More talk of a Colorado River climate change “grand bargain”

the Colorado River “grand bargain” discussion draws on our new book

The Denver Post’s Bruce Finley took a deep dive in today’s paper into the idea of a Colorado River “grand bargain” that might trade off the Lower Basin’s right to make a “call” on the river if flows at Lee’s Ferry drop against an Upper Basin cap on future development:

The grand bargain concept arose from increasing anxiety in booming Colorado and the other upper-basin states — New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — about their plight of being legally roped into sending more water downriver, even if dry winters, new population growth and development made that impossible without shutting faucets.

California, Arizona and Nevada, the lower-basin states that for years have siphoned more than their allotted one-half share of river water, face greater uncertainty and painful weaning from overuse.

What Finley characterizes as “serious behind-the-scenes contemplation” of the “grand bargain” is driven by increasingly clear hydrologic reality. There has always been less water in the Colorado River than the planners thought when they allocated the river’s water in the first half of the 20th century, and there is even less water now as climate change saps the river’s flow.

While lots of people talked to Finley about it, none of the basin officials would commit to actually liking the idea. (Becky Mitchell, head of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, offered my favorite faint praise – “an interesting thought exercise”.)

It’s an idea that’s been floating around for years, but Eric Kuhn and I, co-authors of a new book coming out in the fall, gave it a fresh push this summer. From Finley:

The grand bargain gained traction this summer at a University of Colorado Law School forum, following circulation of a paper by former Colorado River District manager Eric Kuhn and reporter-turned-water-analyst John Fleck of the University of New Mexico that articulated the concept.

They cast the bargain as a crucial recognition that the river on average holds about 2.5 million acre-feet less water than state negotiators put on paper in the 1922 compact.

The grand bargain “is a long-term sustainable solution” to Colorado River Basin problems “providing flexibility and security for water uses in the basin, including recreational and environmental flows, while recognizing that there is less water in the system than what was contemplated when the Law of the River was conceived,” they wrote.

Our “fresh push” includes the white paper Finley mentioned, which draws on the material in our new book.

I wrote obliquely about the “grand bargain” in my last book, which came out three years ago.

Within the network of state and water-agency representatives working on Colorado River Basin problems, there is a clear recognition that eventually some sort of “grand bargain” will be needed that finds a way to reduce everyone’s water allocation. To keep the system from crashing, everyone will have to give something up. But each of the participants in that core network also understands the dilemma that follows: each
must then go home and sell the deal in a domestic political environment that views the river’s paper water allocations as a God-given right.

I’m no longer sure that bit is right, about the “clear recognition” that some sort of grand bargain will eventually be needed. What you see in the quotes in Finley’s story is a tension between the reality of water allocation on the Colorado River and the “but ya gotta sell the deal back home” part.

For the last book, Water Isn’t Really For Fighting Over, I’d written a much longer bit that ended up on the editing room floor. I dug it out this afternoon to reread. I see why I abandoned it – the complexity was daunting, and I still find the nuances of the “grand bargain” hard to explain. But the kicker went to the heart of where we’re at now:

Water managers hate risk. What if there were a middle ground, a deal that shared the risk?

The “grand bargain” does just that. But it is so politically sensitive that you don’t hear it talked about much. It doesn’t really have good “lies you can tell back home” that would make its unpleasant reality, advantageous though it might be, politically saleable.





  1. with the possibility of a call doesn’t it seem irresponsible to have developed to the point where 1.4 million people would be at risk of losing their water supply?

    however, as they know, they can shift water from agriculture to the cities if needed and that is happening whether the farmers like it or not.

    the only ways out of this problem are population control and conservation if you want to keep that call in place. my guess is that eventually it goes, legally or otherwise, if times get bad enough and dry enough the people will get the water and the farmers will fallow the land in the years they can’t get enough water. if they’re smart they won’t plant crops that require water each year.

    are they smart? no. c.f. CA, almond, walnut and grape growers and the Salton Sea or the upcoming wreck of the Great Salt Lake…

  2. I truly believe that at some point there are going to have to be Stateswomen and Statesmen that possess the wisdom to look beyond hatred, greed, and localize politics. Those who are influential must somehow work for the greater good of the Public of the Colorado River Basin. There is just too much at stake. We are nearing a time when the Public Trust will out weigh regional considerations. There will come a time when common sense will be forced upon the Water Managers for the greater good if they cannot rise to the inevitability of a warming climate and what that means for the long term health and future of the South West.

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