Deadpool Diaries: “Crisis on the Colorado River – From Short-Term Solutions to Long-Term Sustainability”?

Ringside seats to the decline of Lake Mead

Ringside seats to the decline of Lake Mead

I learned stuff at last week’s Getches-Wilkinson Center Colorado River conference at the University of Colorado Law School.

I learned:

  • The bodacious snowpack means the chance of Lake Mead dropping below elevation 1,000 is zero.
  • We still need to cut 1.5 million acre feet of Colorado River water use, at least. We still have no plan to do that.
  • We remain at risk of river flows past Lee’s Ferry dropping low enough by 2026 to trigger a legal argument about what the Upper Basin really owes the Lower Basin.
  • We have what was called a “historic accord” to reduce Lower Basin use in the short run, which muchly revolves around paying people to not use water.
  • The “historic accord” does not take any steps toward resolving longstanding tribal and environmental inequities.
  • The problem of what economist Gordon Tullock called “the transitional gains trap” is a very real obstacle to moving forward on the Colorado River.

Whatever, let’s just pay ’em: the “transitional gains trap”

In a seminal 1975 paper, economist Gordon Tullock nailed the problem at the heart of the current Colorado River policy dilemmas:

Many government programs which appear to be designed to help some particular industry or group do not seem to be succeeding. The explanation offered here is that the program, when inaugurated, generated transitional gains for the individuals or companies in the industry, but that these have been fully capitalized, with the result that the people in the industry now are doing no better than normal. On the other hand, the termination of the particular scheme would, in general, lead to large losses for the entrenched interests.

Thus farmers in places like Palo Verde, Yuma, and Imperial umpty generations ago benefited from the significant subsidies from the rest of us (federal taxpayers) that enabled Lower Colorado River agriculture to flourish. The benefit of that subsidy has now been fully capitalized in the land and the structures of the communities.

As Tullock’s work so clearly notes, termination of this “scheme” (I love his word) would “lead to large losses for the entrenched interests.”

While there’s a lot of “property rights” framing around our 21st century arguments about this, it’s important to remember that the perfection and continued use of those water rights was enabled by massive collective action on the part of others in establishing the needed institutions, and funding and building infrastructure.

But whatever, right? That’s where we are now, and a fatalistic attitude of “let’s just pay ’em” seems to have settled over basin problem solving, at least in the short term.

Is there a “transitional losses trap” too?

I’m definitely out over the tips of my conceptual skis here, but one of the things that was made clear at the Boulder meeting was something I’ll glibly dub “the transitional losses trap”: the same decisions over the last century that locked in “transitional gains” for Lower Basin farmers also locked in “transitional losses” for Native American communities dispossessed of their land and water.

In a powerful panel last Thursday afternoon, a stage full of tribal leaders one at a time talked about that dispossession. The sheer weight of their words, and the range of their concerns, was breathtaking.

Some progress has been made on this issue, especially in Arizona. But there is no escaping the reality that all that water providing “transitional gains” to Lower Basin farmers is, acre foot for acre foot, a “transitional loss” for Native American communities. And now we’re paying those Lower Basin farmers to not use this very same water.

I get that some of the money we’re paying to reduce water use will go to Arizona and California tribes with settled water rights. But there are many tribes without settled water rights, or with rights that are settled but not yet put to use. They’re getting nothing out of any deal to pay water rights holders not to use their water. We need to remember this fact every time we pay a non-Indian farmer not to farm.

“A historic accord”

California’s lead negotiator on the recently announced agreement for short term Lower Basin water use reductions, J.B. Hamby, called it a “historic accord”. I have to agree, though we’ll have to wait through the next many months before we have clarity on what sort of history has been made.

It’s a Lower Basin agreement, among Arizona, California, and Nevada. One of the things that was abundantly clear at the Boulder meeting was that Upper Basin states are withholding judgment until the details are fleshed out.

But it’s already clear that those who negotiated the deal want our money – federal tax dollars – to solve the transitional gains trap, but not to solve any of the other problems worth talking about:

  • the Colorado River Basin’s tattered environment
  • unresolved Native American water rights and other needs

As I’ve pointed out previously, with other people’s money should come other people’s values.

The Lee’s Ferry conundrum

My buddy/collaborator/coauthor/mentor Eric Kuhn threw up a scary slide during his talk:

10-year deliveries at Lee Ferry could drop below 82.5 maf in 2026 or 2027 – almost certainly by 2030 (remember the 5 straight 9.0 releases from 2015-2019).

The crucially nerdy backstory is in Article III(c) and (d) of the Colorado River Compact, which seem to say the Upper Basin is required to send 82.5 million acre feet every ten years. As Hamby noted, one of the premises of “we need to cut 1.5maf in the Lower Basin” is that the Upper Basin continues to hit that target. Lawyers will argue forever about Article III interpretation, but I’d prefer not to hand over our management of the Colorado River to a judge’s ruling on who’s right.

Arizona v. California

No arguments broke out over California’s insistence on enforcing its priority rights and pushing most of the climate change risk onto Arizona. Yay!

But the deep entanglement between this question and the transitional gains trap stuff I mentioned before isn’t going away. California farmers have benefited from a “property right” essentially created in 1968 through the use of power politics, but that property right, as Tullock would say, is now priced into the value of their assets. And we’ve now set a “whatever, let’s just pay ’em” precedent (at an unprecedented scale), which does seem historic, but maybe not in a good way.

Elevation 1,000

There were a number of mentions of the Reclamation modeling that puts the risk of Lake Mead dropping to elevation 1,000 at zero.

This is great news. It shows how the bodacious snowpack bailed us all out.

But we should remember that “keeping Lake Mead above elevation 1,000” is a very low bar.





  1. I was recently in eastern Australia and every time I was asked about the Colorado River situation (it is well-covered in their news), I replied almost verbatim that the biggest unsolved problem was this: “the same decisions over the last century that locked in “transitional gains” for Lower Basin farmers also locked in “transitional losses” for Native American communities dispossessed of their land and water.” Fascinating to learn it was discussed at the most recent Getches summit. I attended one in 1998 where Bill DuBuys read from his soon-to-be-published book Salt Dreams, about the complexity of the Salton Sea (speaking of other wicked problems).

  2. I see glimmers of reality creeping in, Utah finally doing something about their rediculous wasteful water policies and lacks of metering water use and also facing up to the Great Salt Lake declines which have to be reversed or they’ll have an Owens Lake or Mono Lake type of dust problem but not many miles away but right next door – that’s a pretty stark reality when you look at the health consequences for all those people. and the other glimmer is Aridzona finally figuring out that their ground-water situation is really not as peachy as they thought and just perhaps they might have to stop development until they figure out where and how they’re going to get more water (and if they don’t then …).

    I’d consider these about 20 years later than what would have served them better before, but hey, it’s something and that must be better than nothing, right? In the meantime the tribes and environmental concerns and having a functional ecosystem and some chance of a restored and reasonable Salton Sea of some kind are somehow going to need to find some space at the shrinking or evaporating watering trough.

    The ultimate sad state of affairs though is that any time there is some water flowing in a river and reaching the sea this is seen as wasteful, when in fact it is just a natural function of a river and gravity that water flows downhill and along the way there are many many impacts to animals (including people) and plants.

    In the meantime does CA ever get the SGMA sustainably working or will it turn into yet another manipulated dysfunctional version like AZ ended up with? Hopefully for the future generations they will.

  3. “let’s just pay ’em”
    Who is the “us” and the “them?” Sounds like the “us” is the US taxpayers. The Federal Budget has a large deficit. Where is the money to come from? More bonds and interest? Social Security?
    Consider turning that around. Assume that water is part of the “commons.” Owned jointly by all US citizens. Therefore, users should pay. No subsidies. British Columbia has had fees for water for years. I might exempt Native Americans.
    I have suggested this many times for Colorado. The State owns the water according to the State constitution. This would help put a stop to developers throwing in new subdivisions that mean the dwindling water resource has to take care of more people.
    As John points out, the debate is controlled by the wealthy users. Hence, no progress made for decades. Need new rules!

  4. As good a spot as any to update Team Powell 3600now the June report is delivered. Well good news is we are past the USBR April most probable prediction of 3570. Looks like Mead will get the 9.5maf but May be closer to 9.2 according to the USBR. The team is still gunning for 9.5maf as that continues to support the team goal. The way we (we being the near oversubscribed team of 1) see it is that Powell should less than comfortably reach 5985 by end of June which is the traditional peak water level. However the reservoirs up stream continue to fill and are starting to overtop. The team is hoping as more of these fill and allow water to cascade further down the system, that the filling of Lake Powell will continue into July and get the team reaching for our party hats as 3600 is hit….. the team is nervous and whilst we think 3590 is a given it is not the estimate made in March and would be a devastating blow to the teams confidence. Of course we can always look at the USBR predictions and say we were at least closer than them!

  5. Don’t forget that there are a lot of Native American Indians living south of the border in the Mexicali Valley who also depend on water from the Colorado River. I did not see much in any of the news stories about what is happening to the allocation going to the Mexican side of the border.

  6. Team Powell 3600 is packing away the streamers. Below average precipitation over the last quarter has seen the river drop below average flows into July. Reservoirs upstream have not reached their July 1 goals and the whole model breaks down from there. We needed follow up rain but whilst April was Ok and May seemed to be constant showers ( there was no real orange on the radar) June seemed to fall away totally.
    Total precipitation just hasn’t matched the stellar snow percentages. (This Salt Lake City graph shows basically nothing in last month Excuses excuses. Ah well maybe next year. Expect to be about 10 feet short of goal though they are moving water around now summer is here and it all becomes a little murkier.

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