In western water management, the rest of us nervously watch California

One of my new lectures this semester for UNM Water Resources Program students tackled the question of where and how you draw boundaries around a water management problem. The example I worked through was the Colorado River and the U.S.-Mexico border. You have water management institutions and governance that are largely separate on each side of the border, and a treaty that attempts to manage the handoff as water (a river and aquifers) moves from one nation to the next. There’s a fascinating history of adaptation, sometimes quite poor, in the way that handoff is carried out.

Salton Sea, Carol Highsmith, courtesy Library of Congress

Another great example – perhaps a lecture for next year? – is the handoff between the Colorado River Basin and a couple of water problems in California that have been placed outside the Basin’s institutional and governance boundaries but that directly impinge on our ability to solve problems within the Basin.

I had the chance to talk about two of these areas yesterday – the Salton Sea (an op ed in the Sacramento Bee) and a last-minute appearance on Larry Mantle’s Air Talk on Southern California Public Radio to talk about California’s attempt to solve the Sacramento Delta’s problems.

In both cases, I took the opportunity to try to impress on Californians the importance that they deal with their significant water issues because of their implications for the rest of us around the West trying to share these giant human-built watersheds. My Bee piece talked about the need for California to address the Salton Sea’s problems because of the way that issue is linked to a new deal on the Colorado River:

Water managers in the rest of the Colorado River Basin – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and my own state of New Mexico – are watching nervously. We worry that shortfalls in Lake Mead could lead like tipping dominoes to water problems throughout the West as we try to share this interconnected, shrinking resource.

On Mantle’s show, I argued that California’s success or failure in dealing the Sacramento Delta affects all of us because the interconnection through the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California links that problem with the rest of the Colorado River Basin. Less water supply reliability from the Sacramento Delta means more pressure on the Colorado River Basin.

We’ve drawn the Colorado River Basin’s governance boundaries in a way that excludes both the Salton Sea and the Sacramento Delta. That leaves the rest of us dependent on California, on its side of these water governance boundaries, to do the right thing.


  1. In California we largely have a network of Chicken games for the Delta, Salton Sea, groundwater, and environmental flows. The federal government no longer has the will or capability to officiate resolution of most of these disputes. State government is trying to resolve several of these disputes with more focus, and some success, but it will be a long slog. For the Colorado River and Salton Sea, the federal government probably has the most potential for playing a positive role, as it has in the past.

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