacrifice about 10% of that — 400,000 acre-feet — in October, and that commitment is repeated in Hamby’s letter.

The California proposal lays out reductions in allocations to Lower Basin states, following the compact’s formulas for awarding shares of the river. It seeks to protect Lake Mead from dropping below 1,000 feet (the surface of the lake, expressed as altitude above sea level).

“The California plan, like the six states plan, is not a long-term solution that will stabilize the system,” Roerink said. “But it goes a little further than the six states letter in addressing the fact that the Upper Basin plans to develop considerable acre-footage north of Lees Ferry.”

Roerink said the plan is still just “a Band-Aid that would cut a similar amount of water for the next few years — all while going to great lengths to protect elevations at Lake Mead and Lake Powell.”

A spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority declined to comment late Wednesday. “The Southern Nevada Water Authority has not yet had the opportunity to review the plan in detail; therefore, we are not in a position to comment at this time,” the spokesman said.

It differs in significant ways from the proposal signed by Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming:

  • Ignores any adjustment in allocations to account for “transit loss” — evaporation and seepage during delivery
  • Discusses using water kept in Lake Mohave to fulfill allocations to Mexico in an emergency
  • Ends U.S. Bureau of Reclamation “operational neutrality” accounting of water releases from Lake Powell, relying strictly on the actual surface elevation of lakes in all cases
  • Discusses “human health and safety” exceptions to the rules — which affect California more than any of the other basin states — asserting that all agreements are out the window if California says it’s a health emergency

Read the letter and proposal from California below:

Websites for U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation have not acknowledged the proposals from the states as of Wednesday night, and no statements have been issued by the federal government.

The states were encouraged to collaborate on a plan in June when Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton asked for proposals to come up with savings of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water — a request seen at the time as practically impossible. The states missed an August deadline.

A sign indicates the Lake Mead water line in 2021 in contrast to current low water levels as construction equipment stands nearby to expand the boat launch ramp due to the western drought on June 28, 2022 on Lake Mead along the Colorado River in Boulder City, Nevada. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

After that, Touton issued the Jan. 31 deadline for a proposal, which brought the flurry of activity this week — and still no comprehensive plan agreed to by all seven states.

Now that California has submitted a plan, which one will win out?

With the Jan. 31 deadline passed, it’s possible that the federal government could act unilaterally to change the way it is managing the river’s flow through Glen Canyon Dam, Hoover Dam and all the other dams controlling reservoirs and Colorado River flow.

But factions and problems in collaboration suggest that courts might be the next step in the effort to answer the questions that boil down to a simple truth: there’s not enough water in the river to meet the expected deliveries to each state, tribes and Mexico.

Roerink said, “In both letters we saw shots across the bow and flame fanning. The likelihood of litigation is reaching a boiling point unseen in decades.”