The Colorado River: Building a Sustainable Future
Diverting water for farms and cities, generating hydro¬electric power, supplying an ever-growing urban population and protecting endangered species have all shaped the development and management of the Colorado River we know today. How to sustain the system and build a resilient future for what is known as the “lifeline of the Southwest” is the task facing the region and the river’s multiple users.
The list of major challenges facing the Colorado River’s diverse stakeholders – the states, the United States government, the Republic of Mexico, power suppliers, Indian tribes and environmentalists – is daunting: preparing for climate change, manag¬ing the river for both water supplies, power generation and environmen¬tal protection, settling Indian water rights claims, and reaching agreement with Mexico on transboundary issues. Historically, there has been much debate and disagreement (including litigation) over the river. Today’s issues are no less contentious, but at the Water Education Foundation’s September Colorado River Symposium, lead¬ing policymakers pointed to a series of recent agreements on water allocations and river operations as the foundation for future compromise.
“I would characterize the way that we have come to the point where we are now, which I frankly am currently encouraged by, is ‘the chaos theory of water negotiation,’” said Jim Lochhead, an attorney with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. “We go through a lot of painful discussions with a lot of interests in the room. A lot of stuff gets thrown at the wall and at the end of the day we come forward with some pretty far-reaching and innovative solutions. And I think the lesson is that as long as we keep talking and as long as we bring different interests at the table we can move forward.”
In the past decade, several major milestone programs and policies have been adopted to address issues related to river restoration, water allocations, water marketing, groundwater banking, reservoir operations during droughts and ways to stretch water supplies through conservation and other measures. These agreements are now part of what is known as the “Law of the River.” Many regard the major components of the Law of the River as a constitution because it establishes a framework for managing the river’s resources.
Bob Johnson, a career employee with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), offered a long list of key agreements/developments dating back to 1997, including the 2001 Interim Surplus Guidelines; California’s 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA); fish recovery programs in the Colorado River Upper and Lower basins and the San Juan River Basin; interstate water banking agreements in the Lower Basin; and the 2007 federal Record of Decision (ROD) for interim guidelines for Lower Basin shortages and coordinated operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. (Since the Symposium, a judge has ruled that the QSA is invalid; see In the News for more information.)
“There’s been a tremendous amount of accomplishment,” said Johnson, who served as director of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region for nine years before serving as Reclamation commissioner from 2006 until 2009 and is now a water consultant. “What those accomplishments do is poise us to deal with the future and to deal with the problems that we’re facing today. And quite frankly the problems we’re facing today may be tougher, probably are tougher, than the problems that we had 10 or 12 years ago. If you look at what’s happened to the reservoirs over the last 10 years,” he continued, “we are potentially moving into actually using those [Lower Basin] shortage guidelines over the next couple of years. And that’s a very scary situation.”
Inflow to Lake Powell has been below average eight of the past 10 years and the Colorado River continues to feel the effects of this severe drought. As of December, Lake Mead’s elevation was 1,095 feet – just 20 feet higher than the 1,075 feet elevation that would trigger the first shortage declaration as outlined in the 2007 ROD and accompanying state agreements. (Maximum operating elevation is 1219.6 feet).
Reclamation officials are confident that no shortage will be declared in 2010, but the reservoir’s current level has generated concern. Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), for example, is now constructing a third intake for Lake Mead that will allow it to continue to divert water even if the reservoir drops to an elevation of 1,000 feet. If a shortage is declared, SNWA and Arizona would have their water supplies reduced.
“Today we talk about probabilities. And I don’t want to besmirch any of the scientists; they’re doing work that has long been necessary,” said Pat Mulroy, general manager of SNWA. “But to me, probabilities are like bookies who take bets in Las Vegas. It’s not the probabilities that matter; it’s the possibilities that matter. Can we say that it is impossible for Lake Mead to be at 1,025 [elevation]? Can we say that and can we believe that? Whether there’s a 15 percent chance or an 80 percent chance in my way of thinking is irrelevant.
“We in this Basin have so much that we can build on that other river basins don’t have. We have a shared history; we have a shared culture among ourselves,” Mulroy continued. “We get together on a regular basis to yell at each other, cuss at each other, share our thoughts and ideas with one another. We have an opportunity to lead globally; to show the world what is possible. But we can’t do that if we’re not willing to look at what is possible.”
What the future holds, how best to meet its challenges – both known and unknown – and whether the 1922 Colorado River Compact can continue to be adapted to help build a sustain-able future for the Colorado River Basin were the focus of the Foundation’s seventh biennial, invitation-only Colorado River Symposium.
“It’s a collision course in the case of the Colorado River Basin between 19th century water law and some 20th century water law, 20th century infrastructure and 21st century climate, population growth, and many other unsustainable practices,” said Brad Udall, director of the CU-NOAA Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado. “And it’s an IQ test for us, and we have got to get to work solving that test now. And we’ve got the smarts; we just need the will.”
There is no one-size-fits-all vision of the future. And plenty of disagreements remain. But everyone who participated on the panels or attended the event agreed that now is the time to continue to pursue new agreements and innovative programs designed to sustain and improve the system.
“Let’s take this little window of comparative quiet and use it to continue to deal with the hard issues … to ask the hard questions, ‘what if?’” said former Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley, now an attorney with Trout, Raley, Montaño, Witwer & Freeman.
“Regardless of whether or not the reservoirs reach critical levels because of climate change or simply a repeat of the hydrograph from paleohydrology, there’s simply the possibility that we will have a physically based crisis that we have not faced within the relative history of the Colorado River,” Raley said. “It is absolutely the right thing to do to continue to ask the ‘what ifs’ so that when we reach those crisis points there’s been a lot of discussion.”
Much of the content for this issue of Western Water came from the in-depth panel discussions at the Symposium. The Foundation will publish the full proceedings of the Symposium, which was recorded, in 2010. For information about balancing the river’s ecosystem and water delivery, please refer to the Winter 2009-2010 issue of River Report. More background information on the topics discussed in this issue can be found in past issues of River Report and Western Water.
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Catching the Social Media Wave
All of us have many new ways to receive information. In recent years, we’ve seen an explosion of Internet information networking sites. I still read a newspaper every day, but many people don’t get their primary information this way. The Water Education Foundation is catching on to the wave of this new media. While we are committed to continuing with our quality print publications such as Western Water, River Report, the Layperson’s Guides and the water maps, we also are working to provide some of them in electronic format. If you haven’t looked lately at our website you should because we have the recent Western Water magazines archived in PDF format and ready for easy download.
I know that many of you use our water news blog Aquafornia, each day because I receive so much positive feedback from you. We recently celebrated the one- year anniversary of our affiliation with Aquafornia. It’s really the one-stop shop for water news. Every weekday by 8 a.m. the top water stories are posted. Often there is an afternoon update with late-breaking water news. The user-friendly format allows you to see at a glance all the important water news by providing clips of the stories with links to the full articles.
One of the great things about the Aquafornia site is the well-researched background information available for free. Another useful resource is the Aquafornia archives that list by topic published articles dating back several years. I know it can be handy because recently I was in the grocery store on the weekend when a reporter called to discuss gray water issues. I referred him to some archived information on Aquafornia and he found the information he needed.
We also have joined two other social networking sites: Facebook and LinkedIn. We now have an informative and interactive Facebook page. The page offers people an opportunity to see photos from our tours and other events, read about upcoming events, and learn more about our programs such as Project WET (Water Education for Teachers).We update this page daily with links to important articles posted on Aquafornia. Visit our page, become one of the Foundation’s fans and join the conversation to help spread the word about our events and our activities to educate people about water. Just point your browser to www.facebook.com and type Water Education Foundation in the search box.
Another new venture for is our connection to LinkedIn, a business-oriented social networking site. Just search for Rita Sudman to find our page.
In the News
Court Ruling Invalidates Water Transfer
The landmark 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) signed by the four California agencies that share the Colorado River and the federal and state governments has been ruled invalid by a Sacramento Superior Court judge. Judge Roland Candee ruled in January that California’s agreement to pay for Salton Sea environmental mitigation costs was inconsistent with state law, which prohibits the incurrence of debt more than $300,000 without appropriation of the Legislature.
The QSA allows for the transfer of water among the four agencies, includ¬ing the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) to San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) water transfer that will provide SDCWA with up to 200,000 acre-feet of additional water for up to 75 years. Commonly referred to as the “4.4 plan,” the QSA also underscored California’s agreement not to use more than its 4.4 million acre-feet annual apportionment of Colorado River water - and the QSA is viewed as the foundation for the subsequent multi-state/federal agreements related to managing the Colorado River in times of surplus and shortage.
“[The ruling] just causes so much uncertainty and it destabilizes everything at a time when having stability among the states is critically important,” Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority told the Associated Press in December after Candee issued a tentative decision.
As this issue of Western Water went to press, all indications were that at least one of the four districts – IID, SDCWA, Coachella Valley Water District and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – would appeal the ruling and ask for a stay to allow the water transfers to continue. “An appeal is certain,” Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager of SDCWA told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Located in southern Riverside and northern Imperial counties, the 7.2 million acre-feet Salton Sea has no natural outlet. The Sea was formed in 1905 when Colorado River water overflowed from a new irrigation canal in the Imperial Valley. Before the break was repaired in 1907, water flowed into the dry lake bed where the Sea now lies. The modern-day Sea is sustained by inflows of agricultural drainage water from nearby Imperial, Coachella and Mexicali valley farmlands.
Under the QSA, various water conservation programs – such as lining canals – have made water available for transfer, but, at the same time, reduced supplies to the Salton Sea. Because a smaller sea would result in saltier water and threaten the Sea’s habitat, the QSA included plans to mitigate for the environmental impact of the transfers. In a Joint Powers Authority, the water agencies agreed to spend $133 million for mitigation, with the state financing the rest of the expense.
The state put no limit on costs, “even if they ultimately amounted to millions or billions of dollars,” Candee wrote. “The Court has no ability to sanction a way to contract around the Constitution.”
Even before Candee’s ruling, stakeholders complained that little progress has been made to implement the state’s Salton Sea Ecosystem Restoration Preferred Alternative, an $8.9 billion, 75-year blueprint for restoring the Sea. But the plan has not received necessary funding from the Legislature, although the water bond on the November 2010 ballot includes $100 million for Salton Sea activities.
“I am very concerned about the potential impact this court ruling will have on our entire region and on vital restoration efforts at the Salton Sea,” Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, said in a prepared statement. “I will continue to work with all stakeholders and local residents to move forward on a path that addresses this serious issue, which involves not only establishing a reliable water source for the Southwest but also preserving the health and well being of our entire region. The stakes are simply too high to allow the years of complex negotiations and hard work to have been in vain.”