Ken Salazar on California’s senior rights to Colorado River water

From an interesting Sammy Roth interview with former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar:

Q: In Southern California, water managers often say they don’t have to worry about losing access to Colorado River water, because of the state’s “senior” water rights. During an extreme shortage, they believe, Arizona and Nevada would lose much of their river water before California loses a drop. Do you think that’s how an extreme shortage would actually play out?

A: I think California has to worry a lot about, because it has a major dependence on the Colorado River. It has to be one of the cardinal concerns of the state of California.

Salazar, who as Interior Secretary used to serve as the “watermaster” on the Lower Colorado and therefore presumably has some understanding of the legal nuances, doesn’t say how California might come to no longer enjoy those senior rights.

We’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.


  1. If you look at it, congress could repeal California’s water rights if they choose to. A national law overrides an interstate compact. In the Senate Ca has 2 votes while NV and AZ each have two votes, so it would depend on alliances with senators from other states. It would be the political donneybrook of all times.

  2. Interesting observation @Lyle. How would this donneybrook happen? Two possibilities.

    1. Someone comes up with a National Water Security Act for the ‘good’ of the country. The water gets redistributed under the structure of the new act.

    2. Another possible National Act that is on the ‘green’ usage of the river. Another redistribution based on the rules of that law.

    In either case, not too much of a state issue – more of a national level. The interesting thing here is water usage can be looked upon as both surface and ground water. How would a federal law effect the usage of ground water within a state boundary? I’d hate to guess on that.

    Enough of this. As long as a deal can be made with PVID or IID, Southern California water managers may not really see any shortages in the immediate future. At least, that’s what I would guess.


  3. Sorry Mary. Look at . Hope this explains things a little bit.

    Palo Verde Irrigation District (PVID) has the senior rights to the water from the Colorado River for the state of California. Imperial Irrigation District IID also draws a significant amount as well. MWD did go into an agreement with PVID to get water.

    The relationship moves AG water to the LA area. As with any modern relationship, it’s complicated. John can explain it better than I can.


  4. Fundamentally, California remains a tailender on the Colorado. Institutions and rules are great, but nothing beats being near the top of a river that drains a real big watershed. Tailenders are always vulnerable.

  5. In my mind it is likely that in a catastrophic shortage, “money talks” or as OtPR says, tail enders get the short end of the stick. Southern California has the money, but is a tail ender.

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