Western states floated a Colorado River deal. What happens after the Band-Aid comes off?

The lower Colorado River in Arizona and California in April.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, May 25.

After months of contentious negotiations, missed deadlines and dueling proposals, California and six other states that rely on water from the Colorado River reached an agreement this week to cut back on how much they take from the beleaguered water source.

Under their proposed terms, California, Arizona and Nevada would agree to reduce water use by 3 million acre-feet between now and the end of 2026 — or 1 million acre-feet per year on average.


An acre-foot is defined as the amount of water needed to fill an acre of space 1 foot deep, which works out to about 326,000 gallons. So the cutbacks represent roughly 326 billion gallons of water that would not be tapped by those three states each year.

The agreement wouldn’t tighten the tap as sharply as federal officials had proposed. The Interior Department previously floated options that would require reductions of 2 million acre-feet per year. The federal agency will now consider the states’ counterproposal.

But as my colleagues Ian James and Hayley Smith reported this week, the cutbacks hinge on federal funds paid to the West’s major water users. They wrote:

Under the states’ plan, 2.3 million acre-feet in reductions would come in exchange for compensation, which works out to more than $500 per acre-foot. (An acre-foot is enough water to supply three typical Southern California households for a year.)

Federal officials said that compensation will come via $1.2 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act, expected to be paid out to agricultural irrigation districts, tribes and other entities that applied for the funds.

“They have water rights, and they want to be paid if they’re going to be losing the revenue that they gain from farming with it,” Ian explained to me.


But as several experts told Haley and Ian, that compensation won’t flow forever. While this potential deal lays out a short-term plan, the long-term health of the Colorado River remains in crisis.

“If all this funding is given out now to make up for a large share of these reductions, what happens next, when money is not available at this level?” Ian said. “That’s one of the questions that I think will be front and center as the representatives of the states, tribes and water districts begin to get together and talk about rules for managing the river and water supplies after 2026.”

The deal follows an epic wet season that brought heavy rain and snow to much of the western U.S. That’s good news for the Colorado River and its reservoirs, as the bountiful snowpack in the Rocky Mountains will boost runoff to about 149% of average, according to federal estimates.

But with the next drought a matter of when, not if, Ian said the fate of the Colorado River — and the massive agriculture industry that has been overusing it for decades — depends on how the government addresses the big questions about conservation.

“Agriculture is also at the center of these questions about how to deal with less water because agriculture consumes such a large share of the river,” he said. “One of the points that stood out to me and in talking with experts is the need to look at how does agriculture change to adapt to a smaller river.”

Ian said that could mean growers turn to new types of crops and “higher value crops,” along with more efficient irrigation.


You can learn more about the Colorado River deal by reading Ian and Hayley’s latest reporting.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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Student journalists at L.A. City College are calling out censorship by staff on the campus. Students report being barred or restricted from covering public events on the campus, including sports and concerts. Los Angeles Times

A teen boy fell to his death from the 6th Street Viaduct during a social media stunt, according to the LAPD. The 17-year-old has not been identified, but LAPD Chief Michel Moore told L.A.’s Board of Police Commissioners he slipped while climbing an arch on the redesigned bridge. Los Angeles Times


One of the world’s largest private equity firms has been buying up hundreds of thousands of housing units across the U.S., including 66 relatively low-rent apartment buildings in San Diego County. Tenants worry their new landlord is about to increase their rents and impose evictions. CalMatters


How might AI gobble up human-held jobs as more companies turn to the technology? Don’t expect “a fiery robot apocalypse,” Times tech columnist Brian Merchant writes, but rather “routine layoffs” and “a slowly declining rate of work on offer.” Los Angeles Times


Newly announced presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis talks a lot of trash about California. And California Republicans are here for it. San Francisco Chronicle

How do Californians feel about Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s ability to finish out her term representing 39 million Californians? Not great, according to a new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by The Times. Almost two-thirds of registered voters said Feinstein is no longer fit to serve, and more than 40% of voters said she should resign. Just 27% said she should finish out her term. Los Angeles Times

Sen. Dianne Feinstein sits in a wheelchair and is pushed by an aide.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) departs a Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington on May 11.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

San Diego County’s leaders voted this week to help the city of San Diego purchase three hotels and an apartment building to provide housing for hundreds of unhoused residents. The effort hinges on the city’s ability to secure funds through the state’s Project Homekey program. San Diego Union-Tribune

Families of Black and disabled students have sued the Antelope Valley Union High School District, claiming those student groups face disproportionate expulsions and other disciplinary actions. Attorneys for the families also allege a “shadow discipline system” exists, which contributes to the racial disparities. LAist


A security guard in San Francisco shot Banko Brown, a transgender Black man, exposing how the city’s Black community suffers under the pressures of racism and poverty. “That ugly truth has been lost in the politics of the moment,” Times columnist Anita Chabria writes. “Banko Brown’s killing has become another fraught crisis in a city that is in political upheaval over homelessness, mental illness and drug use — as is much of California and the nation.” Los Angeles Times

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After recent attacks on L.A. Metro trains, County Supervisor Janice Hahn wants to know: Where were police officers, security guards and transit ambassadors? A man was fatally stabbed on a Long Beach train last month, and last week a woman was repeatedly punched while riding a train in the city. “Metro spends hundreds of millions a year to make the system safe,” Hahn wrote to Metro Chief Executive Stephanie Wiggins. “Even with all these resources, this passenger was left to fend for herself.” Los Angeles Times

Recreational cannabis use in California became legal in 2018, but L.A.’s racial divide in who gets arrested for marijuana-related charges has widened since then. Data analyzed by Crosstown show the number of Black people arrested by LAPD officers on charges related to cannabis use spiked in 2020. Arrests have fallen since then, but Black people are still disproportionately arrested compared with other racial groups — and the disparity is most notable at Los Angeles International Airport, where 77% of people arrested last year were Black. Crosstown

Walmart will pay California $500,000 in a settlement over claims the mega-retailer illegally sold brass knuckles to residents through its website. Under the agreement, Walmart does not admit any wrongdoing but will have to add an online feature to allow customers to report illegal sales or offerings on its website. The Sacramento Bee

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Today’s California landmark is from Miranda Alexander of San Diego: Fiesta Island dog park in Mission Bay.

Miranda Alexander's pups, Rosie Toes and Crispin G, enjoy the recent wildflower bloom on Fiesta Island.
(Miranda Alexander)

Miranda writes:

Being a dedicated dog owner, one of my favorite things in San Diego is Fiesta Island dog park. It is the largest fenced off-leash park in the county. There is a long stretch of beach and also a large mesa. This year there was a superbloom, [and] my two dogs got lost in all the flowers!

What are California’s essential landmarks? Fill out this form to send us your photos of a special spot in California — natural or human-made. Tell us why it’s interesting and what makes it a symbol of life in the Golden State. Please be sure to include only photos taken directly by you. Your submission could be featured in a future edition of the newsletter.

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