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Amid Drought, California Experiments With Leasing Water Rights

Amid Drought, California Experiments With Leasing Water Rights

by Abrahm Lustgarten ProPublica, Aug. 1, 2015, 8 a.m.

This analysis was co-published with the Los Angeles Times.

Last fall, farmers working the flat land along the Colorado River outside Blythe, California, harvested a lucrative crop of oranges, lettuce and alfalfa from fields irrigated with river water. But that wasn't their only source of income. They made almost as much per acre from the seemingly dead squares of dry earth abutting those orchards and row crops, fields left barren for the season.

The money crop that the fallowed land produced was one of the West's most precious commodities: water. Under an experimental trading scheme set up by the Palo Verde Irrigation District in Blythe and the Metropolitan Water District 2014 which supplies municipal water to the Los Angeles area, Orange and San Diego counties, and much of the Inland Empire 2014 the farmers essentially leased millions of gallons of their Colorado River water to California's coastal cities.

It's a prototype of a trade that may soon become much more common, and the kind of win-win scenario that could help solve the West's water crisis.

The Colorado River basin 2014 which provides water to California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming 2014 is entering its 16th year of drought. The nation's largest reservoir, Lake Mead, is nearly two thirds empty, in large part because even in wet years those seven states take more water from the river than the Colorado, on average over the last century, has provided.

This overuse 2014 coupled with arcane laws discouraging conservation, subsidies encouraging profligate water management and political gamesmanship 2014 has helped make the West's water desperately scarce and left its governments unprepared for a changing climate. ProPublica has reported extensively on these failures in its five-part series "Killing the Colorado."

But, as experts such as former Arizona Governor and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt point out, there is, in fact, a great deal of water available in the Colorado River basin. There is just a gross imbalance 2014 institutionalized through law and policy and tradition 2014 in who has access to it.