A look at renegotiating the #ColoradoRiver Compact

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

Colorado River water managers have plenty to argue about. But there’s one thing on which nearly everyone who relies on the southwestern river can agree. The foundational document that divvies up the water — the Colorado River Compact — has some big flaws.

Discussion on how to fix the compact’s problems is where that consensus breaks down, often with the invocation of one word: renegotiation…

The R-word inflames decades-old tensions in the watershed, Kenney says, among states in the Upper Basin, including Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah, and those in the Lower Basin, which includes Arizona, California and Nevada.

“I think a lot of the parties think it’s scary simply because it’s a little scary to negotiate when not all the parties have the same political power,” Kenney says.

That power imbalance is what initially brought political leaders within the watershed to come to the table back in 1922 when the Colorado River Compact was signed. The desert southwest was beginning to growing rapidly and rather than acquiesce all of the river’s flow to the sprawling cities and cropland of southern California, water managers felt it was in their best interest to come to an agreement to divvy up the river amongst themselves. The alternative path was one of conflict and litigation…

Conventional wisdom about the compact’s math goes something like this: When water managers sat down to divide the river among themselves they used the data available to them to figure out how much water they were working with. The period they looked at was uncharacteristically wet. Soon after the compact’s signing the river returned to its more arid state, and right from the start the compact mismatched with reality. More water existed on paper than in the river, creating a gap between water supplies and demands that continues to today. So the story goes: it was no one’s fault, just a historical fluke.

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program, says that conventional wisdom is wrong. Allocating more water was the politically expedient thing to do. He’s finishing a book with Colorado River expert Eric Kuhn on what water managers of the 1920s knew about the river’s flow and when they knew it. Scientists with the highly respected U.S. Geological Survey were crowing about the inflated numbers even before the river compact was finished.

“They all concluded the same thing, ‘You’re basing this on an unusually wet period. You need to take into account dry periods. There is really less water than you think,’” Fleck says. “And all those scientific experts were ignored.”

Today, there’s broad consensus about the compact’s math problems. While scoffed at a decade ago, McCain’s proposal to renegotiate has support among some environmentalists, like Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director with WildEarth Guardians. She says the only way to fix the river’s fundamental supply-demand problem is to go back to the beginning.

“It’s just like curing illness, right? You have to get at the source,” she says.

Old agreements among states to manage water in the West are out of date and don’t reflect modern realities, like climate change or broader environmental concerns, Pelz says. Compacts for the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers allocate every drop for human use. There’s value in leaving water in rivers for recreation and ecosystem health, she says.

“I think that is a huge problem and I think that we don’t want to have that conversation because it’s hard,” Pelz says.

The river’s foundational problems are front of mind these days as Colorado River water managers are attempting to finalize new agreements called Drought Contingency Plans, designed to boost declining reservoirs and cut back on water use throughout the watershed. Pelz says the plans don’t go far enough.

“It’s all like shuffling chairs on the Titanic,” she says. “The ship is sinking still. And if you shuffle all those chairs around and you make it look pretty it’s still not going to make any difference, like the boat is still sinking.”

To ever get to a point where the Colorado River Compact was opened back up, you’d need the support of people like Pat Tyrrell, the Wyoming state engineer. And he is not interested.

“No, I would never advocate going back to the compact,” Tyrrell says.

There’s a work around, he says. Rather than renegotiate the original document, water managers like him come up with new agreements that build on it, and address some of the compact’s bad math. But, he says, it would be unwise to throw the whole thing out.

“If it were to go away there would be a free for all,” Tyrrell says. “There is no magic second compact sitting in the wings behind it, and the battle between Arizona, California, and Nevada against us four upper basin states would be brought anew.”

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