The newest Colorado River management widget: the “System Conservation Program” — John Fleck

Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands -- Graphic/USBR
Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands — Graphic/USBR

From JFleck at Inkstain:

The Colorado River Pilot System Water Conservation Program crept forward last week, in the process demonstrating an endearing quirk of Colorado River Basin water governance – no one is in charge. This no-one’s-in-chargeness is one of the central themes of my book. With the System Conservation Program, the folks not in charge are handing me an easy story line.

The news was the announcement Wednesday (press release here, scroll to the bottom of this post for the full solicitation document) of a “Funding Opportunity for Voluntary Participation in a Pilot System Water Conservation Program.” It’s a modest effort among basin water agencies to pool some cash to “conserve Colorado River System water for storage in Lakes Powell and Mead.” The $11 million involved is not nearly enough to fill the empty reservoirs, and no one expects that it should. Rather, it is an experiment in the construction of a new kind of water management widget aimed at staving off a particular kind of disaster – a tragedy of the commons among the nine states (seven in the U.S., two in Mexico) trying to figure out how to share the shrinking river.

When I say “no one is in charge,” I’m not describing a state of either anarchy or chaos. It’s actually a pretty orderly system. Rather, the system operates via a set of emergent properties based on existing rules and institutions, developed collectively, and people who know one another and are trying to figure out how to solve problems together by collectively developing new widgets. As opposed to, say, Secretary of the Interior Jean-Luc Picard just saying, “Make it so.”

Here’s how the newest widget would work. The big municipal water agencies representing the basin’s four largest metro areas – Southern California, Phoenix-Tucson, Las Vegas and Denver – pool money in a fund to pay farmers or cities to do something (the request for proposals doesn’t specify what) to “develop short-term pilot projects that keep water in Lakes Powell and Mead through temporary, voluntary and compensated mechanisms.” In other words, we’ll pay you to cut your water use and leave the water in the river, so it can get to the reservoirs. (The proposal letter says the water could come from cities or farms, but who are we kidding? The water’s gonna come from farms. I promise to correct this post if I turn out to be wrong on this.)

It is being done this way because everyone knows there are problems (chiefly not enough water), but no one has the authority to impose solutions, to mandate that water users use less in a way that’s binding across the basin, leaving any individual user with the classic “tragedy of the commons” dilemma – if Phoenix gets real and slashes its use, that would just leave more surpluses for L.A. The two alternatives, therefore, are to continue draining the reservoirs, with confusion and uncertainty about who would bear the brunt of shortages once the shit gets real, or some sort of collective action where everyone gets together and agrees on a plan to avoid said shortages. But wow, that’s sure hard to do.

If you look at the history of basin management widget invention over the last 15 years, the major innovations have emerged from fuzzy collective negotiations that are difficult for outsiders like myself to fully understand. The 2001 Interim Surplus Guidelines, which led to a significant reduction in California’s overuse of surplus water, grew out of seven-state/federal negotiations that dragged on for a painful decade. (See Jim Lochhead’s remarkable history for a great picture of how that deal went down). The 2007 shortage sharing agreement, similarly, was a seven-state/federal affair, with the tent expanded in important ways to include environmental interests in the discussion. I don’t think that story has been written yet. (Buy my book! As soon as I finish writing it!)

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

Leave a Reply