I’ve had long conversations this week with smart friends grudgingly supporting of the Lower Basin deal to reduce Colorado River water use over the next few years. Their case for it is simple. Yes, it’s an awful deal in so many ways, but it does have the potential to generate some short term water use reductions and cut the red wire on the ticking time bomb.
SNWA’s John Entsminger made the case this way in an interview Monday with Colton Lochhead at the Las Vegas Review Journal:
“I do think this proposal gives us what we need over the next three years, which is critical,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said in an interview Monday. “We have serious work to do in terms of longer-term, more durable solutions to be implemented post-2026. It’s an important deal reached by the states today because it gives us the room to work on those longer-term problems.”
My friends making this argument have a crucial credential that I don’t have in making their “sure whatever, it’s terrible but let’s just smile politely and get on with things” argument: they have been or are in the room for negotiations like this. I’m just heckling from the cheap seats.
The best thing about the deal is an apparent commitment (see below for my reasons for italicizing) to deeper reductions in Lower Basin water use than folks down at that end of the system have been willing to agree to in the past. Three million new acre feet of savings above and beyond what has already been agreed to falls well short of the two to four million acre feet Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told us last year would be needed, but with a big snowpack the numbers have changed.
But the savings fall short of what we know is needed
It’s been clear for as long as I’ve been writing seriously about the Colorado River that, if the Upper Basin meets its (contested) Lee Ferry delivery obligation, the Lower Basin needs to cut 1.2 million to 1.5 million acre feet per year. Permanently. Three million acre feet from 2023-26 falls well short of that.
For more than two decades, the Lower Basin has been dithering over how to make the cuts and in the meantime draining the reservoir, essentially building the time bomb that we’re now trying to defuse.
To be clear, enormous progress has been made in the last two decades to build the necessary institutional widgets to bring the system into balance.I wrote a whole book about it! My purpose in writing the book was to build a case for three things:
- that fears communities often have about the impact of water reductions are misplaced – that we can all get by with less water
- that successful institutional widgets had been built based on collaboration and sharing that could allow us to adapt
- that a lot more work was needed to cut far more deeply than we had by the time I handed in the book’s manuscript in December 2015
But in the midst of crisis, and with a ticking bomb, we still haven’t been able to come up with even the bare minimum that we’ve all known for decades that we need in Lower Basin cuts.
We don’t actually know what the deal is
What we’ve got at this point documenting the deal is a “term sheet” and a round of celebratory press releases. We have no official breakdown of the makeup of the 3 million acre feet – what’s California’s share, Nevada’s, Arizona’s – how much is Imperial and Metropolitan and Palo Verde, how much is CAP and Yuma. We’ve got individual state reps telling reporters (shout out to my friends in the fourth estate for trying to push down the path of actually breaking down the numbers). But that’s not the same thing as all of us being able to look at it in writing rather than passing around news site links, to be interpreted like fragments of a Dead Sea scroll.
The deal at this point is a pile of stuff shrouded in a tarp that we’re not allowed to peak under. We’ve just gotta trust the Lower Basin folks that they’ll actually come up with the water.
The reason, as one of my smart “been-in-the-room-where-it-happens” friends pointed out, is that the actual detailed reductions will need to go before the boards of a bunch of water agencies. Which hasn’t happened yet. Which means there are umpty reasons for this to spin out of control.
It crucially depends on federal money flowing to water users to compensate them for water they don’t use, but as Janet Wilson pointed out this week in the Desert Sun, we’ve already missed the chance to save some of that water this year because of bureaucratic stuff. That process is not going well.
We all remember the ducking and diving around the celebrated “500 Plus Plan”. Know, those of you who know what’s under the tarp, why those of us who don’t are legitimately nervous about your approach to cutting the red wire.
So spare me the celebratory press releases and puff pieces about politicians breaking roadblocks.
Yo, Upper Basin here, remember us?
The “seven state letter” is comical, but also revealing.
Nothing in this letter should be construed as an Upper Basin endorsement of the Lower Basin Plan. However, building on the historical success of the Seven States working together to solve the challenges confronting the Colorado River, the Seven States support the submission by the Lower Division States of the Lower Basin Plan to Reclamation concurrent with the submission of this correspondence.
One imagines federal officials desperate to somehow fly a seven-state flag over the deal, and the last-minute phone calls and emails over the weekend aimed at drafting a letter that says something.
At this point, Upper Basin communities (That’s me! Hi!) are just hostages in the next room, unable to help defuse the bomb and hoping y’all down there can figure out how to cut the right wire.
It’s even worse that y’all in the Lower Basin are demanding that the federal taxpayers kick in a billion dollars or you won’t cut any wire at all.
Wait. Which wire was it we were supposed to cut?
Oh shit. Was it the red wire we were supposed to cut? The blue one?