This feels like a shakedown.
Nice river basin ya’ got there. Would be shame if somethin’ happened to it.
For decades, Lower Colorado River water users have been taking more water than the river can provide, threatening their own communities’ futures. Unable to come up with a plan to live within their water means, they’re now asking us to pay them to not crash the system on which we all depend.
The shakedown comes in the form of a letter this morning from California, Arizona, and Nevada to the Department of Interior laying out an agreement that would (as near as I can tell, the letter is light on details) reduce water use in the Lower Basin by 3 million acre feet above and beyond already agred-upon cuts (the 2007 Guidelines and Drought Contingency Plan) between now and 2026, with the bulk of those reductions to be compensated with federal money.
Some good things in the proposal
I’ve been putting off reporters today, saying I didn’t want to comment without seeing more detail on the proposal’s water numbers. I stand by that hesitancy. It’s hard to know if the cuts will be enough to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. But there’s some language that is encouraging.
First, the proposal includes a helpful “what if” – if the hydrology is bad and the cuts aren’t enough, the states will come up with “an implementable plan” to keep Mead above elevation 1,000. “If such an acceptable plan, as determined by Reclamation, is not developed, Reclamation may independently take action(s) to protect 1,000 feet.”
But I hope you can see the weirdness here. “If we can’t figure out how to save ourselves from our overuse of water, we give Reclamation permission to save us.”
Second, if the hydrology is bad enough to risk dropping Powell below elevation 3,500, the states are cool with Reclamation dropping releases from Powell as low as 6 million acre feet. Sorta. “If we can’t figure out how to reduce our use enough to save Glen Canyon Dam, we give Reclamation permission to go ahead and save it anyway.”
Other People’s Money, Other People’s Values
In the fall class Bob Berrens and I teach in the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, we have a common refrain in discussion of the students’ suggestions for dealing with water shortfalls: “That sounds like a great idea, how are you going to pay for it?” The answer is invariably state or federal money – “other people’s money”, not the money of the community benefitting from the use of the water and suffering the consequences of shortages.
We spend a lot of time talking about the tradeoff. When you take other people’s money, you also have to accept other people’s values.
Here’s the pertinent language from today’s letter from California, Arizona, and Nevada:
System Conservation up to 2.3 MAF will be federally compensated under Pub. L. 117-169 Inflation Reduction Act Title V, Subtitle B, Part 3 “Drought Response and Preparedness” Section 50233 “Drought Mitigation in the Reclamation States” (IRA Funding).
There seems to be $1.2 billion of that IRA money on the table here, according to the New York Times story.
That’s the shakedown. If you don’t pay us a big pile of federal cash, we’ll just run Lake Mead to deadpool. Or, alternatively, if you don’t pay us a big pile of federal cash, we’ll drag the Colorado River Basin into litigation that will make the river ungovernable, a sort of institutional deadpool. Either way, it’s a shakedown.
There’s nothing here that is any sort of a nod to what we might expect from the Lower Basin in return for our largesse other than, “If you pay us, we won’t crash the thing.”
The Dangerous Precedent
I am sympathetic to the water users whose entitlements were ensured under Article VIII of the Colorado River Compact: “Present perfected rights to the beneficial use of waters of the Colorado River System are unimpaired by this compact.”
This is an important protection for Tribal water rights, and also some of the big ag districts. Great! Let the Lower Basin’s junior users work out a deal with the pre-compact rights holders to move that water around. Let’s see a QSA for Arizona. Let’s see QSA II for California. Show us your plan to live within your means, other than “Pay us to live within our means.”
The approach in the Lower Basin states letter – have the federal taxpayers pick up the tab rather than the people who’ve created the mess – sets a dangerous precedent for our approach in the post-2026 Colorado River management world.
I agree 100 percent John. Good write up. Let the user pay for it themselves and not saddle the rest of us. Robbery is good business if you can get the feds to pay for the loss. I say make them suffer while the dehydrate.
Great article John. Govt’s shaking down Govt’s. Scary. No accountability. Summed up well in your point “…and suffering the consequences of the shortages.” And so many other solid points. Thank you. Ben
We want our cake and want to eat it too. Let’s get the taxpayers to pay for our non-use.
I call BS
Unfortunately, this is likely the first of many shakedowns to come.
John, good assessment. I’d add that at a minimum, and cuts paid for with public money should be PERMANENT cuts, or the federal largesse will have to flow forever.
What is often forgotten was the original reason for the 7 states water agreement. All the history of the compact says it was to avoid having the DOI or the BOR gain control of the water. The Colorado River Compact required the 7 states to compromise. A hard thing to do, then, and now.
The upper basin states and the lower basin states had, and have fundamentally different desires. To judge the other basin based on your basin’s desires is to demonize the “other”, and sets up the feds be in control.
Who wins in this scenario is the DOI and BOR. The compact, and these agreements, keeps the authority for the water in the states hands. Should we lack agreement and lose the compact (or the next compact) then the DOI and BOR gain authority over the Colorado River Water. That was their goal in 1922, and is their goal today.
So if the lower basin states trade money for water to keep the reservoirs working, that works for them. If we continue to look for other states to blame, we will all be beholden to the DOI for our water. I’m not sure that works for any western state.
I’ve calculated that the maximum potential for harvestable rainfall from metro-Tucson is about 2/3 of the CAP water we consume. We have enough avoidable waste that we can do without CAP.
We need CAP ONLY to support the illusion that we can keep growing. CAP is entirely about promoting growth.
But our growth is primarily driven by job growth. End CAP and the outside money to create more jobs to attract more people will largely end. And any remaining pop growth can pay full freight on our costs for that development.
CAP is all about keeping the growth machine going for as long as possible. That’s all it’s ever been for.
Tres makes a big point. No more development and growth. And with rapidly rising air temperatures, the lower southwest becomes uninhabitable. People should, will, move to cooler and wetter parts of the country.
There also needs to be a national level project to rethink agriculture in the region. Different crops and irrigation methods.
I haven’t seen Mexico mentioned lately. Don’t they have some guarantees?
Isn’t Senator Bennet responsible for that section being in the IRA?
“Washington, D.C. — Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry and Natural Resources, worked with U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) to secure $4 billion for the Bureau of Reclamation in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to address drought in the American West.”—August 10, 2022 Press Release from Sen. Bennet.
Glenn – I would characterize the history of the compact quite differently. (At the risk of the “appeal to authority” fallacy, I did write a book about this. 🙂 The seven states had to come together because they needed help from the federal government – meaning the taxpayers of the United States – to build the dams and canals to put the river’s water to use. But to your point about retaining state control, there’s another easy way for the Lower Basin States to retain control – take less water from Lake Mead! It is the unwillingness of Lower Basin states to voluntarily reduce their use of Colorado River water that drove the reservoir to such low levels that the threat you describe – “the feds in control” – is a possibility at all. Now the states are saying, “OK, we’ll do it ‘voluntarily’ if you pay us a billion dollars.”
In other words, too big to fail?
I sit as a board member of an irrigation district adjacent to the Colorado River. I see a problem that will make voluntary cuts or cuts agreed to by state water officials or imposed by the BOR wholly impractical to enforce in many cases. The BOR recently set out how the cuts would be imposed upon the various water districts leaving implementation and enforcement up to those districts. Our district does not own or maintain any delivery systems. All the water used by residential, recreational, commercial, and agricultural users is drawn from wells into our aquifer fed by the surface waters of the Colorado. There is very little or no cost for this water other than the pumping cost from our shallow aquifer. We have no physical ability to curtail any of our users. For example, if we demand that a golf course stops using their wells to irrigate, their compliance would immediately destroy their business and investment. We could sue them and have the courts decide but that would take years. In fact, our district would have to sue hundreds if not thousands of users in an effort to force compliance.
An extreme example would be if the BOR would adopt their Action Alternative 1. Here Bullhead City would be totally cut off from using their only source of water. Same would applies to my district, Lake Havasu, Parker, and many others. Do we send in the National Guard to enforce the BOR’s decision and guard the hundreds of wells from being turned on? There is no local or state law that they would be breaking, it would be a matter of civil litigation on a scale our district could never afford. Would a judge ultimately agree to block a whole municipality or irrigation district from using any water? How would that be enforced?
My point is that that if a state water manager agrees to cut their state’s Colorado use, it is wholly unclear in many cases how that would be enforced locally and legally. Litigation would take years, outcomes would be unclear, and all taking time the river does not have.
The only practical way you can get a business or a water right holder to quickly give up using water that they need for their business and operations without defiance will be to offer advantageous compensation. Using the federal money to do this right now buys us time to develop a funding mechanism to either buy out certain water intensive uses like alfalfa and cotton farms and / or pay discretionary water using businesses like farms to conserve. If funding this program would be assessed over the millions of water users depending on the Colorado, I believe the system could be balanced without huge individual financial impacts.
Might the $1.2 billion shakedown be flipped through a reverse auction, in which the feds / taxpayers essentially say “we’ll buy up and permanently retire CO River water rights; y’all tell us how many AF you’re willing to sell and at what low price and we’ll buy the best deals.”
This tool has proven rather effective at smaller scales in say Oregon; the only opposition there has come locally from county politicos objecting to dewatering the ag economy. That objection would be weaker or negligible at an interstate lower basin scale, where anonymous irrigators looking to exit (or invest in efficiency/ drip/crop switch) might compete to sell less valuable water rights.
To Peter’s point, any temporary use of $ is like leasing rather than buying and retirement of water rights, and will invite more extortion year after year.
It just doesn’t seem like humanity is willing to do the things that need to be done to keep society going into the future. Is our genetic material wired to collapse like all the other organisms that outgrow their environment, and here we are ensuring that collapse?
There is consensus in the lower basin states that the Federal government, after paying for the dams that made growth in water use possible, should now pay to reduce those demands. Hmm. Sometimes federal money lubricates a long-term solution into existence (such as upgrading wastewater treatment in the 1970s). But in this case, federal money seems to be an attractive nuisance that prolongs a deficit enough to prolong federal buy-outs.
Well, John, it’s been eight good years since I was a hydrologist/water resource manager. I’ve been quite content to let the water wars glide placidly by my ignorant contentment and then you had to weigh in on water again. Oh, well, nothing good – like a wet climate – lasts forever.
Of course it’s a shakedown. We’re talking Arizona, Nevada, and California, aren’t we? States who rely almost if not entirely on the Colorado River. You might ask yourself, however, just how cheap a shakedown is it? To do that, it might help you to look back at some history. Actually that book by Marc Reisner would get you somewhere near where you need to be. In addition to pointing out the environmental and societal impacts of a Lexus Desert, it goes into some detail on the frankly illegal maneuvers BuRec used to build the dams, pipelines, and canals that allow the Basin states to, as you put it, “take[sic] more water than the river can provide, threatening their own communities’ futures.”
What’s the number? Forty million or so citizens of these United States in those communities depend – and have depended – on that water for their livelihoods, food, and general well-being. And we’ve known for decades that the water promised has rarely been there. How did that happen? Why, the same way the federal deficit ballooned to virtually unsustainable amounts – it was easier for the whole range of politicians to bring home the bacon than to make the hard, informed, considered, and unpopular decisions that might cost them votes. The federal government built that infrastructure (and funded the bureaucracies of BuRec and Corps of Engineers and others who built them and now need to administer and “plan” that infrastructure just to support themselves).
Certainly, the states asked for that water. What were the states supposed to do? BuRec and COE were banging the drum and singing from the rooftops, here was water (at least for a while) with all the attendant development and wealth it brings. Oh, and for very, very cheap. So the feds put all that in place but you want the citizens in the states to bear the burden for the feds’ frankly incompetent water resource planning and the ensuing fiasco?
Let’s not forget the bounty of farm produce, from alfalfa to grapes, wheat, and fresh produce that farmers were enticed to raise with the reliable source of Colorado River Basin water promised to them? Your solution is to “Let the Lower Basin’s junior users work out a deal with the pre-compact rights holders [agriculture] to move that water around.” Easy to say if you’re not a farmer. How wise would it be anyway? If you fallow the agricultural fields to get water to Costa Mesa (or the walnut trees in the Central Valley or the delta smelt) who’s going to pay the higher price across the country for alfalfa/milk, grapes, bread, etc? Pretty much the same people whose taxes would pay for the shakedown, che no? Have you thought this through? I bet you’ve got a model, though.
Who really controls the Colorado River Basin water? Shortly before the 1968 Colorado River Basin Project Act was passed, the then solicitor general of the US, Thurgood Marshall, wrote a brief that concluded the provisions in the Act that conflicted with the 1964 USSC Decree in AZ vs CA were not a problem because it was really the Department of the Interior that controlled the Colorado River so don’t worry too much about the Supremes. Shortly he was confirmed to the USSC. Again, yes, the states asked for the water. But it’s always been the feds with the authority, money, and their cheap water and unfortunately poor planning and engineering that put us in this pickle. Of course BuRec and COE were in a furious race to build more dams than the other, so who could expect them to think ahead or at least out of the box and build at least environmentally sounder facilities?
So let me ask again, is the shakedown worth it? Or could it really be cheap?
“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over” – loosely attributed to Mark Twain.