By Eric Kuhn
If, as being widely reported, the Colorado River basin states (and the major water agencies that largely dictate what the states do) ultimately decide to proceed with a Lower Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan that cuts out the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), no one should be surprised. It’s simply continuing a long, and perhaps successful, tradition of basin governance by running over the “miscreant(s)”.
The tradition started with the ratification of the 1922 Compact and the authorization of the 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act (which authorized Hoover Dam and the All-American Canal). Arizona, led by colorful governor George P. Hunt, opposed the ratification of the compact. So what did the other six states do? They designed a six-state approval strategy and implemented it through the passage of the 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act, which Arizona opposed but could not stop. By the 1940s when the basin’s attention had turned to the Mexican Treaty, Arizona had joined the compact club, ratifying it in 1944. The outliers were now California and its nominal ally Nevada. Both states opposed the Senate ratification of the 1944 Treaty. Their fate was the same as Arizona’s in 1928, led by the other five basin states and Texas (the 1944 Treaty includes the lower Rio Grande), the Senate easily ratified the treaty.
In the 1950s as Congress turned its attention to passing the Colorado River Storage and Participating Projects Act (CRSPA authorized Glen Canyon Dam and a bunch of other Upper Basin projects), the states were aligned 6 -1 with California again on the outside (by then Nevada had joined the other five states). The outcome was the same. Congress and the Eisenhower Administration ignored California’s spirited opposition and CRSPA easily passed. Similarly, Arizonans argue that they were forced by California and the other states to accept the Central Arizona Project’s junior status in return for their support for its authorization in 1968. (The alternate story and actual reality is that Arizona and its CAP boosters understood that the junior status was the logical outcome of Arizona’s 1964 victory in AZ v. CA and put the junior priority on the table upfront before any Congressional debate.)
In 1970 it was the four states of the Upper Division that got to feel the tire tracks. The subject was the operation of Glen Canyon Dam. The four upper river states were strenuously opposed to an annual minimum objective release of 8.23 million acre-feet per year because it arguably included an Upper Basin contribution of 750,000 acre-feet per year for Mexico (1/2 of the 1.5 MAF annual treaty delivery). The outcome was eloquently described by legendary New Mexico State Engineer Steve Reynolds as “they (the Lower Basin and Secretary Walter Hickel) crammed it down our #%&@#$ throats!” The obligation of the Upper Basin to Mexico under the 1922 Compact is still an unresolved issue.
Thus, if the rest of the basin decides to move ahead with DCPs without the cooperation and participation of IID, it will continue a long tradition and one that many argue has benefited the basin as a whole. The major difference between the past and now is that in past decisions to overwhelm opposing states or major agencies, the issue was primarily the development of new projects. Today, with an overused river, it’s about the reallocation of water between those with senior rights (primarily agriculture) and those with junior rights but in need certainty of supply – the large urban centers that use Colorado River water.
In our new book Science be Dammed, John Fleck and I argue that the beauty of the 1922 Compact was that it was a social contract between the faster growing states on the lower river (primarily California) and the slower growing states on the upper river to leave some water in the river for their future development. This allowed the states to cautiously form the coalitions necessary to pass the federal legislation needed to develop the river. As we have seen, for the major decisions there was rarely unanimous agreement. Today, in an era of reallocation of existing supplies, what is needed is a similar social contract between the haves, the rural areas of the basin that rely on agriculture (with senior rights), recreation and a healthy river and the have-nots, the urban centers with mostly junior rights, but with a need for certainty of supply and the political and economic power to overwhelm the rest of the basin. The goal of such a social contract would be to allow the inevitable reallocations, but only if there is a clear and real benefit to the areas-of-origin.
Leaving IID out of the Lower Basin DCP might make sense for a number of good reasons (especially with the great snowpack which reduces the risk faced by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in shouldering the DCP burden without IID’s help), the question policy makers should consider is in the long run (post 2026 for the Colorado River Basin) is such an action going to make it easier or harder to manage conflicts on a shrinking river?