With an 85 percent allocation of northern California water from California’s State Water Project last year, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California was able to cut back on its use of Colorado River water, leaving more than 300,000 acre feet in Lake Mead. That water has provided a sufficient buffer than Mead will end this year at an elevation of 1,077 feet above sea level, barely above the threshold (1,075) at which a Lower Colorado River Basin shortage is declared, with enforced water use cutbacks in the Lower Basin.
This year, with a current California State Water Project allocation of 20 percent, Met has far less wiggle room, less flexibility to leave water in Mead. In other words, problems in Northern California, in the supplies that flow through the Sacramento Delta to the State Water Project pumps, create risks for the Colorado River because of the interlocking nature of the two systems.
Met has a history in recent decades as a collaborative, positive participant in Colorado River governance. All else equal, Met has repeatedly shown a willingness to do the right thing for the Colorado River Basin as a whole. But it must first act to ensure the reliability of its own system supply.
This was the animating point of the talk I gave last week at the California Water Policy Conference at U.C. Davis. California is the 800 pound gorilla in the western water room. How it deals with the problem of moving water through the Sacramento Delta has a huge impact on the entire west. Success in ensuring reliability of delta supply to southern California decreases pressure on the Colorado River. Failure increases that pressure. Which is an overlong setup to my interest in this process, as Met considers picking up the full price tag for building two big tunnels beneath the delta. Via Ryan Sabalow:
Pushing ahead with an ambitious effort to take a majority stake in the state’s troubled $16.7 billion tunnels project, Southern California’s behemoth water agency announced Tuesday that the plan would cost its ratepayers less than $5 a month.
On Tuesday, staff at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California told board members $4.80 was the most the 6.2 million households in Metropolitan’s service area could expect to pay if the agency moves ahead with plans to take on 65 percent of the share of building both tunnels.
One of the central points in the work of Elinor Ostrom, whose work animates a lot of my teaching in the UNM Water Resources Program, is the importance of the boundaries we draw around a resource problem. We tend to do it at the local or state level, awkwardly sometimes at the scale of river basins spanning two or more states, and only very awkwardly in a case like these were the resource system that matters spans two entirely different systems, connected via these giant canals that we built in the 20th century.
So I sit out here, two states away from Los Angeles, three states away from Sacramento, and watch California and fret.