Cutting Colorado River Water Use: The California Plan
How to recognize the water rights of the past while meeting the demands of the future is the puzzle being pieced together in the California 4.4 process to reduce the state’s use of Colorado River water. It is a major undertaking, one requiring institutional and operational changes to a system dominated by tradition and history.
The crux of the dilemma is this: to date, California has used as much as 5.2 million acre-feet of Colorado River water annually – 800,000 acre-feet more than its basic apportionment — relying on Arizona’s and Nevada’s unused water. But Arizona is now taking its full share with Nevada not far behind, leaving California in a more tenuous position.
With pressure building from the other six states that share the Colorado River and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt — who serves as water master of the lower river — California’s Colorado River parties have been working to set aside regional differences and create a unified 4.4 plan.
“Failure is just not in our mindset on this, and we’re prepared to take appropriate action to achieve an acceptable plan,” said David Kennedy, retiring director of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). Kennedy played a major role in development of the plan.
A major section of the puzzle fell into place in mid-December when officials at Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to end their dispute over water use, water conservation and transfers, and water quantification. The MOU came about after months of negotiations led by Interior attorney David Hayes.
“I am very impressed that Imperial and Coachella have at last discovered their fraternal bonds and negotiated such an impressive quantification approach,” said Babbitt, announcing the agreement at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas. Noting that “considerable progress” had been made on the California 4.4 plan, Babbitt characterized 1998 as “perhaps the most significant year on the [Colorado] River in many decades, for we are now on the threshold of resolving some of the most intractable and elusive issues that bring us to these meetings.”
In addition to the IID-CVWD agreement, which must still be approved by the agencies boards, progress on the California plan occurred on several other fronts in 1998:
IID and San Diego water officials finalized a water conservation/transfer agreement in which up to 200,000 acre-feet of water will be conveyed to San Diego.
The controversial issue of “wheeling” that water to San Diego through the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s (MWD) Colorado River Aqueduct was resolved via a water exchange agreement.
Plans to conserve an additional 94,000 acre-feet of water by lining sections of the All-American and Coachella Valley canals moved a step closer to reality thanks to a $235 million state appropriation measure. SB 1765, by state Sen. Steve Peace, D-El Cajon, includes $200 million for the canal linings.
While none of these issues is fully resolved — a host of environmental and regulatory studies must be completed and adopted — Babbitt is ready to proceed with the last major piece in the California 4.4 puzzle; he announced at the Dec. 17 meeting that he is directing the Bureau of Reclamation to begin developing surplus guidelines for lower Colorado River operations. Those surplus conditions, the secretary said, will require California to meet a series of as-yet-undetermined benchmarks that will be monitored by the Bureau to make sure it is on schedule to reduce its river use to at least 4.8 million acre feet by 2015.
“[Surplus] is a key component of the overall California plan,” said Robert Johnson, regional director of the Bureau’s Lower Colorado River region. “It’s the component that has to happen in order for MWD to finalize the San Diego transfer and for MWD to go along with the [IID-CVWD] quantification agreements.”
“The key linchpins are all beginning to fall into place,” said Christine Frahm, outgoing chair of the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) board. “California has stepped up to the plate.”
The other six Colorado River states, however, remain cautious about the plan — especially the continued use of surplus flows to maintain a full Colorado River Aqueduct beyond 2015. Officials from Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming fear this may put their own supplies at risk.
“They’re no doubt making progress, but it’s very slow,” Wayne Cook, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “The risk to the Upper Basin has not been softened.”
The strong feelings don’t surprise Kennedy. “There is a lot of resentment of California,” he said. “We’ve been on notice for years about this 4.4 issue.”
Part of the urgency to resolve the issue now stems from the fact that the Colorado River isn’t in a crisis mode; there is enough water stored in the system to allow for surplus deliveries to the Lower Basin. In the view of the other basin states, this is the best time for California to adopt a plan to forestall a drought-related crisis in the future.
Environmental impact studies, however, are required before implementation, and some people fear mitigation requirements could pose other hurdles for the plan. For example, conservation measures employed in the Imperial-San Diego agreement and the canal linings will reduce inflow to the Salton Sea, complicating an already complex restoration effort for the vast saline body of water.
For southern California’s urban interests, the 4.4 plan is crucial, for without such a futuristic approach, the historic Colorado River division means they would lose Colorado River water first — it is the agricultural districts that hold first rights to the state’s share of the Colorado River. The proposals under discussion now, however, acknowledge another indisputable fact: the cities now have the economic and political clout.
“There’s enough water in the Lower Basin to accommodate the needs of all the parties,” Babbitt said. “They’ll have to use water a little differently. And we’ll have to do a couple of things. We’ll move toward pricing water in a realistic way and making it easier to facilitate transfers in a market. The alternative is to have these sort of regulatory allocations and they really don’t work.”
The voluntary transfer of water from farms to cities as outlined in California’s plan could become the wave of the future as portions of the rugged rural West confront reality: the region is rapidly becoming one of the most urbanized in the nation. Without changes to a water allocation system designed in the 1920s, conflict between rural and urban water users will only increase in the 21st century as development continues.
This issue of Western Water updates progress on crafting and implementing California’s 4.4 plan. It includes information on the three most difficult issues: water conservation/transfers; quantification of agricultural water use; and the future use of “surplus” Colorado River water. In addition, it explores environmental issues and includes a sidebar of excerpts from Babbitt’s recent speech at the water users meeting.
By Sue McClurg
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Thoughts for the New California Governor
“In the water wars, when Californians are forming a firing squad, they form a circle facing inwards,” Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said when he announced the latest version of a proposed plan for a Bay-Delta fix. His remarks refer to the numerous contentious California parties long involved in water issues. Let’s hope, Gov. Davis, when they next form this circle, its purpose is a football huddle strategy session rather than a firing squad.
California stakeholders recently announced progress on two contentious issues, announcements that hit the national news just before Christmas. In Las Vegas, Babbitt announced a major agreement between two longtime warring California irrigation districts on Colorado River water use. The deal moves the state toward reducing its dependence on the river — a welcome commitment for the other six basin states. (We delayed Western Water to get the latest on this issue. See Sue McClurg’s main article.)
The next day in Sacramento, Babbitt and outgoing Gov. Wilson unveiled the latest version of a Bay-Delta plan that includes a number of programs on conservation, ecosystem restoration, water transfers and more. Not agreed upon was a plan for an isolated – or peripheral — canal to carry water around the Delta or increased water storage. More negotiations are expected in 1999.
Although both announcements marked major steps toward resolution of contemporary water use dilemmas, your new state administration still will be called upon to put its mark on future solutions. Gov. Davis, I know you understand water politics. I’m sure you remember the 1982 fight over a water bond that included the proposed Peripheral Canal.
In the coming months, a public comment period will commence on Colorado River and Bay-Delta issues. It’s a time for the water stakeholders to keep their powder dry. It’s difficult to lead on an issue that can pit north against south, the coast against the valley, and agricultural, urban and environmental against one another; remember the secretary’s observation about firing squads. Welcome to the water debate.
In the News
CALFED Releases Revised Delta Plan
It is not the final “fix,” but the Revised Phase II CALFED report released Dec. 18 was described as a “significant milestone” in the continuing quest to forge a consensus-based solution for California’s Bay-Delta dilemma.
The document represents months of work by CALFED staff to respond to and incorporate comments received on the draft Phase II report released in March 1998. It also reflects months of negotiations among disparate stakeholder groups over how to best address the Delta’s water supply and water quality problems, restore its ecosystem and improve its century-old levee system.
Many issues remain unresolved; about the only thing everyone agreed upon is that more work is needed in 1999 to try and reach agreement on a host of controversial issues.
“We’re not there in terms of how all these pieces relate and in all the data we need to assess the whole system, but I believe we can get there,” said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who personally conducted many of the stakeholder negotiating sessions. “[The storage] issue remains open, but we can get there and I hope everyone stays at the table.”
Noting that progress had been made on his administration’s goal of balance among “fishing, farmers, factories and quality drinking water for families,” outgoing Gov. Pete Wilson expressed regret that additional water storage remains unresolved. He criticized those he termed “obstructionists” for failing to recognize that more storage will be needed to keep pace with California’s inevitable growth.
With release of this report, CALFED did go on record that “some storage is expected to be needed to achieve water supply reliability goals,” with a list of 14 potential sites for new surface storage (to eventually be narrowed to three to five) included in the report. Increased groundwater storage and conjunctive use programs also will be investigated.
While urban and agricultural water communities, along with business groups, support the revised CALFED report, most environmental and fishing representatives remain opposed to any new storage. They maintain that demands can be met through aggressive water recycling, conservation and transfer programs.
Next to storage, Delta conveyance has been the most contentious issue of debate. With release of this report, CALFED has formally taken the isolated conveyance facility, sometimes referred to as the Peripheral Canal, off the table — for now. Instead, the initial approach will be to use the existing system in combination with other actions to improve water quality and fish passage and monitor the results, with the canal remaining a possibility if those actions later prove to be inadequate.
On the issue of ecosystem restoration, the revised draft contains a new proposal to establish an environmental water account. Such an account could provide the system with more flexibility than current regulatory standards by banking, moving and transferring water when monitoring determines fish are present. CALFED plans to initiate a pilot program in 1999 to determine whether such an environmental water account should be in the final plan.
A series of public workshops on the revised Phase II report will be held in early 1999, allowing for more informal agency-stakeholder dialogue on the document prior to the formal public hearing process. A final preferred alternative and a record of decision are expected by the end of 1999.