Facing the Future: Modifying Management of the Colorado River
More than 80 years have passed since representatives of the seven Colorado River Basin states crafted a historic compact dividing the river’s waters. Following five of the driest years on record since the 1930s Dust Bowl, present-day negotiators recently reached a sweeping new proposed agreement on how to manage the river to reduce the potential for future shortages. The seven-state framework forwarded to Interior Secretary Gale Norton Feb. 3 includes a proposal for coordinated operation of Lake Mead and Lake Powell and tiered triggers in Lake Mead’s elevation tied to Lower Basin shortage declarations. It also includes a long list of new programs and projects designed to augment the river’s flow and help meet long-term water supplies for growing cities.
“This is a very significant breakthrough for the states to be able to give a consensus recommendation to the secretary on such a comprehensive approach to river management,” said Bob Johnson, regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (Reclamation) Lower Colorado Region. “This will become one of the alternatives included in the NEPA process, which will consider a broad range of alternatives as well as input from all interested stakeholders.”
Reclamation officials are now preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) through the National Environmental Policy Act that identifies guidelines and strategies under which Interior would reduce annual water deliveries from Lake Mead to the Lower Basin states below historic deliveries and coordinate the operation of Lakes Powell and Mead under low-reservoir conditions. Norton has set December 2007 as the deadline for adoption of a final plan, and Reclamation is expected to release a draft EIS in December 2006
While many details remain to be determined, in broad scope the “Seven Basin States’ Preliminary Proposal Regarding Colorado River Interim Operations” would:
- Provide for better coordination between operation of the Colorado River’s two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and more flexibility for reservoir releases. Overall, Powell’s elevation would be slightly lower in average years, but it would not have to release as much water to Mead (and the Lower Basin) in drought years, providing Upper Basin states with more protection against possible curtailment of uses.
- Set specific Lake Mead reservoir levels and delivery cutbacks for declaration of a shortage in the Lower Basin. Arizona, the junior water rights holder, would bear the brunt of a shortage and the plan establishes how shortages would be quantified. The shortages would be shared proportionally with Nevada and the Republic of Mexico.
- Establish a policy and accounting procedure for steps taken to augment the river’s water supply through “extraordinary conservation and system efficiency projects.” This proposed “intentionally created surplus” water would allow – for the first time – water from outside the river to be cycled through the system without affecting a state’s Colorado River allocation.
Perhaps most important of all, the seven-state framework, which, if adopted, would be in place until 2025, has forestalled a much-feared court battle over the river, already heavily regulated through a collection of compacts, court decrees and legislation that comprise what is known as the Law of the River. (See page 8.)
“Litigation would have left a cloud of uncertainty for years and really impeded any chance for progress,” said Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.
The threat of litigation was one factor that helped keep the states at the table working on an agreement. The Feb. 1 deadline to submit a proposal to Reclamation for consideration in the EIS was another as leaders from the seven states concluded some 14 months of negotiations with a flurry of last-minute meetings ultimately leading to their agreement.
Federal officials had pushed the states to develop a consensus plan, but Norton made it clear that if they did not, the federal government was prepared to move forward with a plan of its own.
In a videotaped speech to participants at December’s Colorado River Water Users Association conference, Secretary Norton said, “I have one fundamental message to share with you today: We have a choice before us. Without continued leadership to find and implement consensus-based solutions on the Colorado River - basinwide litigation, which we have successfully avoided since 1922, looms as a significant threat. Whatever your position or perspective, one thing is clear: the ultimate choice between negotiation and litigation rests with this generation of water leaders.”
For today’s negotiators, it was a vastly different scenario than in 1922 when representatives of the seven states crafted the historic Colorado River Compact, dividing the water between the Upper and Lower basins. Then, the state representatives believed the river had more than enough runoff to meet demand. Stakeholders today know that the river’s average flows will not meet future demands given the Basin’s continued development. The drought that began in 2000 heightened their concerns.
“Not only was the period that coincided with or preceded the development of the Compact an extraordinarily wet period, it was probably the wettest period in at least the past 500 years,” said Stephan Gray, of the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Desert Laboratory, speaking at a September Colorado River symposium sponsored by the Water Education Foundation. “When the compact was developed, water that was not likely to be available on a consistent basis was divided up among the basin states.”
The chronic overallocation of the river played a big role in development of the proposed seven-state framework as negotiators included a suite of programs intended to increase water supplies for the states’ “mutual benefit.” The Upper Basin states view these plans and the Lower Basin shortage guidelines/drought reservoir management as one package. “Clearly these other things have to happen on the river if we’re going to continue to get along,” Ostler said.
In their Feb. 3 letter, the states pledged to move forward with this package of actions while Reclamation prepares the EIS. The actions include “implementation of a demonstration program for extraordinary conservation in 2006, system efficiency projects, preparation of an action plan for augmentation of the system through weather modification, execution of a Memorandum of Understanding for preparing a Lower Division states’ interstate drought management plan, development of forbearance agreements among the Lower Division states, and the initiation of a study for long-term augmentation of Colorado River system water supplies.”
While it is the future management of the system that is the focus of the seven-state preliminary proposal and Reclamation’s EIS, the past continues to guide the discussions. Negotiators had to consider the legal and political ramifications of their actions and recommendations as they worked to protect water rights. State leaders say that their recommendations can be implemented without modifications of the Long Range Operating Criteria or other elements of the Law of the River.
Political and legal dilemmas aside, the Colorado River Basin’s future climate and hydrology will play a role in implementation of these changes. Data show that between 1950 and 2003, average winter temperatures in the Colorado River Basin increased by approximately 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit; with future changes estimated to be an additional 2 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. What the effects will be upon the basin and its water resources and storage is uncertain, although some recent studies suggest that more precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow.
Beyond any potential climate change, Gray said, “The simple fact is that if you have more people and more taps in the western United States, you’ll have more demand. No matter how you stack it, the rules of the game are changing.”
Peter Culp, formerly the attorney for programs at the Sonoran Institute, agreed. “I think the current drought has given us an interesting preview of the situation that we’re probably going to be facing on a fairly common basis 20 to 25 years from now as our populations continue to grow and as the Upper Basin continues to develop its portion of the Colorado River,” said Culp, now an attorney with Squire, Sanders & Dempsey. “As a result, the situation we are facing in the drought today may well be the situation we face on a day-to-day basis in the not too- distant future.”
The ongoing seven-state meetings were a major topic of discussion at a September 2005 Colorado River Symposium, “Sharing the Risks: Shortage, Surplus and Beyond,” sponsored by the Foundation. In addition to statements following the release of the seven-state framework, some of the material from the biennial symposium is included in this issue of Western Water. A complete written transcript of the symposium will be published later this spring. And additional background on these issues is available in our Layperson’s Guide to the Colorado River, and previous issues of River Report and Western Water.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our Products Page and add the January/February 2006 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart.
I recently had the honor of addressing a conference held at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in preparation for the World Water Forum. The Forum, to be held in March in Mexico City, aims toward achieving the goal of reducing by half the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation systems. Through my work for Water for People, an organization helping people in the developing world achieve sustainable and self-sufficient sources of clean water, I’ve become aware that:
- 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water.
- 2.4 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation.
- 2.2 million people, mostly children, die each year from diseases associated with these problems. That means every day 6,000 children die of waterborne diseases.
So it was gratifying to see water agencies, watershed management groups and environmental interests come together in a meeting to support international water relief programs. As Vanessa Tobin, UNICEF’s chief of water, environment and sanitation told the southern California conference, the appropriate technologies and resources are available to meet the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals for water. What is required is social and political will power. The UN goal is to cut in half the number of people who lack reliable and lasting access to safe drinking water by 2015. Meeting this goal would cost the international community $15 billion a year. To put that in perspective, we consumers spend $100 billion every year for the convenience of bottled water.
Congressman Earl Blumenauer, author of a law to seek U.S. support for water and sanitation programs in the developing world, also spoke to the group. The Water for the Poor Act authored by Rep. Blumenauer, D-Portland, Ore., passed the House and Senate with bipartisan support and was signed by President Bush. It directs the executive branch to make foreign aid available for water projects. Although the bill does not appropriate any funds specifically to carry out its purposes, it is a start in recognizing that Americans can assist in helping to solve water and sanitation problems in the developing world. Solving those problems leads to improved education levels in those countries.
Contact Water for People for more information on programs and projects designed to help people in the developing world attain clean water.
Listening to discussion of worldwide water problems, makes me realize we are fortunate to debate our Western state water issues on an intense, but certainly on a less life threatening level. However, the proposed Colorado River seven states’ agreement Sue McClurg details in this issue of Western Water is a truly significant agreement on managing the long-term water supplies for Western cities.
Letters to the Editor
I was 11 years old at the time of the December 1955 flood and have some very vivid memories of those days. I remember being at home one evening in after many days of rain. My father, Jack Chrisman, a Visalia city councilman at the time, was downtown at city hall sand bagging the buildings in anticipation of extensive flooding. My brother and I were watching TV and our dog started to bark.
I went to the front door and found water coming under the front door. I looked out the window of my father’s den and saw water everywhere. Thus began many days of dealing with 2 feet of water in our house, spending Christmas at my Uncle and Aunt’s home, and riding my bicycle all over town in 2 to 3 feet of water.
My father used to say that it was this experience that generated his interest in water resources leading to the creation of the Terminus/Success Flood Control Dams Association, of which he was president, and the construction of flood control dams on the Kaweah and Tule rivers, followed by his appointment to the California Water Commission by then Gov. Pat Brown in 1959.
California Resources Secretary
I read with interest your article in the November/December 2005 Western Water.
I also find it interesting that there is a growing view that equates California’s flood risk, with Sacramento’s flood risk, or even the Delta. It is an interesting phenomenon that is perhaps just a geographical reference since Sacramento is the state capital.
A fair reading of the article does address the issue of water supply and levee issues in the Delta, which is true because the SWP and CVP have critical facilities in the Delta that affect a large part of California. However, a fair reading of the article also addresses flooding and levees as a flood control facility. And as such, California’s flooding problem is apparently Sacramento’s problem.
While I will acknowledge that the [Delta] levees are important, it is unfortunate that the Foundation missed the fact that there are a number of levee systems in the state that are important. Santa Cruz and Monterey have the Pajaro River levees that were the source of a lawsuit in the ’90s, San Luis Obispo County has issues as well, leading to relinquishment to the state, and there are levee systems in most every other county. Our levee in Santa Barbara County protects a significant portion of the city of Santa Maria as well as thousands of acres of prime farmland. The levee was a federal project built by the Corps. That levee is in California, too.
My hope is that the Foundation could perhaps have broader views as well. As one of you worthy missions; informing California about California flooding issues, I would hope in the future that the rest of state be included in your discussions (what an educational opportunity). Sacramento is in California, for sure, but this is a big state.
Deputy County Public Works Director, Santa Barbara County
Editor’s note: We realize the issue of flood control is of statewide importance and highly relevant to specific regions, such as the ones you mentioned. We by no means claim that the issues of Sacramento and the Delta are exclusively important and take precedent to other areas. However, we felt it was important to stress the importance of Delta levees given their role in protecting the water supply for more than 20 million people. While editorial limits forced us to narrow the focus of article, we recognize the enormous resources invested in flood management throughout the entire West. And we plan to present a wider encompassing view of flood management in the future.
Great story. Yes, I believe you are correct in saying “we seem to lack the will.” But I think we have forgotten history also. The great flood of 1862 created a lake from Red Bluff to Bakersfield. That is just a little over 100 years ago. And the Sutter Basin almost got it in the 1955 flood. I remember driving through that area a week after the levee break seeing the dead animals and the houses in Yuba City piled on top of each other. Think of all the development in the Natomas area now.
I think Sacramento poses a much greater life and material damage threat than the Gulf events as a result of a levee failure. And I sure don’t think that the 100- and 200-year protection is anywhere near adequate. As to the Delta levees, Gary says failures are “likely” and I say they are inevitable. Keep up the good work.
Joseph E. Patten