A Dubious Title

SACRAMENTO – Marc Reisner famously called the Colorado River “the most legislated, most debated and most litigated river in the entire world.” As for the “most litigated,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor last week said wants to hand the plaque over to California. “I’m going to shift the title to the Bay-Delta region,” Connor said during a talk at the University of Colorado Natural Resources Law Center’s “Navigating the Future of the Colorado River” conference. The Bay-Delta is not exactly a river, but Connor’s point is well taken.

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

For a conference focused on the Colorado River, the problems of the California’s Bay-Delta system came up a lot. There are, I think, two reasons.

The first is, as I have written previously, the very direct connection between the problems of the two systems. Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District gets water from each, and when its Colorado River allotment dropped in the early ’00s, it started taking more water from the Bay-Delta. “Because Met relies on Bay-Delta and the Colorado, that part of the world is a part of our watershed,” the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s Pat Mulroy said during her keynote at the Boulder conference. Mulroy does not mean this literally – obviously they are different watersheds. But this is an argument I’ve heard her make before – the intertwining of water management fates via the engineering water system linkages we’ve created across the West – an “artificial watershed.”

But there was a second reason the Bay-Delta kept coming up, a fascinating sort of “compare and contrast” of the institutional problem-solving frameworks for the two systems. The Boulder conference was dominated by a sense of confidence that folks on the Colorado River, through the two major agreements carved out over the last decade (Interim Surplus Guidelines and the 2007 shortage sharing agreement), have figured out how to collaboratively solve problems without resorting to “water’s for fightin’ over” combat. There were a lot of caveats – lack of a seat at the table for stakeholders other than states and water agencies, especially environmental interests and Mexico (and the environment in Mexico), being the largest problems. But the conference at times had the feel of a great big group hug.

Where the Colorado River Compact was once viewed as an inflexible impediment to solving newly arising problems, it is now seen as offering a usable framework for moving forward, as long as the parties at the table came come up with workable compromises. “The compact has shown itself adaptable,” Mulroy said. “It really allows seven states to do what seven states can agree to.”

This is where the Bay-Delta’s problems stood in such stark contrast. Connor related his recent ritual flogging during a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Water and Power on H.R. 1837, Devin Nunes’ bill to, in Connor’s words, impose “raw political power” to impose a top-down solution on the Bay-Delta – “a trend” Connor said “completely at odds with the trend on the Colorado River in the last 15 years.”

There are a couple of things I don’t know here.

One is whether, while Nunes’ theater plays out in public, there are quiet collaborative efforts that could succeed in creating a non-“water’s for fightin’ over” framework for dealing with the Bay-Delta’s problems. (That’s one of the things I hope to learn more about during my whirlwind visit to the Bay Area over the next week. Do the BDCP and Delta Stewardship Council, for example, offer some traction in this area, dear California friends?)

The second is whether all the happy talk on the Colorado is sustainable. This year’s big snowpack means big water in Mead and Powell, which means we avoid the hard conversations that would have tested the 2007 Shortage Sharing Agreement. It also buys time for the hard conversations to come, especially over how to allocate shortages across the basin’s water users and the environment if (when?) climate change further depletes the river.

I understand less well what time California’s big snowpack might buy. Out my motel window as the sun sets, I can see a booming Sacramento River. My outsider’s sense is that it’s so far bought Californians nothing other than a new set of facts on the ground to fight over, but maybe that’s just because I haven’t gotten past the theater.

P.S. Tons more great stuff came out of the Boulder conference, which I hope to synthesize and work through here over the next week or two as time permits. But tomorrow, it’s off to Suisin Marsh!


  1. Pingback: Water’s Sometimes for Fightin’ Over : jfleck at inkstain

  2. It is, from time to time, the California River.

    Re the conflict, it’s not going away anytime soon. Ultimately I think the farmers are going to be the major losers.

    As for Pat… in her dreams.

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