Deadpool Diaries: On California and our moral obligation to share the burden of climate change

abandoned boat at Lake Mead

Deadpool lies behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance

Brad Udall gave a talk in 2013 that became foundational to my thinking about solving the challenge of life with a shrinking Colorado River. Here’s how I described it in my book Water is For Fighting Over:

Udall distinguished between the “reality of the public” and the “reality of the water community,” describing a world in which regular folks have no clue about things water professionals obsess over—things like Article III(d) and the Colorado River Basin Storage Project Act and the “doctrine of prior appropriation.” Udall’s “public” is a community of people who just want to turn on the tap and have the water come out. But they have some basic notions of fairness and good sense, imagining that the policies underlying our attempt to supply that water will consider questions of equity, sound economics, and the environment. Water-management actions that violate those notions will, to quote Udall, “violate the public’s sense of ‘rightness.’”

An adaptation of Brad’s thoughts were the original closer in my op-ed in today’s New York Times. We ended up cutting the paragraph because the piece was far too long, but the idea is at the heart of the thing.

I argue that California’s defense of what it understands to be its priority on the Colorado River is an attempt to push the burden of the impact of climate change onto its neighbors.

If the water in Lake Mead dips below 1,025 feet above sea level, California’s proposal would cut Arizona’s allocation in half, but California’s share, which is already larger, would be cut only 17 percent. That would mean central Arizona’s cities, farms and Native American communities would suffer, while California’s farmers in the large desert agricultural empire of the Imperial Valley — by far the region’s largest agricultural water user — would receive more water from Lake Mead than the entire state of Arizona….

Many Native American communities in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California that were left out when the water subsidies were handed out in the 20th century deserve a much bigger share of the river than they have received. California’s intransigence is making it harder to meet that legal and moral challenge.

The fish, birds and vegetation of the Colorado River also need water to survive. Collaboration among all seven basin states has, over the last decade, returned a modest supply to once-dry stretches of the river’s bed. California’s intransigence makes that harder, too….

If we approach the challenge with a sense of fairness and shared sacrifice it will be possible to save the West that we know and love. But this can only happen if California joins in, rather than trying to hoard the water for itself.


  1. An interesting comparison could include evaluating the agricultural contributions (crops, e.g. lettuce) of CA vs AZ. Yuma grows a lot of greens, but further east it’s cotton and alfalfa. When I drive I-8 from Yuma to San Diego I see what appears to be more efficient irrigation systems. Most AZ fields are different, relying more on traditional irrigation methods. What do we get for an ac-ft of CA vs AZ irrigation water?

  2. “Possession is 9/10th of the law”.

    Which is more important to the nation? Efficiently growing food for the nation, in the middle of the desert? Of having a perpetually growing population, in the middle of the desert?

    Seems to me, we’re missing the point – IT’s A DESERT. Stop pretending it’s not. There are limits.

  3. This isn’t true, AZ takes 4.4 maf from #ColoradoRiver, same as CA. AZ drains the Gila, Salt, Verde which are part of the Colorado System under Article II in the Compact.

    “ (a) The term “Colorado River System” means that portion of the Colorado River and its tributaries within the United States of America”

    The presentation linked below by the late Herb Guenther from AZ has the numbers. Counting ground water AZ is taking 7.5 maf from the Colorado River System.

    Notice the slide where he says:

    “Upper Basin States will most likely challenge Arizona on its use of tributary water in excess of 1 maf in violation of the 1922 Colorado River Compact
    This challenge would probably go to the U.S. Supreme Court. If successful the CAP diversion would be cut 400 – 600 kaf to 1.1 maf or 900 kaf respectively
    This would greatly increase the urgency to find additional water”

    Guenther is the one who threatened litigation in 2005 unless the Interim Guidelines let AZ drain Lake Powell before AZ took any shortages, he created today’s crisis.

  4. Fortunately, America is a country founded on laws. We the people have to live by these laws.
    This privilege has allowed America to accomplish in 250 years what nations have not been
    able to achieve in thousands of f years.
    Fortunately, the ” Law of Prior Appropriation ” was created to clearly provide guidance to all
    water users as to the right of priority. First in Time, First in Right came with a priority date.
    This simple but powerful and clear system allowed the West to be developed by those with
    vision who chose to establish the country. FOOD matters. Yes, more than hydro.

    Anyone using water had the right and responsibility to plan on long-term drought. Most did not.
    Those negligent in planning now want to reverse the 150-year-old law and rights.

    Don’t you think a honest market of all sellers and buyers coming together to create an equilibrium
    price beats federal legislation? Freedom is an interesting concept. It works miracles.

    The Imperial Valley Pioneers had the vision and grit to appropriate Colorado River Water starting
    in 1885. This gives them number one priority. Congress gave them PPR designation which says
    they cannot be cut. Their rights prevailed before the Law of the River and before the Bureau of reclamation
    were created.

    Dont you think the laws should be respected, however inconvenient for those who did not prepare?

  5. Remember, John. It was Arizona’s relentless pursuit of CAP, a project economically unjustifiable, that blew the foundations off the river.

  6. From the NY Times piece: “California justifies this imbalance with an outdated interpretation of the river’s allocation laws, but it’s really just an excuse to hoard resources on behalf of the farmers who raise alfalfa, the valley’s most dominant crop, and the cows that eat it. ”

    Seems to me the other half of the equation is missing. Beef: it’s what’s for dinner. Americans love eating high on the food chain. And then we complain when California uses up all the water to sell us what we want. The bottom line to me is the problem is bigger than California.

  7. Agree with Khalil. Whether the alfalfa is raised in AZ or CA or owned by Saudis who ship it home for their cattle, we need to start with this issue.

  8. The common view is that AZ is the put upon neighbor state that will get hit the hardest by cuts. Missing from both the public’s and the water community’s discussions are; When AZ started to use water, What they are using it for, and When they belately finally signed compacts.

    For a lot of reasons AZ sat on their hands and did nothing, then filed suits, lost most of those, and eventually got the deal to create a huge CAP to send water far from the basin for brand new uses of water, using Jr. water rights. Now AZ is posted as a downtrodden state that has somehow been taken advantage of by California.
    Let’s stop the whining about poor water-short AZ.
    Based on water rights -CA wins. Based on pre-compact water rights – CA wins bigger. Based on Population & urban use – CA wins. Based on productive use in the form of AG $ – CA wins. Based on Rcreational use-the n the other 6 basin states win.
    The arguement that CA should take the biggest cuts only works if the decision is based on recreation, guilt or emotion.

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