Managing the Colorado River
The West has been transformed in the 150 years since the Department of the Interior was established. What was once a sparsely settled, little known region has become one of the nation’s most populated. And while vast amounts of open space remain, most of the people reside in one of the urbanized major metropolitan centers. Questions of growth and land use, water supply and demand, and natural resource use and protection dominate the political and policy arenas.
Many changes have occurred along the Colorado River in that century and a half. Cities and crops have risen out of the desert. Dams have been built and endangered species listed. Disagreements have raged and settlements negotiated.
In the 1800s, Interior’s main interest in the Colorado River was tied to exploring and mapping this region. Beginning in the 1920s, damming the river to control floods and provide hydroelectric power became the key goal. Some 40 years later, society’s values shifted and a new player emerged — the environmental movement. Today, the conflict between water use and ecosystem restoration is one of the biggest issues facing Interior as its member agencies strive to balance demands for reliable water supplies with environmental protection. On the Colorado River, that challenge is magnified by the very nature of the vast region through which it flows — seven states, the Republic of Mexico and a number of American Indian tribes share the water of this oversubscribed river.
“We have to find ways that we can make water decisions without sacrificing the welfare of future generations,” said David Getches, professor of Natural Resources Law at the University of Colorado. “We get into measuring sustainability by what we’re doing to the environment. We look at ecological sustainability, but we can also look at it in terms of economics and in terms of equity. I think on all three of those counts, ecology, economics and equity, we can draw the judgment that in the Colorado Basin, what we’re doing is not sustainable.”
Colorado River management issues of historic significance, current debate and future contemplation were the focus of a special stakeholder symposium organized by the Water Education Foundation. The September 16-18 event “Managing the Colorado River: Past, Present and Future” examined the role of the federal government, the states and the stakeholders as they prepare to confront the issues of the 21st Century.
“The day for a risk-free environment in solving river problems, if it ever existed, is gone. No one, in terms of trying to reach consensus on the thorny issues that we’re facing, can expect that they will be able to bring home a deal in which they have no risk,” said David Hayes, acting deputy secretary of Interior. “In fact, I offer the suggestion that if parties insist on risk-free scenarios, they will find that one party’s risk-free scenario is another party’s unacceptably high risk scenario. …
“Accordingly, I ask all of you who are working with us, to recognize that we have opportunities to make progress in resolving long-standing conflicts, but folks are going to have to accept a little risk,” he continued. “If we do that, we can set a course for the river to keep us for many more decades, much as the folks at Bishop’s Lodge did in the early ’20s.”
While it is impossible to foresee every challenge to come, the list offered by participants is formidable — Indian water rights, water quality, endangered species protection, ecosystem restoration and water marketing. Many of these are not new. What is new is the proposed forum in which to tackle them — a basin-wide Colorado River commission.
“If we’re all going to get away from litigation and cooperate in some fashion, basin-wide or even in the Lower Basin, it seems to me we have to give some serious consideration to new institutional arrangements,” said Washington, D.C., attorney Jerry Muys, who was one of California’s attorneys in the Arizona v. California lawsuit. “Some people say, ‘Well, you’re just moving the institutional squares around on the board.’ But I don’t think that’s true. I think the more you get all the stakeholders involved in serious discussions about how to deal with these problems, the less likely it is we’ll end up litigating.”
When it comes to water in the West, the political dynamics between the federal government and the states has always been tense. On one hand, the states — including those in the Colorado River Basin — actively sought federal funds for water projects. It is hard to conceive how such projects as Hoover and Glen Canyon dams or the Central Arizona Project (CAP) could have been built by the states alone. Yet even as the states pursued dollars from the U.S. Treasury to build the projects, there was fear that the federal government and its young Reclamation Service would usurp the states’ rights and assume control of that water.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact served to help protect the states’ rights to the Colorado River water and cleared the way for construction of Hoover Dam. But it was the secretary of Commerce — Herbert Hoover — not the secretary of the Interior who served as the facilitator. Seventy-seven years later, it is the secretary of the Interior who serves as the water master in the Lower Basin through the auspices of the Boulder Canyon Act and Arizona v. California, taking away a substantial measure of state control.
“I think there’s still a lot of life in state sovereignty and that one of the things we need to more consciously deal with is this theme,” said Gary Weatherford, attorney at Weatherford & Taaffe. “In respect to addressing these problems of the future, are we just going to drift and have a series of ad hoc decisions at the state and federal level? Or are we going to have a more coordinated effort that has a more rational resolution with respect to this tension between federal and state power?
“The Lower Basin is still an anomaly in the West,” Weatherford continued. “It’s a clear anomaly, there’s nothing like it with respect to federal primacy. It’s true that, west-wide, the Endangered Species Act has become a major factor and federal-state tension still exists. But, I don’t think we’ve passed the decision point for change. I don’t think it’s too late for a different fork in the road to be selected.”
If there was one overriding message at the symposium it was that cooperation among basin states, the federal government, water users, environmentalists, American Indian tribes and others is the best way to resolve the difficult decisions yet to come. Some would say this is a novel approach for a basin in which conflict is the norm. Yet even in light of past disagreements among Colorado River users, the pacts that have been negotiated could provide a foundation for further agreements.
“In the history of the administration of the Law of the River for the last 75 years, running to the courts or to the Congress is the great exception, not the rule,” said Interior Solicitor John Leshy. “There is only one Supreme Court decision of any moment in the administration of the Colorado River. It’s a very big one, it’s true, Arizona v. California, but nevertheless, look at any other river system in the country and you’ll find a lot more litigation than on the Colorado River.”
This issue of Western Water explores how we got to where we are today on the Colorado River; an era in which the traditional water development of the past has given way to a more collaborative approach that tries to protect the environment while stretching available water supplies. Specific topics addressed include the role of the Interior secretary in the basin, California’s 4.4 plan, water marketing and the future challenges identified by participants at the September symposium. The Foundation will publish the full proceedings of the symposium, which was tape-recorded, in 2000.
Additional background information on the Colorado River is available in the Foundation’s Layperson’s Guide to the Colorado River, the 1997 Colorado River Compact Symposium Proceedings and back issues of 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 November/December 1999 Western Water to your shopping cart.
With seven states, tribes and Mexico linked together by the Colorado River, there is a need for impartial information about this vital resource. Since 1997, the Foundation has deepened its commitment to cover Colorado River issues. Our work since the 1997 conference on the 75th anniversary of the Colorado River Compact reflects that commitment.
In the last two years, we have established River Report, our biannual newsletter devoted to Colorado River issues. Our annual Colorado River magazine is our pledge to cover these issues for the readers of Western Water. We’ve also increased our decision-maker, public and school education programs on the Colorado River, including development of a new “fact card,” which will be available soon. Other programs are planned to keep you in touch with Colorado River issues from Wyoming to Mexico. Assisting us in all of these efforts is the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, a number of other organizations and a 12-member advisory committee of Colorado River interests from each of the seven states, and the tribal and environmental communities.
In September, we held our second Colorado River Symposium in Keystone, Colorado. Like the 1997 Bishop’s Lodge symposium, we started by revisiting the past. This time we looked at the role of the Department of Interior — specifically, the Interior secretary’s expanding role — through history on the Colorado River.
The symposium brought back an exciting voice from the past when actor and historian Clay Jenkinson portrayed John Wesley Powell. Building on Powell’s comments, a number of speakers suggested new forms of institutions within the Colorado River Basin to deal with future challenges. A highlight of the symposium, for me, was the opportunity to listen to four former Interior Department insiders from the Carter, Bush, Kennedy/Johnson, and Clinton administrations discuss river operations and the changing role of the secretary on the Colorado River. Also during the symposium, private negotiations on California’s 4.4 plan almost reached a conclusion, but stalled at the last moment. (The boards of the key California water districts reached agreement of key terms in October.)
In this issue of Western Water our chief writer, Sue McClurg summarizes some of the conversations at the symposium. A full transcript of the fascinating discussions that took place at keystone will be released by the Foundation’s this spring. In the Meantime, if you wish to receive the Foundation’s Colorado river publication, River Report, contact the Foundation or order in our products page under Colorado River materials.
In the News
South Yuba River Update
When downstream and upstream interests on the South Yuba River faced off earlier this year (July/August 1999 Western Water), the debate was one of flood control vs. environmental protection. It was what one participant called a “classic power struggle between two counties.” Nevada County wanted Wild and Scenic status for the South Yuba. Valley residents in Yuba County wanted new dams on the river to help control intermittent floods.
The issue divided the region. In fact, the bill to add the river to the state system, SB 496, was introduced by Bay Area Sen. Byron Sher, D-Palo Alto. The two politicians who represent the area in the state Legislature represent both Nevada and Yuba counties. Early on, they declined to carry the bill and later went on record as opposed to the measure.
The debate attracted the attention of water user and environmental groups from throughout the state. More than 30 water user groups joined Yuba County in opposition, pointing to the need for additional flood control and, perhaps, water supply reservoirs in the region.
Environmental groups, meanwhile, made passage of SB 496 one of their major goals for the 1999 legislative year.
In the middle was California Gov. Gray Davis.
On Oct. 10, Davis signed SB 496 into law, adding the 39-mile stretch of the South Yuba between Spaulding and Englebright reservoirs to the state Wild and Scenic River System. It is the first expansion of the system in a decade.
However, the governor acknowledged the competing visions for the river’s future. In his signing letter, he pledged not to seek federal Wild and Scenic status for the South Yuba. (The federal Wild and Scenic status is more restrictive on new dams.) Davis also asked that the state designation be delayed until January 2001 in order to obtain flood control funds for Yuba County. The water bond slated for the March 2000 ballot includes $90 million for flood protection on the Yuba and Feather rivers.
The $1.97 billion water bond will appear on the March 7 ballot as Proposition 13, the Safe Drinking Water, Clean Water, Watershed Protection and Flood Protection Act. It is the largest water bond in state history, second only to the $1.75 billion bond approved by voters in 1960 to finance the State Water Project.
The bond includes $70 million for safe drinking water, $232 million for flood protection, $253 million for watershed protection, $345 million for clean water and water recycling, $160 million for water conservation, and $605 million for water supply, reliability and infrastructure. Passage of the bond is expected to result in 1 million acre-feet of “new” water.
The bond is the culmination of more than two years of effort by State Sen. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Assembly member Mike Machado, D-Stockton. It enjoys broad support from a variety of organizations including business, environmental groups, water agencies and agriculture. Polling conducted by the Association of California Water Agencies in August found that 42 percent of voters would “definitely” vote for the measure while 32 percent said they would “probably” vote yes.