The money will primarily be used to buy or lease water rights from ranchers and farmers in the Upper Colorado River Basin, including Colorado. Instead of being diverted for irrigation, the water will flow to Lake Powell, the giant desert reservoir in southeast Utah.
Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California want to boost flows to Lake Powell, because if the reservoir’s water level drops below a certain threshold, it changes everything.
In a worst-case scenario of extended drought, Denver Water might have to send water from its reservoirs down to Nevada and California, cutting the amount of water available to water bluegrass suburban lawns.
Under the deal announced last week, The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Central Arizona Water Conservancy District, Denver Water and the Southern Nevada Water Authority pledge to work cooperatively with farmers and ranchers to find new and flexible ways of managing existing water supplies to avert a crisis.
Conservation is one of the ways to manage water supplies, and includes everything from fixing rusty, leaking irrigation pipes to installing high-tech soil moisture monitors that ensure efficient irrigation. The new agreement also specifically aims to pay farmers and ranchers in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico to stop irrigating some of their land, at least temporarily, and letting it lie fallow, or uncultivated.
Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead said the agreement is not a water grab by cities.
“This is about water security,” Lochhead said, explaining that, in times of shortages, it’s important to manage the existing water supply as efficiently as possible. “We have to put our money where our mouth is,” he said. “Part of this is to try and determine really how much water we can obtain for the system through programs like this.”
A key principle of the agreement is demand management, which means focusing on water use rather than on building new diversions or dams. It can include using water more efficiently, and the sale or temporary lease of water rights. Since water managers only have a finite amount of water to work with, shifting around uses within the system is one of the few options for avoiding interstate conflicts while meeting projected gaps in supply…
The agreement looks good on its surface but raises a slew of thorny new legal issues, said Mark Squillace, a leading water law scholar at a University of Colorado natural resource think tank. According to Squillace, agreements reached under the new program could violate state laws that govern water allocation. Participants to voluntary agreements can bind each other legally with a water contract, but the new multi-state program doesn’t address what happens if those deals affect other water users not party to the agreement, Squillace said. At this point, the transfers envisioned under the agreement are probably more of a Band-Aid than the major surgery that may be required to equitably distribute Colorado River water during times of shortage, according to some water law experts.
Along with colleague Douglas Kenney at CU-Boulder’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment, Squillace has been advocating for revisions to the basic legal framework to reflect 21st-century realities, including climate change and shifts in the demand for water away from agriculture and to municipal use.
And with agriculture using so much of the water, those changes would mainly have to address concerns related to water use by farms and ranches. Squillace said the governing laws need to give farmers more flexibility to save water without losing their water rights.
“Right now, the incentives are for agriculture to use as much water as they can,” Squillace said. Instead, there should be incentives that would encourage farmers to switch to crops that use less water, he explained.
For example, if a farmer switches from growing alfalfa to growing a less water intensive crop like barley, he or she shouldn’t lose their water rights, which is the way things are under the existing use-it-or-lose-it doctrine. Instead, that farmer should be able to market the “extra” water, Squillace explained.
Once the basic laws have been revamped, market-based transfers of water like those envisioned by the new agreement have a much better chance of succeeding, he concluded.