#ColoradoRiver: Great American River, The Colorado — Greg Hobbs #crwua2015

Friend of Coyote Gulch, Greg Hobbs, gave the opening talk at last week’s Colorado River Water Users Association annual meeting and then went trekking around with wife Bobbie and granddaughter Joni. Those of you that know Greg expect a history lesson from him. Here’s his photo poem for you:

Great American River, The Colorado



Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Colorado River Water Users Association


Delph Carpenter’s 1922 Colorado River Basin Map, Mead and Powell


Powell the Upper Basin



Mead the Lower Basin



Before us the River is


Peoples tunnel to the Light


Through which the River flows


Through the land


Out of the great Depression


Arch of Water and Rock


Under a Western Sun


Greg Hobbs 12/19/2015
Reprinted with permission ©2015 Greg Hobbs

#ColoradoRiver: “More Slices Than Pie: Structural Deficit on the Colorado” — John Fleck #CRWUA

From Inkstain (John Fleck):

I’m not sure who came up with the “More Slices than Pie” title for the panel discussion I moderated Thursday at the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association, but it had a nice ring. A big thanks to Tom McCann from the Central Arizona Project for putting the panel together and inviting me to help out. Important audience, important messages about the risks if basin water managers can’t come to grips with the need to stop draining their reservoirs so quickly.

There’s some important signaling here. For a long time, this thing we have come to call the “structural deficit” – the reality that paper allocations on the river exceed actual water supply – was an elephant in the room. It’s not that the overallocation problem was ignored in official discussions. People both inside and outside the basin’s water management institutions have talked about this for years…


There is a tension in the Colorado River management between the core group of managers operating at the basin scale who are trying to work out ways to deal with the overall shortfall, and water managers working at more local scales back home, who just want the water promised to them on paper by the deals negotiated back in the day. When it gets wet, as it did in the winter of 2010-11, it takes the pressure off of that conflict, because we can simply keep using water and sucking down the reservoirs rather than dealing with the shortfall.

But Mead is back to its record-setting lowest-it’s-been-since-it-filled ways. Thursday’s session putting the basin’s overallocation problem on the main stage at CRWUA for discussion by representatives of four of the major Colorado River Basin water agencies suggests that managing scarcity and risk rather than assuming abundance is, at least for now, the conventional narrative.

CRWUA is a strange and wonderful thing, an annual gathering that brings all the disparate elements of the disaggregated Colorado River water management community – federal, state, local, farm, city, environmental, recreation – together in one spot. In a system in which no one is in charge, this ritualized annual coming together is critical for the social capital needed to deal with the basin’s tough issues. I wish I had the formal skills of an anthropologist or one of those people who studies formal and informal networks. CRWUA would make a great field study area.

There’s an odd turn of phrase that I’m increasingly hearing in the Colorado River management community in describing the risk of Lake Mead dropping in a hurry – “blowing through 1,020”. It’s an action verb, describing a reservoir in free fall if we don’t get bailed out by whatever the opposite of climate change and drought are. The problem is that as reservoir levels decline, the V-shaped profile of the big Colorado River reservoir means that there’s less water for a given amount of elevation, which means that we shift quickly from dropping five or ten or fifteen feet per year to plummeting from 1,020 to 895 in a hurry. When I started working on Colorado River issues, “895”, the level at which you can’t get water out of Lake Mead, didn’t get talked about much. But the number came up a lot at this year’s CRWUA.

Drought affected Lake Mead via the Mountain Town News
Drought affected Lake Mead via the Mountain Town News

#ColoradoRiver: When Levee Breaks — Are Cracks Showing in Foundation of Western US Water Law? — The National Law Review

Prior appropriation example via Oregon.gov
Prior appropriation example via Oregon.gov

From The National Law Review (Fred E. Breedlove III):

Dwindling surface water supplies [in the Southwest and particularly in the Colorado River Basin] have revealed cracks in the roughly 150 year old bedrock foundation of Western Water Law – the prior appropriation doctrine…

[Prior Appropriation] is a system that has tended to concentrate the ownership of water in historic uses (such as agriculture) at the expense of more recent uses (such as industry and cities). Most states allow these rights to be moved to a different place or type of use (such as industry and cities) through a “sever and transfer” procedure, although this process can be complex and cumbersome.

One hundred fifty years ago, the primary concern being addressed by the law of prior-appropriation was ensuring that the first people to stake mining claims would have enough water to mine…Today, water from a single river system supports countless competing uses on a much grander scale that could not have been anticipated in the 19th century, including mining, agriculture, industrial, municipal/domestic, and environmental. Completely cutting off lower priority water uses on a river to ensure the full allocation of senior right holders’ deliveries are made at the expense of people downstream who depend on that water source for domestic potable uses can seem unfair at the least, dangerous at the worst. On the other hand, it is also unfair to force senior water right holders to give up water rights that they believed were fully protected under the law when deciding to invest in their use of that water. In both cases, there are also significant economic impacts associated with reduced or eliminated water deliveries that should be considered.

The solution to this problem, however, is probably not to completely scrap the aging prior appropriation doctrine. Rather, the doctrine can be salvaged by improving transferability of water rights. Peter Culp, Partner at Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP, recently co-authored a comprehensive analysis of investment opportunities in the Colorado Basin and explored potential strategies for adapting the prior appropriation doctrine to the 21st century. Those strategies include water sharing agreements, water banking, leases, exchanges, and others.

For example, on the Colorado River, water users have come together voluntarily to address water scarcity in order to avoid the potential catastrophe that could result from a strict enforcement of the prior appropriation doctrine. Back in January of this year, I wrote about how Colorado River water users have agreed to preemptively share the burden of decreased supplies as a result of drought and climate change. The Lower Basin states are taking steps to develop (often through conservation) additional water in Lake Mead in order to stave off a shortage on the river that could have serious economic consequences…

Whether water users like it or not, change is not only coming, change is here. Even if drought ends tomorrow, a rigid system of water rights based on prior appropriation that lacks flexibility for allowing right transfers, water sharing agreements and other arrangements is untenable in the modern world where competing demands with high social and economic value conflict over limited water resources. The current shift to sharing risk and cooperative solutions to water scarcity problems is the way of the future.

Photo from http://trmurf.com/
Photo from http://trmurf.com/