River Beat: Another Place There Used To Be A Lake

One of the guys at the Las Vegas Marina yesterday was sounding optimistic. Sure, the lake level’s low, he said, but they expect it to start rising soon. Plus, he said he heard they expect it to eventually come up another 60 feet. He shrugged as if to say, “Dunno, but that’s what I heard,” as if he didn’t quite believe it himself.

Colorado River: Supply and Demand

Colorado River: Supply and Demand

For the record, the latest Bureau of Reclamation projection has Mead dropping another 6 feet in the next year. We haven’t even started the winter snow season, so it’s too early to do anything other than shrug at the projection, but that’s what it says.

The reason, of course, is that for the last decade, demand for water on the Colorado River has exceeded supply. This is a telling graphic that’s been making the rounds this year as we all watched Lake Mead slip toward its current historic low. (Click the image for a bigger version.)

Another way of looking at the situation is out at the end of what used to be the boat ramp at Boulder Harbor, another of the former boating sites on the western edge of Lake Mead. I stopped by this afternoon on my continuing tour of places the lake used to be.

Boulder Harbor, Lake Mead, Oct. 18, 2010

Boulder Harbor, Lake Mead, Oct. 18, 2010

The boat ramp’s closed. What’s left of the harbor can’t be more than a few feet deep at this point. There were literally hundreds of coots poking around in the muck, and I watched an osprey fish (successfully). The strangest bird was a white domestic goose, who squawked loudly when I got too close, but couldn’t be bothered to actually flee. The coots did flee, but in a lackadaisical way that suggested they were not all that concerned that I would eat them.

The narrow inlet to the harbor is nearly dried up, and with a few more feet of lake level drop, Boulder Harbor will dry up completely.

If the guy I talked to yesterday at the marina is right, of course, Boulder Harbor will rise again, and the power boats will return. Sixty feet would be sweet indeed.


  1. “The reason, of course, is that for the last decade, demand for water on the Colorado River has exceeded supply”

    Yes, and the solution to this problem is obvious. Lower demand. If you need a hint on how to do that, I can tell you in 3 minutes, or you can just go and RAISE PRICES.

  2. David, please, just stop. You know perfectly well that the federal government does NOT own the water. Really, if you can explain in three minutes how to undo the 80+ years of Supreme Court rulings, Acts of Congress, international treaties, interstate compacts and all the rest making up the Law of the River, have at it and post the video on your website. I could use a good laugh.

    (For any complex problem, there exists at least one solution that is simple, obvious and wrong.)

    John, it’d be really interesting to supplement that graph with the use by each state.

  3. Well, Congress *could* undo all of that, but it seems fair to say that that push is far from coming to shove. The trend line is headed that way, though.

    John, the goose’s relative confidence has an explanation, which you would know had you ever been bitten seriously by one.

    Also, don’t you think it’s about time to haul out the cargo cult references?

  4. Steve: The 5th Amendment to the Constitution mandates that the federal government pay for property that it takes. You can argue that water rights aren’t property, so diverting the Colorado River away from Imperial County and to LA County isn’t a “taking” of the property of Imperial County farmers, but I wouldn’t bet on that case being a winner.

    (thus, not a “simple” problem with an “obvious” solution.)

  5. @Francis — “You know perfectly well that the federal government does NOT own the water.”

    Oh, and can you please tell me how owners of usufruct rights own the water?

    No, because they do not. The WATER is owned by the gov’t.

    But Francis, you didn’t even understand what I said. I said RAISE PRICES, and there are many ways to do that without touching the fifth amendment.

    Hey, I have an idea. How about YOU suggest a SOLUTION, instead of pissing all over new ideas?

  6. Solution: Lowering use on the Colorado River will have to be done by negotiations among the affected parties, i.e., the States and the political divisions within the States that hold the rights. In other words, QSA II (then III then IV). Need I dig out your prior thoughts on the QSA?

    Who, precisely, should raise prices? BoR? The Bureau of Reclamation is the operator of Hoover Dam. It does not charge IID for the water behind the dam. IID? IID is a public agency that holds water rights in trust for the farmers who originally formed it and conveyed their rights to it. It exists to serve its constituents. Why should it charge anything more than its actual costs?

    David, you continue to hold the bizarre idea that a market already actually exists for Colorado River water. Dude, there is no one selling water to IID. IID takes water pursuant to the 1922 Interstate Compact and related agreements comprising the Law of the River.

    The comment on the 5th Amendment was addressed to Mr. Bloom who believes, like so many do, that Congress can do whatever it wants on Western water issues. Congress can try, but I suspect that the federal judiciary will tell it that it has to pay for its takings.

    Hypothetically, I guess it might be possible for Congress to try to levy a tax on the water delivered by BoR. MWD would, presumably, be in a better place to afford the tax so IID would be under financial pressure to sell water to MWD. But who in this day is going to propose that tax? Also, there are huge constitutional issues presented. BoR does not deliver water to private parties but to governmental agencies. States and their instrumentalities are, generally, immune from federal taxation.

  7. Francis, you describe the present paradigm well enough, but as soon as we get into real shortage territory it’s going to be a different story. The fact that senior rights doesn’t always equate with political clout is going to make itself apparent in the outcome.

    On the issue of the feds taxing government agencies, may I suggest “fee” or a suitable equivalent. I expect that those fees will be directed to retiring water rights. What’s happened in the Murray-Darling is probably a pretty good model for what’s going to happen in the Colorado Basin.

  8. Steve –

    The solidity of what you describe as “the present paradigm” has already been tested, in the development of the 2007 shortage sharing agreement, which outlines how shortages will be allocated among the lower basin states once Lake Mead drops below 1075, and how reservoir operations will be managed to maintain the water rights of the politically less powerful upper basin states. Through two years of very tough negotiations in the midst of serious drought and fears of imminent shortage, the paradigm held firm.

    In other words, we’ve already had actual tests of your hypothesis that when push comes to shove, political power will trump established water rights. It hasn’t happened.

    I don’t know California as well (help me here, Francis), but it appears that the same could be said for allocations within California as well. If the Bloom hypothesis were correct, the politically powerful coastal cities would have taken the Imperial Valley’s water long ago. They have not. Is that a fair assessment, Francis?

  9. John, I don’t think push has really come to shove yet. Fears of imminent shortage aren’t actual shortage. It’ll be time for IID to start sweating when there’s rationing in the CA cities, or more to the point right before that happens.

  10. John and Steve: IID’s legal case is that much stronger intra-State than interstate. But California’s water law continues to evolve. If LA County got really water short and was willing to pay IID for the water, would the Sup. Ct. stop an involuntary (on IID’s part) transfer? That’s a big risky bet, and one that many people on both sides really don’t want to take on.

    So, while the fight-don’t-settle forces within IID are strong, the more pragmatic appear to recognize that its future consists of surrendering ever more water to the cities.

    (You can see why they’d be cranky about having to take on the additional responsibility of saving the Salton Sea.)

    (There is some rationing in LA County; my home city of Long Beach has adopted what appears to be a permanent mandate for a 10% reduction from baseline. But the restrictions we face now are nothing like what we’ll have to live with if Mead continues to fall.)

  11. Of course the SCOTUS would not stop a voluntary transfer. BurRec may stick their noses in, but beneficial use does matter.

    Francis — you assume too much. I never said that there was a market. “Raise prices” (for any water user) does not require a market, but you’ve demonstrated your inability to understand that difference many times.

    As Steve is right to point out, IID risks regulatory seizure in the case of “shortage” (lack of water for lawns), but the real key to the game is for IID to raise prices for its water to farmers, preferably with auctions, while allowing MWD et al. to buy water at higher prices. Lake Mead is draining due to a lack of water scarcity pricing.

    Can you imagine something like this, without falling into your case studies?

  12. David, once more unto the breach.

    1. The word “price” implies a market. My grocery store “prices” milk; my government imposes taxes, charges, fees and assessments. These are not the same thing.

    2. IID does not sell water to farmers; it provides the water while imposing a water charge that funds the District’s operations. IID is prohibited by the California Constitution from imposing a charge (or price) in excess of the District’s actual costs; IID cannot run a profit on its water sales.

    3. If IID attempted to impose a conservation charge on the water it served to its farmers, the following things would happen in short order: (a) the elected officials would be recalled and replaced with officials who would undo the charge; and (b) the District would be sued under Prop. 215, and lose. The statutory provisions of the Water Code that allow public agencies to impose conservation charges without violating Article XIIID of the California Constitution apply to urban water suppliers only.

    4. Constitutional amendments to allow (even require) IID to “raise prices” are possible. Getting such an amendment passed is not obvious.

    5. It may be possible to adopt a agriculture water conservation charge statute without first amending the Constitution; this would require further research. Whether the public agency could transfer the conserved water to another, urban, agency is another difficult issue. And specifically to IID, the ability of the agency to transfer conserved water to MWD without seriously adversely affecting the Salton Sea in another huge problem.

    6. Politically, LA is more powerful than IID and thus is likely to win out in any long-term fight. But I’m not sure that might makes right in this case. The IID farmers were there long before LA and obtained high-priority common law and statutory rights to the Colorado River. I thought libertarians like yourself assigned high value to property rights. Also, IID grows food, Los Angeles grows lawns.

    So, it seems to me on a societal benefit level there’s a strong argument that LA should bear the brunt of the drought before IID gives up one drop of water.

    7. I make no apology for noting your continued refusal to learn the laws governing California water. You claim to have “obvious” solutions, but your solutions are illegal.

  13. Francis, I doubt a state Con. amendment will be problematic if LA is being forced into rationing (since a blocking minority in the legislature can be bypassed with an initiative), but even if it was there are always legislative “tricks” available, e.g., a schedule of not fees but *fines* for usage past specified limits (which they could impose directly or authorize IID to do assuming the authority doesn’t already exist). Note also that the legislature or the voters can simply abolish the IID with simple majorities. In addition, judges are noted for becoming flexible in the face of sufficient public pressure.

    The interstate stuff does sound more complicated. We’ll see how long the present agreement does the job.

  14. You’re not the first to suggest dissolving IID. The question of where the rights go, though, is a hard problem. There are some who argue (quite persuasively, to me) that the rights would have to be put in some kind of public trust for the benefit of Imperial County farmers, because they conveyed their rights to IID in the first place. (There’s a rather complex body of law regarding conveyances by persons to their government for specific purposes. The very simple version is that once the government accepts the property w/ the limitations attached, it can be forced to use the property for the intended purpose.)

    As to an initiative remaking California’s water law, how’d that Peripheral Canal referendum do all those years ago? When it comes to water, everyone hates LA.

    As John points out above, the relevant parties did get together recently and adopt the shortage criteria. The current batch of executives seems to favor negotiations over endless litigation. I think grinding out round after round of negotiated solutions to ever-dropping levels in Lake Mead is far more likely to be productive than sweeping solutions that sweep everyone off to court for a decade or so.

  15. Pingback: On the Difficulty of Fixing Water Problems : jfleck at inkstain

  16. Pingback: There sure is a lot of water in Lake Mead. Relatively speaking. : jfleck at inkstain

Comments are closed.