Gatsby and the Colorado River

In December of 2002, an effort to sort out the problems of the Colorado River appeared as though it was about to blow up. California had long been living beyond its means (using more than the 4.4 million acre feet minimum guaranteed under the Law of the River). The deal would have given California time to reduce gradually – they called it a “soft landing”. But the deal had to be accompanied by a binding California commitment to really get to 4.4.

At the last minute, California tried to insert weasel clauses into the deal, known as the QSA, that would have given them the “soft landing” surplus water now but would have given them a way to wriggle out of their 4.4 maf commitments later. This had happened before – close to a deal, then a “but wait, this one more little thing” from California. On Dec. 9, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bennett Raley wrote this in a letter to California:

The Department has no interest in a QSA that does not represent a long term Quantification of the parties’ portion of California’s apportionment of Colorado River water, lest in fifteen years we find ourselves as Gatsby did – ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

I am indebted to An Upper Basin Perspective on California’s Claims to Water from the Colorado River Part II: The Development, Implementation and Collapse of California’s Plan to Live within Its Basic Apportionment, a remarkable history by Jim Lochhead.