Colorado River Allocations Unbalanced – Albuquerque Journal
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Journal is launching a multi-part series on the Colorado River as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Colorado River Compact.
DENVER — The escalating crisis facing the Colorado River amounts to what is fundamentally a math problem.
The 40 million people who depend on the river to fill a glass of water at the table or grow food on millions of acres use far more of it each year than actually flows down the banks of the Colorado.
In fact, first carved out 100 years ago in a document known as the Colorado River Compact, the calculation of who gets how much of that water may never have been balanced.
“The pact’s drafters – and water leaders ever since – always knew or had access to information that the allocations they were making were greater than what the river could provide,” said lead researcher Anne Castle. at the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado Law School.
And over the past two decades, the situation on the Colorado River has become markedly more unbalanced, more dire.
A drought that scientists now believe to be the driest in 22 years in 1,200 years has gripped the southwest, zapping river flows. In addition, people continue to move to this part of the country. Arizona, Utah and Nevada all rank among the 10 fastest growing states, according to census data.
While Wyoming and New Mexico aren’t growing as quickly, residents are watching two key reservoirs – popular recreational destinations – recede to support Lake Powell. Meanwhile, Southern California’s Imperial Irrigation District uses more water than Arizona and Nevada combined, but highlights its critical role in providing livestock feed and winter produce to the nation.
Until recently, water managers and politicians whose constituents depend on the river have avoided the toughest questions about how to rebalance the system. Instead, water managers drained the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, faster than Mother Nature filled them.
In 2000, both reservoirs were about 95% full. Today, Mead and Powell are each about 27% full.
They are so low that this summer Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton testified before the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that 2 to 4 million acre-feet are expected to be cut next year. to prevent the system from reaching “extremely low water levels”. , threatening reservoir infrastructure and hydroelectric production.
The commissioner has set a deadline in August for basin states to come up with options for possible water cuts. The upper basin states — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming — have submitted a plan. The lower basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada – did not submit a combined plan.
The office threatened unilateral action instead of a basin-wide plan. When the 60-day deadline arrived, however, he did not announce any further water cuts. Instead, the office announced that some predetermined water cuts had gone into effect and gave states more time to reach a basin-wide agreement.
Natives left behind
A week before Touton’s deadline, representatives of 14 Native American tribes with water rights on the river sent the Bureau of Reclamation a letter expressing concern about being left out of the negotiation process.
“What is discussed behind closed doors between the United States and the Basin States will likely directly impact the water rights and other resources of Basin tribes and we expect and demand that you protect our interests,” wrote tribal representatives.
Being left out of the Colorado River talks is not a new issue for the tribes of the Colorado River Basin.
The original pact was brokered and signed on Nov. 24, 1922, by seven landowners, who brokered the agreement for the benefit of people like them, said Jennifer Pitt of the National Audubon Society.
“They divided the water between themselves and their constituents without recognizing the water needs of Mexico, the water needs of the Native American tribes that lived in their midst, and without recognizing the needs of the environment,” Pitt said. .
Mexico, through which the tail of the Colorado winds before emptying into the Pacific Ocean, secured its supply through a treaty in 1944. The treaty granted 1.5 million acre-feet in addition to the Original 15 million acre-feet that had already been divided, 7.5 million each for the Upper and Lower Basins.
The tribes, however, still do not have full access to the Colorado River. Although the briefly mentioned compact, tribal rights predate all others, it lacked specificity, requiring individual tribes to negotiate settlements or file lawsuits to quantify those rights, many of which remain unresolved. It’s important to recognize the relationship between Natives and non-Natives at this time, said Daryl Vigil, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico.
“In 1922, my tribe lived on subsistence,” Vigil said. “The only way we could survive was on government rations on a piece of land that was not our traditional homeland. This is where we were when the fundamental law of the river was created.
Conflicts of interests
Agriculture uses the majority of the water in the river, about 70% or 80% depending on the organization that makes the estimate. When it comes to how to reduce water use, we often turn to farmers and ranchers.
Some pilot programs have focused on paying farmers to use less water, but questions remain unanswered about how to transfer the savings to Lake Powell for storage or how to create a water saving program. a way that would not negatively impact a farmer’s water rights.
Outdated state laws mean that the amount of water a water right gives someone access to can be reduced if it is not fully used.
That’s why the Camblin family’s ranch in Craig, northwest Colorado, plans to flood irrigate once a decade, despite the recent upgrade to an expensive, water-efficient pivot irrigation system. water. Nine out of 10 years, they will receive payment from a conservation group in exchange for leaving excess water in the river. But in Colorado, the state revokes water rights after 10 years if they are not used.
Not only would losing that right mean they couldn’t access a backup water supply if their pivot system failed, but their property value would plummet, Mike Camblin explained.
There are other ways to improve efficiency, but money is often a barrier.
Wastewater recycling is growing in the region, albeit slowly, as it requires massive infrastructure overhauls.
San Diego has built a robust desalination plant to turn seawater into drinking water, yet some agricultural users are trying to get out of their contract because the water is so expensive.
Some cities incorporate natural sewage filtration into their landscaping before the water backs up to the river. All of this is feasible, but expensive, and these costs are often passed on directly to water users.
One of the greatest opportunities for water conservation is to change the way our landscapes look, said Lindsay Rogers, water policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit dedicated to water and land protection in the West. Converting a significant amount of outdoor landscaping to drought-tolerant plants would require a combination of policies and incentives, Rogers explained.
After years of resident incentive programs, Las Vegas recently banned all non-functional grass by 2026, setting a model for other Western communities. For years, the city also paid residents to tear up lawns.
This summer in Southern California, the Metropolitan Water District instituted an unprecedented one-day-a-week water restriction.
However, whatever the type of water use, more concessions have to be made.
“The law of the river is not suited to what the river has become and what we see it becoming more and more,” Pitt said of Audubon. “It was built on the expectation of a bigger water supply than we have.”
The Associated Press, Albuquerque Journal, Colorado Sun, Salt Lake Tribune, Arizona Daily Star and Nevada Independent explore pressures on the Colorado River in 2022.