California and the other Colorado River Basin states disagree on how to halt Lake Mead’s precipitous decline. The deadlock reflects a century of failure to take a grassroots step undone by the original Colorado River Compact.
The seven states in the basin have made dueling proposals to balance water demand with available supply. Both require major cuts in water use in all three Lower Basin states: California, Arizona and Nevada. While California’s proposal places a greater burden on the system’s junior users, primarily the Central Arizona Projectthe other states would lean more heavily on California.
What is missing is an agreement on water sharing between the Lower Basin states. Unlike the Upper Basin states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – the Lower Basin states never decided how they would divide their share of the river.
A US senator put it this way: “The problem is that there isn’t enough water in the river available for the Lower Basin to meet the demands of the Lower Basin states, especially…Arizona and California. Somehow the problems have to be solved somewhere.” Those were the words of California William Fife Knowland at the beginning of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the Colorado River 75 years ago.
The Colorado river compact, signed a century ago last fall, distributes water only between two basins, the upper basin and the lower basin. The negotiators left future subcompacts the much more difficult task of distributing the water to the individual states within the basins.
The Upper Basin states completed that task in 1948. To deal with water supply uncertainties and obligation to the Lower Basin states, the Upper Basin Pact allocates water based on a portion of what is available. For example, my home state of Colorado can consume 51.75% of the water available for use in the Upper Basin. If more water is available, Colorado can use more; if there is less, Colorado should use less.
The Upper Basin compact did much more than that. It also includes facilities for assessing system reservoir evaporation and an interstate agency to manage the subcompact.
The Lower Basin states made numerous attempts to negotiate their own subcompact, but invariably failed. At the 1948 Senate hearing, state representatives agreed that there were three reasons for this: California and Arizona could not agree on how to divide the 8.5 million acre-feet of water created by the 1922 pact were assigned to the Lower Basin; they could not agree on how to measure how much water each state consumed under the 1922 pact; and they couldn’t agree on how to rate the evaporation of Lake Mead and other major reservoirs.
Seventy-five years later, these problems are still unsolved.
a 1963 Supreme Court ruling evaded the tough questions raised by the competing demands of the Lower Basin. But it further complicated things by opening the door for the Central Arizona Project to divert more water.
In 1948, when Senator Knowland acknowledged that there was not enough water for both Arizona and California, the conventional wisdom was that the river’s natural flow at the mouth, if unaffected by humans, was about 18 million acre-feet per year. Today, due to climate change, that figure is closer to 13 million. And as the desiccation continues, there will be even fewer.
The river is seriously overcrowded. The 1922 pact and a 1944 treaty with Mexico allocate a total of 17.5 million acre-feet annually, far exceeding the available supply. And there’s virtually no chance that all seven states will ever agree to amend or redo the 1922 pact. It’s not even clear if the political leaders of all four Upper Basin states can accept that climate change is real.
So what should California do? I believe the state has only two alternatives: participate in another round of controversial and unpredictable lawsuits or, preferably, encourage its fellow Lower Basin states to get their act together by finally negotiating their own subcompact.
California, Arizona, Nevada and the Lower Basin tribal communities are in a position to take advantage of what has worked for the Upper Basin. A Lower Basin subcompact could allocate water based on how much is available, not what we thought we had decades ago. It may also include provisions for assessing evaporation and a commission to manage the deal. And it could boost the cooperative banking, water recycling and agricultural efficiency projects that the Lower Basin desperately needs to meet future demand.
To be successful, the negotiators of all parties would have to test their historical grievances at the door, make difficult compromises and be open to new and innovative solutions.
Since Arizona and California couldn’t agree on water use before, why is such a deal possible now? The answer is that there is no better option. This is the only way for California and its neighbors to determine their own water destination.
Eric Kuhn is a former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and co-author of “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.”