There was more buzz this week at two big Colorado River Basin events about the idea of a “grand bargain” to deal with coming collisions between water overallocation and the Law of the River.
The idea crept into the title of the Water Education Foundation’s 2019 Santa Fe Symposium – “Can We Build a Bridge to a Grand Bargain in the Basin?”. It also came up repeatedly at the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s fall water seminar, including in a luncheon keynote by the University of Colorado’s Doug Kenney, who has done a lot of the analytical heavy lifting on the idea.
While most of the people yakking about it in public right now are folks unaffiliated with organized water interests (folks like, well, me), the interesting thing right now is the behind-the-scenes conversations among decision makers within the system. There’s been positive interest across geographic and water-using communities, including both Upper and Lower Basin folks, and both ag and municipal water users.
My collaborator Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of of the Colorado River Water Conservation District well known as a staunch defender of rural Colorado West Slope water interests, is in the middle of all this, speaking at both events. While the ideas has many parents, Eric has come to be identified with it in part because, now that he’s retired, he can thrown down a bit more than when he had the portfolio of obligations that comes with running an agency.
The idea’s been kicking around for more than a decade, but it was in fact Eric who first publicly documented what to that point had been private discussions. In a widely read 2012 white paper (p. 41, pdf here), Eric detailed a conversation at a 2005 meeting of the basin states principles at a hotel here in Albuquerque. The details are arcane (click through for Eric’s explanation) but the idea is that each basin gives up politically treasured but practically unrealistic interpretations of the Law of the River in a compromise that avoids litigation and provides more certainty for the water management communities in both basins.
Doug Kenney and colleagues have done the most detailed analysis of the idea (see here), if you’re looking for details. But I caution not to focus too much right now on those details. What’s critical, as Eric and I write in our about-to-emerge-book, is that the process of discussion we’re now seeing among basin water users has a chance to bat around ideas, including beating up ours:
The process by which such a grand bargain might happen may be every bit as important as the technical details of what it would entail. At a 2005 meeting of the “basin states principles”—the Colorado River leadership team representing each of the seven basin states—representatives from Colorado floated a proposal. The details involved some tricky trade-offs. But the details are less important than the forum.
Such an agreement cannot be specified ahead of time but has to emerge from the process of collaboration and compromise that has grown up over the last two decades. That 2005 meeting is an example of the sort of meetings that happen all the time, as representatives of the basin water community meet to hash out their problems.
That’s the conversation that seems to be happening.