Colorado River Compromise
When one thinks of Colorado River water allocations, conflict comes first to mind. But compromise as much as conflict shaped division of this river’s vital water resources, with conflict often serving as the catalyst for a compromise.
As one of the first states to develop in the vast and arid Southwest region, California’s growth – and its corresponding need for Colorado River water – has driven much of the debate over how to allocate the waters of the Colorado River. It was controversy over California’s share of water from the proposed Boulder (Hoover) Dam in the 1920s that led, in large part, to the historic Colorado River Compact of 1922 – the agreement that divided the river’s water between the Upper and Lower basins.
Some 75 years later, California’s reliance on Colorado River water above and beyond its basic 4.4 million acre-feet annual apportionment sparked a new conflict. Growth in Arizona and Nevada, its Lower Basin neighbors, reduced the amount of unused water for California. With the Lower Basin at its full entitlement, the continuing demands for water generated unease in the Upper Basin. Favorable hydrologic conditions and the fact that the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) are not using their full entitlement have allowed California to continue to use more water, but the Upper Basin fears it will never get that water back if Lower Basin use becomes too institutionalized.
After months of negotiations Ð with prodding by the federal government – this most-recent conflict ended in compromise. In August 2000, California and the other six Colorado River states provided officials with an agreed-upon proposal to gradually phase out California’s reliance on surplus flows. It is a major milestone in the multi-year effort to put the state on a Colorado River water diet.
“The Secretary deserves the credit for making the seven-state compromise over the criteria come about, with the assistance of the very significant mediation skills of Deputy Secretary David Hayes,” said Robert Johnson, regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (Bureau) Lower Colorado Region. “He told them that absent their reaching agreement, he would use his authorities to implement criteria. Conversely, he said he would use his authorities to help the states with guidelines if they could reach agreement.”
The compromise and California’s commitment to move forward on its water diet allowed outgoing Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to leave Washington, D.C., with a major goal close to fruition – a truce on the Colorado River. Since 1996 Babbitt used his signature carrot and stick approach to alternately coax and threaten California to reduce its water use. Only if the state moved forward with a plan to reduce its water use, Babbitt said, would he use his authority to draft guidelines that would allow California continued use of surplus flows for the next 15 years.
“California needs the Interim Surplus Criteria; the other states need the California plan. That’s why they’re linked,” said Bill Rinne, area manager of the Boulder Canyon Operations Office for the Bureau’s Lower Colorado Region
As this Western Water went to press, Babbitt had just signed the Record of Decision (ROD) for the final Interim Surplus Criteria - four days before the end of the Clinton administration. These criteria, which closely mirror the seven-state proposal, will allow the Lower Basin to draw on surplus water over the next 15 years as California works to implement a complex, multi-faceted water conservation/transfer plan.
On its face, the fact that California will continue to use water above its basic apportionment even as it implements conservation measures is a paradox. But the Upper Basin states – all of which use less water than California – have come to realize this important fact: Only by providing the state with this 15-year, so-called “soft landing,” will they achieve their ultimate goal - a California that lives within its 4.4 million acre-feet apportionment with less threat to other states’ share of the Colorado River.
“It is in the long-term interest of the Upper Basin states for California to get its act together and reduce its dependence on surplus water,” said Jim Lochhead, an attorney and former executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Environmentalists remain unconvinced. Throughout the process to draft interim surplus guidelines, they fought to include water for the Colorado River Delta, contending that Interior’s decision to draw down Lake Mead to provide surplus flows to California, Arizona and Nevada will reduce the frequency of flood flows to the Delta region. Currently, flood flow releases from Lake Mead/Hoover Dam are the primary source of water for this wetlands area located below the United States-Mexican border.
“We think the whole premise is flawed,” said Pam Hyde, executive director for policy at Southwest Rivers. “If California really had to find a way to get down to 4.4, it would. This proposal only shifts water; the plan does not reduce use.”
Under terms of a 1944 treaty, the United States is required to deliver 1.5 million acre-feet of water to Mexico annually, plus 200,000 acre-feet in years of surplus flows. Federal officials said that providing water for the Delta was outside the scope of studies on these proposed surplus guidelines and that the issue needs to be addressed in an international forum under that treaty, a process which has begun. Officials also have pointed out that the United States cannot dictate to Mexico what to do with its share of the Colorado River.
Environmentalists have argued that the United States has an obligation to provide more water to the Delta to assist endangered species that reside in these wetland areas. U.S. officials contend that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) ends at the border.
“We’ve been very clear that these interim surplus criteria guidelines are focused on the California problem,” Hayes said. “Solving the California problem and having it reduce its reliance on the Colorado River is probably the best thing we can do for the Colorado River Delta.”
The fact that the seven basin states came together on a plan to allow greater use of Colorado River surplus flows is highly significant – just last year they were poles apart on the issue.
Yet even as the states reached agreement on a proposal for surpluses through 2016, differences of opinion over a surplus declaration for 2001 surfaced. With conditions in the Colorado River Basin drier than normal, there was considerable debate over the Secretary’s proposal to declare a limited surplus, which would allow California to maintain a full supply for its urban users.
Environmentalists said Babbitt should not declare a surplus under the Annual Operating Plan (AOP) based on hydrologic conditions. “You [the Bureau] should use the same criteria you used the last five years, which would result in a normal year with the possibility of mid-year additional water from runoff,” Hyde said.
The other Colorado River states were aware of the political need to declare a surplus for 2001 to ensure that Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s (MWD) Colorado River Aqueduct remain full. In the end, none of the six states opposed Interior’s plan for a limited surplus, but the message they conveyed made it clear that they want to ensure that any surplus declaration recognized their rights, and that California remains on schedule to actually implement these conservation measures.
The original schedule, however, has slipped. Months of work remain before the California parties will complete the long list of legal and environmental documents needed in order to implement the programs outlined in their 1999 Key Terms for Quantification Settlement (Key Terms). Adoption of these Key Terms set the stage for historic changes in Colorado River water use and allocation in California.
“We set some self-imposed deadlines that were very optimistic,” said Dennis Underwood, executive assistant on Colorado River matters for MWD. “People thought, naively, we’d have drafts of all the legal documents done by April 2000. The amount of environmental work that needed to be done to complete the legal documents proved to be much more complex than we anticipated.”
Although Babbitt pushed the Interim Surplus Criteria through to completion, the pending change in administrations heightened interest in completing as many documents in California’s Key Terms as possible before Babbitt’s departure. Implementation of the criteria as well as the California Colorado River water diet, however, will fall to the Bush administration and Interior Secretary-designee Gale Norton. Norton, a partner in the Colorado law firm Brownstein Hyatt & Farber, was attorney general of Colorado from 1991 to 1999 and served in the Interior Department as an associate solicitor during the Reagan administration.
“The Record of Decision is going to be signed,” said Gary Hansen, water resources director for the Colorado River Indian Tribes. “What happens afterward and what actions the tribes and the environmental groups may take remain to be seen.”
This issue of Western Water focuses on the Colorado River Interim Surplus Criteria and the link to the California Colorado River Water Use Plan, part of Secretary Babbitt’s legacy. It provides background on the Secretary’s authority to declare a surplus, explores how the seven states reached agreement on surplus criteria and discusses the latest developments on the California plan. More information on the plan can be found in back issues of Western Water and the Layperson’s Guide to the Colorado River. For information on the Colorado River Delta, please refer to the Spring 1999 issue of the Foundation’s Colorado River newsletter, River Report.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our on-line store and add the November/December 2000 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart.
Each December for the past four years, Western water interests made a pilgrimage to Las Vegas to hear Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt discuss the state of the Colorado River in his annual address to the Colorado River Water Users Association. As Sue McClurg writes in this Western Water, he used the conference as a bully pulpit to push California and the other Colorado River Basin states into finding workable solutions to their conflict. It was at this annual meeting that Babbitt first told California to reduce its water use or he would not go forward with plans to allow California continued use of surplus flows on the river. The story of how the states worked together to achieve a compromise that meets all their major needs is the fascinating story told in this issue.
Since 1997, the Water Education Foundation has developed more in-depth coverage of Colorado River issues. Not only have we been looking at California’s interests but also those of the other Colorado River states – Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada – and tribal, environmental and Mexican interests. The Foundation’s Colorado River Project provides information a variety of ways including the twice-a-year River Report newsletter, educational forums, such as the Colorado River Symposium, and water tours. We also use different public outreach tools such as the Colorado River Water Map, Colorado River Facts slide card, and an upcoming public television documentary on the Salton Sea.
The list of advisors reads as “Who’s Who” of Colorado River interests. Although editorial control of this program, as with all our programs, rests with the Foundation staff and board of directors, we thank these Colorado River advisors for their guidance, guidance that ensures that this award-winning project is informative and balanced. Members of the Colorado River Project Advisory Committee are: Wayne Cook, Upper Colorado River Commission; Thomas Graff, Environmental Defense; Thomas Hannigan, California Department of Water Resources; Gary Hansen, Colorado River Indian Tribes; J. Arturo Herrera, Mexican Section, International Boundary and Water Commission; Pamela Hyde, Southwest Rivers; David Lindgren, Downey, Brand, Seymour & Rohwer; James Lochhead, Brownstein Hyatt & Farber; Rita Pearson Maguire, Arizona Department of Water Resources; Patricia Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority; Philip Mutz, Upper Colorado River Commission New Mexico; Jerome Muys, Attorney; and Gary Weatherford, Weatherford & Taaffe.
To see some of the Colorado river yourself, reserve your seat on the Lower Colorado River Tour, March 28-30.This tour follows the river through California, Arizona and Nevada and includes a private tour of Hoover Dam, a boat ride on Lake Mead and stops at Lake Havasu, the Salton Sea, tribal lands and various agricultural areas.
To find out how you can get involved and support these programs, contact us or visit our web site. On the Colorado River, as in all Western water issues, the quality of our decisions about this river are only as good as the quality of the information we rely on to make them.
In the News
Trinity River Flows
In an effort to restore populations of salmon in the Trinity River, outgoing Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in December signed a Record of Decision (ROD) to restore about half the Trinity’s instream flows, reducing the amount of water delivered to Central Valley farmers.
“This decision is 20 years in the making,” Babbitt said in a press release. “It reflects our commitment and obligation to protect both fish and wildlife species, and to fulfill our trust responsibilities to the tribes living in the region who have fished on the Trinity River for thousands of years.” Babbitt signed the ROD in a ceremony at the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation.
Under terms of the ROD, the flow of the Trinity River will be split roughly in half between instream flows and a continued diversion into the Sacramento River. In the 37 years since completion of the Trinity River Diversion, part of the Central Valley Project (CVP), up to 90 percent of the Trinity’s flow had been diverted into the Sacramento River to provide irrigation water for San Joaquin Valley farmers and to generate power.
Trinity County officials and the Yurok and Hoopa Valley Indian tribes hailed Babbitt’s announcement. The tribes harvest salmon from the Trinity River and its sister river, the Klamath. Environmental groups also praised Babbitt’s decision, although they had pushed for even more water to be returned to the Trinity.
Less than one month after the Dec. 19 announcement, Westlands Water District, a CVP contractor, filed suit in federal court to block the ROD. According to Westlands officials, Interior’s plan to return this water to the Trinity will result in the loss of 380 jobs and 23,000 acres of farmland within the 550,000-acre district, located on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Westlands, already facing water cutbacks under the CVP Improvement Act, had unsuccessfully sought an injunction in federal court to block Babbitt’s action even before the secretary signed the ROD.
“These kinds of impacts were not discussed in the environmental assessments prepared by Interior before Secretary Babbitt signed the ROD and our farmers, landowners and communities will suffer significantly,” Thomas Birmingham, general manager/general counsel for Westlands, said in a press release.
Power officials also criticized Babbitt’s Trinity River decision, saying it would reduce hydropower by some 350 megawatts, enough power for 350,000 households. Interior disputed these figures.
In an average year, the Trinity River’s flow is 1.2 million acre-feet. For the last 10 years, the river has received 340,000 acre-feet annually, about 25 percent of its historic flow. The rest of the water was diverted into the Sacramento River. Under Babbitt’s order, instream flows will range from 369,0000 acre-feet in a dry year to 815,0000 acre-feet in a wet year. The CVP, in turn, will see its water reduced annually by about one-third.
The increased releases into the Trinity are scheduled to begin in late April or early May. Biologists say the additional water will boost populations of coho and chinook salmon and steelhead trout.