California’s water deal with the US could be a bargaining chip

New US plan could lead to federal action on Colorado River water, but there are important differences between the US and Canadian water deals

The most serious issue confronting the state’s negotiations with the federal government in a long-term attempt to save the Colorado River is its capacity to provide freshwater to Southern California. Federal officials insist that California should accept less water than the current flow – currently nearly 1.1bn acre-feet per year – or risk a court challenge to its water law.

The state contends that the river’s capacity is only about 740 million acre-feet, which is about half the level required for full federal withdrawal. Some experts, however, dispute this figure.

The uncertainty over Colorado River water is a hot button in California. It was recently suggested that, should water become a bargaining chip in negotiations between the state and the federal government this week, the state might take legal steps to protect its water rights.

“California has a big problem with federal water,” said Mark Bernstein of the Institute for Policy Integrity, an organisation that works for the protection of water rights. “The federal government is about to cut off California. This is a significant blow to California.”

Bernstein is involved in the negotiations and hopes the state will gain some concessions from the US government. He believes the state will be able to secure a measure of federal support by agreeing to give up some of its water for the Colorado River and the Delta-Mendota canal, which would divert water from the Colorado River directly to Southern California.

The US deal with California is complicated. One of the sticking points is who can give California a water transfer. The state requires that it receive about 40% of the transfer rather than the current 25% set by law.

In contrast, the amount of water the US gives the state depends entirely on how much water it wants the state to give up for the canal, which is expected to serve an industrial area.

“In the past, the US has given California less because of the amount of power it needed from the lower Colorado,” said Berni

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