Colorado River Water War Rages On - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Colorado River Water War Rages On
Colorado River (Beth Ruggiero-York/Shutterstock)

One way to get a handle on the Colorado River crisis is via historical comparison, the past and the present, then and now.

Then would be 1922, when the Colorado River Compact, the current river-use agreement, was negotiated. The population of Phoenix in 1920 was about 29,000; its sister city in Arizona, Tucson, claimed about 20,000. Las Vegas boasted but 2,304 hardy desert dwellers. The river was at that time a wild, untamed torrent, upon which one could jump on a raft in central Utah and, eventually, be spit into the Sea of Cortez on a journey unimpeded by man-made obstruction.

Now the Southwest is booming: the Phoenix metro area, the Valley of the Sun, is home to 5.1 million souls; greater Tucson claims about one million — combined, the two Arizona cities receive 40 percent of their water from the river. Vegas and environs, 2.29 million strong, tap Lake Mead, on the river, for 90 percent of its aqua. Greater Los Angeles, 12.5 million, gets 25 percent of its water from the Colorado. The Imperial Valley produces two-thirds of all winter vegetables consumed by Americans, and gets all of its water from the river.

Add to all this 20-plus years of drought — a mega-drought, it’s been called — which has deposited radically diminished snowpack in the Rockies, and it’s not difficult to see a problem: too many thirsty users for too little water.

The river is running dramatically low, and the huge reservoirs behind the mammoth Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam are at all-time-low water levels, so diminished in volume as to threaten power production. So much water is being diverted along the waterway that at completion of its 1,450-mile course, the Colorado River merely trickles into the Sea of Cortez.

The agreement forged 100 years ago, in 1922, during an especially wet period, called colloquially the “Law of the River,” apportioned Colorado River water, in perpetuity, among the seven states in the river basin. Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico — got 7.5 million acre-feet per annum, as did the states downriver, the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona, and Nevada.

It’s not difficult to see a problem: too many thirsty users for too little water.

However, the Colorado River Compact expired at the end of January, and the seven states in the river basin, although implored by the government to do so, failed to reach a new allocation agreement by the deadline. It may fall to the Bureau of Reclamation to lay down the law.

Whatever decision is reached, it will indubitably entail curtailments — serious cutbacks — in water usage in the seven basin states. According to the Interior Department, annual diversions need to be reduced by two million to four million acre-feet a year to stabilize the system, or by about 15 to 30 percent.

Who has to cut how much is the rub.

Proposals for a solution were submitted by two parties — California and the six other basin states. The proposals differ radically on who must cut water usage more significantly to protect the health, and future, of the Colorado River.

Indeed, experts fear that, if water levels continue to fall, the Hoover Dam, in particular, a crucial element of the river system, could become nonfunctional. If Lake Mead, currently at 1,045 feet, falls below 895 feet, Hoover Dam’s outlets go to “dead pool,” in which no water is released downriver, which means no water to California, Arizona, or Mexico.

As Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told the Los Angeles Times, “If you end up in a courtroom arguing these points and something isn’t done, the Colorado River system is going to crash.”

Legally, California has been dealt a winning hand by the Law of the River and subsequent court rulings. The 1922 compact divvied up the water in absolute quantities rather than percentages, mandating that the Upper Colorado states deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the Lower Basin states. This has been called a “tragically bad design” by one water expert, because the amount of water per se has diminished so dramatically in recent decades. Allocating by percentages would be much more equitable. Also, of those Lower Basin states, California gets first dibs — called “senior rights” — for Imperial Valley irrigation, by an agreement that preceded the 1922 pact.

Additionally, the Supreme Court, in a 1963 decision in Arizona v. California, mandated that 4.4 million acre-feet of the first 7.5 million acre-feet go to California, while 2.8 million go to Arizona and 300,000 to Nevada.

The California proposal does offer to cut Southern California allotments, including by 9 percent in the Imperial Valley, while a proposal submitted by the six other states offers cuts from Arizona and Nevada beyond what the states had previously agreed to, while seeking especially significant reductions from California, as much as 18.5 percent, despite its relatively higher-priority water rights(RELATED: California’s Ongoing Water Follies)

A water law professor at Arizona State University, Rhett Larson, told the Los Angeles Times that California comes out as the “clear winner” if the Law of the River is interpreted as it’s presently written. “I’m an Arizonan, and so I’m pretty biased in favor of Arizona,” he said. “But I’m also a lawyer, which means I’m pretty biased in favor of the law. And the law says that California’s proposal is basically right — legally. It may not be right practically or morally, but it’s right legally.”

It is this very water-rights priority system that is preventing a solution, says Buschatzke. He called it the “single biggest thing that is making discussions among the states extremely difficult.” He continued, “Higher-priority water users are saying it should be the lower-priority water users that should do this. But at the end of the day, if the system crashes, and no water’s coming out of either lake, your priority and your piece of paper doesn’t mean a thing.”

Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, went to the bottom line. “There’s too little supply and too much demand,” he told the Washington Post. “Ultimately, I think what we’re going to see here is some major rewriting of Western water law.”

“We’re seeing a collision right now between 19th century water law, 20th century infrastructure and 21st century population and climate change,” Udall added. “And how this works out is anybody’s guess.”

A draft environmental impact statement is expected to be issued by the Bureau of Reclamation in the spring.

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