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Water shortages in the West: ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’

June 14, 2011


An extraordinary set of circumstances produced the Colorado River Compact of 1922. The question now is whether the compact and other laws and treaties collectively called the Law of the River are sufficiently resilient to prevent teeth-barring among the seven states of the basin in circumstances that during the 21st century may be even more extraordinary.

For the most part, speakers at a recent conference sponsored by the University of Colorado Natural Resources Law Center agreed that there’s no need to start over even if future circumstances will require states of the Southwest to “bend the hell out of it,” in the words of law professor Douglas Kenney.

Kenney, director of the law school’s Western Water Policy Program, last winter released the first part of a several-tiered study of challenges to administration of the river. Obscured by drought that had left Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, reduced to its lowest level since 1938, demand had quietly crept up and overtaken supply during the last decade, he said.

Despite occasional wet years such as the current one, climate-change projections foresee significantly hotter temperatures and perhaps a 9 percent decline in water volume during coming decades, according to the newest study issued this spring by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

DeBecque Canyon on the Colorado River near Palisade (Best)

Some people believe earlier spring, warmer temperatures, and the extended drought of the last decade are harbingersof what lies ahead.

“For those of us on the ground, trying to manage supplies, the reality is that things are changing,” said Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water. “We need to deal with them, because that’s the reality.” Denver, he added, already has a climate scientist on its staff, to help identify its supply-side options.

The big snowpack this year in the West has postponed some hard decisions. Exercise of a shortage mechanism agreed to several years ago had been expected to occur next year, but now that will be unnecessary until 2015 or beyond, said Michael Connors, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The river and its tributaries by some estimates deliver water to 30 million people, including many outside the basin itself: Cheyenne, Denver, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and San Diego for instance. As much as 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product comes from the Colorado River Basin.

Led by Colorado’s Delph Carpenter, the seven basin states forged the Colorado River Compact in 1922. Even then, California was big and ambitious. But it needed federal aid in taming the unruly Colorado River, both to ensure water for farms in the Imperial Valley and to generate electricity for Los Angeles. In turn, Colorado and other upper-basin states wanted assurances that water would remain for them to develop when the were finally ready to grow. Although California and Arizona bickered until 1928, the deal cut in Santa Fe opened the door for construction of Hoover Dam, creating Lake Mead, and enabling the fabulous prosperity of Southern California during the 20th century.

The delegates at Santa Fe didn’t get everything right. They assumed more water in the river, based on records of the early 20th century, than has generally been the case since then. But the compact framers got most of it right, said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

Had the delegates at Santa Fe in 1922 somehow been able to attend the conference in Boulder, said Kuhn, they would have been surprised by the reduced water flows of the Southwest and most certainly by cell phones occasionally interrupting the proceedings, but not much else. “They really knew what they were doing,” he said.

In Colorado, the debate for years has been whether to build new dams and pipelines, to develop Colorado’s remaining portion of its allotment under the Colorado River Compact and a later compact, adopted in 1948, which further divvies up water among the upper-basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. By some estimates, Colorado may have up to 900,000 acre-feet yet to develop, but nobody really knows. Some think Colorado already has nothing left to develop, after downstream commitments have been met. A study now underway by state water officials seeks to get a thumb on that.

Kuhn said Colorado should be cautious before developing further water, so it won’t have to later curtail delivery of water supplies, as has now occurred on the South Platte and Republican River drainages, and is likely to happen on the Rio Grande. All three originate in Colorado.

Drew Beckwith, water policy manger for Western Resource Advocates, an environmental analysis group, argued against what he called “pipe dreams,” if for a different reasons. Instead of large-scale transmountain diversions, he said, demand-side management programs adopted by cities could reduce per-capita use 35 percent over the next 25 years. New diversions represent last-century thinking, he said.

But even more than cities, farms offer potential for savings, as they use upward of 75 percent of the river waters, including up to 90 percent in Colorado. However, should federal subsidies for certain crops end, 30 percent of crops now grown with basin waters could not be economically justified, said Bonnie Colby, of the University of Arizona’s Department of Agriculture & Resource Economics.

Jennifer Gimbel, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, spoke of changed sensibilities. “It used to be that if water left our state, it was wasted. If water got to Mexico, it was waste. We don’t think that way anymore, and that’s good,” she said.

And she noted a larger reality: global population growth, expected to push from 6 billion in 2000 to 10 billion during the next 50 years. She sees the need for continued efforts to explore cooperation, keeping in mind the wealth of cities that can create opportunities. She also stressed that environmental needs for water go beyond the needs of endangered species.

Efforts to more equitably honor commitments of water to Mexico represents a major new initiative that is rapidly moving onto center stage among the basin states. That effort will have reverberations even in the upper basin states, said Pat Tyrrell, state water engineer for Wyoming.

Non-traditional water users – recreation and environmental purposes – were also noted, as was the need to broaden the table for other interests.

Perhaps the most articulate proponent of the need for a new spirit of cooperation in the Colorado River is Pat Mulroy, the manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. She has good need to want cooperation.

In addition to not imagining cell phones, the compact-framers never imagined the Bellagio and the Venetian, – let alone the fact that Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, would one day surpass Manhattan in population, as it did in about 2004. As such, Nevada was apportioned only 700,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Colorado, compared to 4.4 million acre-feet for California.

“Trust me, it keeps me awake at night,” said Mulroy. She was talking about the third tunnel into Lake Mead, now being bored. The tunnel bores down 990 feet then 3.4 miles, coming up under Lake Mead in the original channel of the river. It’s the $700 million insurance policy by Las Vegas in case the drought intensifies and Lake Mead drops further.

Twenty years ago, said Mulroy, the seven states were in their separate silos. “And at that point our neighbors in Mexico were not even talked about.”

In the 1990s, there were battles over surpluses – which yielded firm federal pressure on California to live within its appropriation, which it is now doing. Later, a new concept called a groundwater bank was put into place, allowing Las Vegas to buy or borrow water from Arizona.

And lately, faced with a drought that began in 1999, the seven basin states have come together in agreement on mechanisms for addressing shortages, at least in the short term.

“The next steps will be even more daunting,” she said, talking about the impacts of climate change and reduced electrical production at Boulder Dam. “We can’t even get our hands around it,” she said.

And like Gimbel, she noted that the Southwest is not immune to global population growth and food demands that will likely impose great challenges on the Colorado River Basin. “This isn’t two lifetimes from now. This is the next generation,” she said.

But the seven states – and Mexico – must devise their own solutions. “The worst thing that can happen to us if this gets resolved in the halls of Congress,” she said.

And she sees revamping of the Colorado River Compact as “not worth the time and energy,” but instead sees a mosaic of solutions. The foundation for solutions, she emphasized, is development of relationships among the states and their representatives.

Can the Southwestern states solve their most pressing water shortages by creating more water? They already are, at a desalinization plant at Yuma, Ariz., but a thin study completed two years ago by Black and Veatch and Ch2mHill explored many other options. For example, could water produced in coal-bed methane mining produce significant volumes (not likely). How about cloud-seeding (it’s cheaper, but some doubts remain about how effective it really is). Perhaps the most audacious – and unlikely – idea is to import water to the Southwest from the Mississippi River,

We looked at anything and everything,” said Las Lampe. A second, more detailed examination of augmentation options will start later this year.

Summing up the conference, Don Ostler, of the Salt Lake City-based Upper Colorado River Commission, again stressed the perception that the 1922 compact has been proven to be flexible. But, he added, it will needed to be even more flexible because, “you haven’t seen nothing yet.”

“We are in the early stages of dealing with shortages, and again, you haven’t seen anything yet,” he added

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