Under the proposal, the trio of states would use about 13 percent less water each year through 2026 in exchange for $1.2 billion in federal compensation. At the heart of their speech was the idea that the loss of California would be felt far beyond its borders.

“There’s always been the potential for mutual assured destruction if we don’t actually find a way forward,” Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary of natural resources, told POLITICO, describing his behind-the-scenes dealings on behalf of the Newsom administration. “Our governors exerted clear and constructive pressure to find a solution.”

It’s a remarkable turnaround when many expected only the Biden administration — and then, most likely, the courts — to break the deadlock and provide a lasting solution. And it helps demonstrate that longer-term deals are possible in negotiations over the river, where climate change, population growth and overuse are straining supplies for 40 million people and 5 million acres of farmland.

Two factors helped seal the deal: The West was blessed with a wet winter that eased pressure in the short term — at least in California. Even more important to Newsom’s aides in California was the November election of Arizona Gov. Kathy Hobbs, a fellow Democrat who favored cooperation over using her western neighbor as a foil.

This was not the case before. When California came up with a proposal in late January to preserve its primary water rights over the Colorado River, the story emerged that the state was left alone and unwilling to make sacrifices. It didn’t help that officials in Nevada and Arizona, including Democrats at the state and federal levels, had the state on the fence for months.

It was a delicate situation for Newsom, who risked being further grouped and then outplayed by much less influential and economically powerful states. He also faced domestic pressure from a powerful constituency he courted at home: agriculture. Much of California’s share of the Colorado River goes to farmers who grow alfalfa, lettuce and other crops along the Mexican and Arizona borders.

There was also the personal politics of getting involved in showdowns with possible electoral consequences. As a potential presidential candidate in 2028 or later, the Democratic governor will need support from voters in the battleground states of Arizona and Nevada, which is also a primary state.

And for Hobbs, a lower-ranking official who just months earlier defeated far-right Republican Curry Lake in the gubernatorial race, the threat was existential: If the fight went to court, Arizona could lose because it has more junior voters. the River and Hobbs constituents, especially when growing Phoenix, would do without water.

Hobbs has made combating the drought — which she accused Republicans in her state of undermining — a priority of her new administration and has made that clear to colleagues outside her state.

The two governors held at least one face-to-face meeting at the event where the leaders gathered, followed by calls. And along with personal considerations for both, aides indicated they would like to make a broader case about the progress that can be made if voters in their respective states elect Democrats to lead them.

“We all agree that we need to reduce consumption. It’s an application of how we continue to push,” Newsom said in a little-noticed update on the talks in March, describing “good conversations” with Hobbs, who he described as “actively engaged.”

Aides to the two governors also met to sign up — a change of pace, as Crowfoot said he doesn’t recall ever being involved in negotiations with his Arizona counterparts when Doug Ducey was governor. In California, Newsom’s top aide, Ann Patterson, held weekly and then daily meetings to monitor the minutiae of the negotiations.

The actual deal-making took place — quietly — during a series of formal and informal meetings in hallways, airports and diners in cities across the West, from Burbank to Coachella to Phoenix, that brought together key water officials.

The two main players were J. B. Hamby, chairman of the California Colorado River Board and director of the Imperial Irrigation District, and Tom Bushatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

The two privately vowed to continue the discussion after a particularly acrimonious group meeting in Denver in January, when it looked like California and Arizona would never see eye-to-eye.

They met in Yuma, Arizona, for lunch, Bushatzke recalled to POLITICO, halfway between their homes in Phoenix and the Imperial Valley.

Along with colleagues from other water agencies in California and Nevada, they continued to talk daily. The more intimate negotiations shifted the dynamic from California versus everyone else to the lower basin states working together.

Their meetings were looming over a Home Office deadline of May 31 for states to offer feedback on a plan to introduce mandatory cuts, possibly as early as this summer.

Negotiators acknowledged that if they had to put their positions in writing, it would mean a second round of bad headlines, with California at odds with other states and Arizona facing much bigger cuts on top of potential litigation.

Top aides were on standby to get the governors to talk again to smooth the talks, but intervention was ultimately unnecessary. After midnight on Sunday, the negotiators abandoned their offer on Monday. Newsom and Hobbs — along with Gov. Joe Lombardo, Republican of Nevada — issued a joint celebratory statement.

Still, the governors acknowledged the deal is only intended as a short-term bridge fix. The cuts fall short of what scientists say is needed to avert disaster. Last year, the federal government demanded a cut of at least twice that amount.

Bushatzke called the proposal a “band-aid” to help stabilize the levels of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two largest reservoirs, so negotiators can focus on bigger, longer-term issues.

Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, said the agreement may have been necessary and provides some positive momentum, but he does not see it as a complete victory. He worries that the agreement could set a precedent where states are willing to make modest cuts and only if they receive compensation.

“It avoids lawsuits, but it avoids lawsuits at a pretty high cost to the federal government,” Lund said.

The Department of the Interior has yet to approve the states’ plan and allocate the money. Federal officials said they will begin long-term negotiations in a few weeks to figure out what to do after the states’ offer expires in 2026.

Christopher Kadelago contributed reporting.


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