January 31 came and went without the seven (7) states that form the Upper and Lower Basins of the Colorado River Compact coming to agreement on how to cede enough of their extant river allocations to meet the federal government’s (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation) short-term 2023-2026 requirements. When 2026 arrives, the seven (7) states are supposed to have come to agreement on permanently ceding 2-4 million-acre-feet of their current allotments. As has been the case since 1922 for reasons directly related to California’s enormous population and huge agricultural sector, California has enjoyed the largest allotment.
However, January 31 did not come and go without six (6) of those states issuing what they termed a “consensus-based modeling alternative” that could serve as the framework for a negotiated settlement. Arguing that their “framework” was a good 1st step in coming to a collaborative solution, the six states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona) proposed a model based upon an evaporation/water loss scheme that would put the largest burden upon California, according to California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, who was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as stating that “it doesn’t seem like a constructive approach for some states to fashion a proposal that only impacts the water security and rights of another state that’s not part of that proposal.”
Go figure. Wade Crowfoot thinks that a “consensus” that vitiates water law and all past agreements to the detriment of the holder of the most senior rights and privileges without including the holder (California) in said “consensus” isn’t much of a consensus. He is hardly alone. Metropolitan Water District (MWD) General Manager Adel Hagekhalil was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as follows:
Mr. Hagekhalil sounds a lot like the golf community in our entreaties to various water providers and policymakers. We’ll get this done. We’ll get this done quickly. We’ll get this done while fully meeting the ostensible goal of the action, in MWD’s case doing what’s necessary to add the water to Lake Mead and Lake Powell necessary to keep both well above dead pool status. In golf’s case, doing what’s necessary in the short term to meet emergency restrictions and in the long-term what’s necessary to reduce water footprints more permanently.
And this is why January 31 did not come and go without that largest stakeholder (California) issuing its own proposal in a letter to the federal government from newly elected California Colorado River Board Chair JB Hamby of the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) – a proposal Hamby characterized in his letter as providing “a realistic and implementable framework to address reduced inflows and declining reservoir elevations by building on voluntary agreements and past collaborative efforts in order to minimize the risk of legal challenge or implementation delay.”
The letter, which you can access by clicking here, makes clear that California has no intention of deviating from its strong legal position, going so far as to suggest that should the seven states not be able to come to a “consensus” that would include California, everything under American law and all past agreements require that the whole matter default to the “Law of the River,” which would guarantee California’s right to require that all others, including the State of Arizona, perform surgery on their allotments before California would be required to make any cuts.
One is tempted to suggest, let the posturing begin! And that really is the best way to interpret what happened this week. The parties are positioning themselves for the coming negotiations – the 1st round of which involves the immediate cuts necessary to keep Lakes Mead and Powell above dead pool status with a 2nd round commencing immediately thereafter in which the seven states perform the voluntary givebacks that have characterized past practice in the Compact, the most recent of which was the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement in which, as Hamby’s letter to the Bureau of Reclamation makes vividly clear, California “was able to find ways to develop and implement intrastate agreements to drastically reduce water use and live within the state’s limited Colorado River water supply.”
Specifically, California permanently reduced its Colorado River water use by 800,000 acre-feet per year through various water management programs that turned out to be the largest agricultural-to-urban water conservation and transfer agreement in American history, something Hamby’s letter suggested Arizona might consider. Or as Hamby’s letter more caustically put it: “Just as the State of California was able to find ways to develop and implement intrastate agreements to drastically reduce water use and live within the state’s limited Colorado River water supply, so too may the State of Arizona be required to make similar arrangements to live within its available Colorado River water supplies.”
What to make of all this?
The Sierra snowpack may be the deepest in 40 years, a full 128% of its April 1 average if it snows not one flake more the rest of the winter, and that has brought substantial relief to the state’s depleted reservoirs with the promise of much more when the snowpack melts. It has allowed the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to increase its state water project allocation from 5% to 30%. However, that won’t change anything in the Colorado Basin, where the last 25 years have been the driest in more than 1,200 years. Nothing about all the posturing and positioning alters that reality. Cuts are coming, both temporary and after 2026 permanent. The precise nature of them may not yet be known, but they’re coming.
That’s the takeaway from this week’s headlines.
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