More Colorado River “grand bargain” buzz

There was more buzz this week at two big Colorado River Basin events about the idea of a “grand bargain” to deal with coming collisions between water overallocation and the Law of the River.

The idea crept into the title of the Water Education Foundation’s 2019 Santa Fe Symposium – “Can We Build a Bridge to a Grand Bargain in the Basin?”. It  also came up repeatedly at the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s fall water seminar, including in a luncheon keynote by the University of Colorado’s Doug Kenney, who has done a lot of the analytical heavy lifting on the idea.

While most of the people yakking about it in public right now are folks unaffiliated with organized water interests (folks like, well, me), the interesting thing right now is the behind-the-scenes conversations among decision makers within the system. There’s been positive interest across geographic and water-using communities, including both Upper and Lower Basin folks, and both ag and municipal water users.

My collaborator Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of of the Colorado River Water Conservation District well known as a staunch defender of rural Colorado West Slope water interests, is in the middle of all this, speaking at both events. While the ideas has many parents, Eric has come to be identified with it in part because, now that he’s retired, he can thrown down a bit more than when he had the portfolio of obligations that comes with running an agency.

Eric’s 2012 white paper

The idea’s been kicking around for more than a decade, but it was in fact Eric who first publicly documented what to that point had been private discussions. In a widely read 2012 white paper (p. 41, pdf here), Eric detailed a conversation at a 2005 meeting of the basin states principles at a hotel here in Albuquerque. The details are arcane (click through for Eric’s explanation) but the idea is that each basin gives up politically treasured but practically unrealistic interpretations of the Law of the River in a compromise that avoids litigation and provides more certainty for the water management communities in both basins.

Doug Kenney and colleagues have done the most detailed analysis of the idea (see here), if you’re looking for details. But I caution not to focus too much right now on those details. What’s critical, as Eric and I write in our about-to-emerge-book, is that the process of discussion we’re now seeing among basin water users has a chance to bat around ideas, including beating up ours:

The process by which such a grand bargain might happen may be every bit as important as the technical details of what it would entail. At a 2005 meeting of the “basin states principles”—the Colorado River leadership team representing each of the seven basin states—representatives from Colorado floated a proposal. The details involved some tricky trade-offs. But the details are less important than the forum.

Such an agreement cannot be specified ahead of time but has to emerge from the process of collaboration and compromise that has grown up over the last two decades. That 2005 meeting is an example of the sort of meetings that happen all the time, as representatives of the basin water community meet to hash out their problems.

That’s the conversation that seems to be happening.


  1. Sometimes you have to start from scratch to solve a big problem.
    1. The Southwest is overdeveloped. Cheap energy and plentiful water made that possible. But that goes for the whole planet.
    2. Rapidly increasing temperatures will require existing development to increase use of energy and water. The increase will accelerate due to positive feedback loops.
    3. Use of water and energy must be reduced due to amount available and emission reduction.
    4. Given an emergency situation, all prior agreements are null and void.
    5. Existing development, like cities, will have to be reduced. No stupid pipelines to St. George.
    6. Just because you built a city in a desert, should not entitle you to water.
    7. Agriculture will become less productive and then unsustainable.
    8. People are going to lose money on “stranded assets”.
    9. Shipping water out of the basin never made any sense. That was developers greed exploiting a resource.
    10. In the larger sense, we are on a “lifeboat” and our rations are being depleted.
    11. Rights by dates makes no sense.
    12. Some really tough calls are needed to allocate this shrinking resource in some fair way. Need the wisdom of Solomon.
    13. The federal government should convene a special panel. Not the congress. A slate of international people without biases might be needed. Not necessarily the UN.
    14. Global warming will make the changes for us if we don’t.

  2. Patrick, you forgot Point 15. Remember it’s overall climate change, not just “global warming.” The Southwest is supposed to get drier as well as hotter, and with the river already overappropriated …. erp!

    That said, on Point 5, the current Upper/Lower Basin divisions don’t make good hydrological sense even if they’re drawn for states rights reasons. Little Colorado and tributaries should be Upper Basin. Virgin River area should be Lower Basin.

  3. Thanks SG.
    After hearing a lot of confusion (and obfuscation) around the word “climate” I thought it might be simpler to go back to “global warming”. It seems to me that climate change is an effect and also a symptom.

    I just read a piece on the history of the CAP, which I didn’t know. I sent an email to the website asking if they thought that their allocation would be cut back and what that would mean for their large cities. There is a word for this called “degrowth” from the early 70s.

  4. Patrick, thanks for the response and update.

    My idea of junking the state-based basin divisions probably has zero chance of enactment, but, if we’re going to do a thorough overhaul of the CAP, why not moon-shot it?

    That said, St. George exemplifies Cactus Ed’s “growth for growth’s sake.” it’s a cancer on the greater Virgin River area.

  5. Phoenix claims to have figured out how to decouple economic growth from water use. I’m not sure how. Maybe magic beans?

    Patrick’s list shows (again) how the entire history of the laws of the River and water in the west have to fundamentally change. How do we do that? Looking back on history, I don’t have a lot of hope. Wealth and power cloud judgement and will be used as cudgels on all of us basin dwellers.

  6. Roger – You might be interested in the magic bean performance data. There’s an extensive literature on decoupling in municipal water use, which shows that total water use (not just per capita, total) is declining even as population increases in every major metropolitan area using Colorado River water, save the Wasatch Front in Utah. It’s not just Phoenix. And given the current data on what’s driving it – both changes in indoor plumbing and use patterns and changing outdoor landscaping preferences – it looks like the trend will continue for a while.

  7. Thanks to those who have commented against the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline Project that would bring water to the St. George, Utah area where I live. I and others have been fighting this project for thirteen years. We seem to be making progress in the minds of most citizens, just not leaders. They are convinced they must secure Utah’s Colorado River water before someone else does even though we feel Utah’s already overusing their allocation making the LPP a very risky project indeed. Given all that’s happening on the Colorado River and future predictions, Utah and specifically Washington County (St. Geo) should learn to live within our means and quit overusing water. Washington County is currently at 302gpcd!

  8. The LPP is the perfect example of why we have the global warming problem. People aren’t thinking, except to increase one’s personal advantage. As Greta Thunberg points out, the “adults” are not correcting the problem. I’m hard pressed to think of any major problem that has been solved. The default actions are wars and genocides.
    Utah demographers (same in Colorado) say the population will grow. Therefore, say the boosters, everything must be put in place to accommodate the growth. Naturally, the growth occurs. The process continues until something breaks. Well, it has broken: 4 ft. of snow in Montana, records for heat and drought in the southeast, and heavy rains in the middle.
    The “carbon cost” of the LPP construction and operation is unacceptable to begin with. As is the carbon cost of the air conditioning and refrigeration that is an unavoidable and an increasing part of living with the rising temperatures of the southwest.
    The population ought to be moving northward, like all the other species. I expect to hear about Canada starting a wall on the border.

  9. Agree with your concerns. We have enough water in our county to grow to 500,000 and more without the Lake Powell Pipeline. We will continue to try to talk sense into people. The biggest obstacle may end up being the cost which we hope the state will find unaffordable with all other real needs in the state. Utah just stopped the FERC licensing process in favor of working with EPA and probably trying to find some funding through their WIFIA progam. I’ve written about that change in my latest SUIndependent column:
    Shortly after submitting my article, the state announced that the project cost has been reduced by $100M due to the removal of the energy project I reference in my article, making the new pipeline cost $1.1-1.7B. That $100M they reference has nothing to do with the $700M I mention in my article. The $100M is a portion of the energy project that would have tied into the pipeline and that portion the state would have funded if the pipeline were ever to be approved and funded. Now that the energy project has been removed, the $100M is eliminated, too, but that doesn’t reduce the overall cost by much.

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