Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the nation's largest drinking water distributor, bought nearly 13,000 acres of remote farms in July for $256 million, rattling farmers but giving it prized rights to the Colorado River.
WHY IS THE COLORADO RIVER SO IMPORTANT?
The river, which travels 1,400 miles from Colorado to northern Mexico, is the main source of water for an extremely dry region. In 1922, Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming agreed to split deliveries with Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada. A 1944 treaty gave a fixed amount of water to Mexico.
The Colorado's reservoirs — including the nation's largest, Lake Mead, at Hoover Dam — can store 60 million acre feet of water, allowing wet years to position the region for drought. (An acre foot is enough to supply two typical households for a year.)
WHAT'S THE OUTLOOK?
States overestimated how much water the river would deliver in the 1922 compact, raising the possibility of cuts. The Colorado has been in drought for 15 years. This year, Lake Mead dropped close to levels that would trigger cuts until rain staved off a day of reckoning.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates that the shortfall will grow to 3.2 million acre feet by 2060.
WHAT ABOUT CALIFORNIA?
As the nation's most populous state, California has sparred repeatedly with its neighbors, particularly Arizona, which prevailed in a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision over how to divide the water. Arizona later built a 336-mile aqueduct system to bring river water from Lake Havasu to central and southern parts of the state. The growth of Sunbelt cities like Phoenix forced California to stop using more than its share and go on a water diet in 2003.
California cut its use of the river partly by having farms sell water to cities, bringing water from Lake Havasu to Lake Matthews in Riverside County on Metropolitan's 242-mile aqueduct. The Imperial Irrigation District, located in the state's southeast corner, sells water to San Diego in the nation's largest farm-to-city water sale. Metropolitan buys water from Palo Verde Valley.