Reverence or Pragmatism? The Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin’s Compact Dilemma — InkStain #COriver #aridification

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From InkStain (Eric Kuhn and John Fleck). Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

Unlike the Lower Colorado River Basin States, which have traditionally taken pragmatic and self-serving views of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin States have largely shown the century-old document unwavering reverence.

The reverence comes from the way the agreement protected Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico against the avaricious impulses of fast-growing Lower Basin states, especially Arizona and California. The Compact promised water that has driven a century of development and dreaming in the Upper Basin.

Now, however, climate change-driven aridification has the Upper Basin in a vise-like squeeze. Increasing regional temperatures are reducing the river’s natural flow while the compact imposes fixed delivery (or non-depletion) obligations on the four Upper Basin States.

The net difference between the amount of water flowing from the Upper Basin’s watersheds and the amount that must be passed to the Lower Basin at Lee Ferry is the amount that can be consumed. As recent discussions about implications of “Alternative Management Paradigms for the Future of the Colorado and Green Rivers” by Kevin Wheeler, et al from the Colorado River Futures Project out of Utah State University have shown, state water officials from the upper river are beginning to understand that today’s law of the river places most of the future climate change risk on their states. But their fealty to the compact remains a major factor. (One of us, Eric Kuhn, is a co-author of the report. The other, John Fleck, serves on the project’s advisory committee.)

This dilemma raises the fundamental question facing the basin as it begins to negotiate the post-2026 river:

In recent months the paper’s authors have held briefings for state and federal water management agencies, water districts, and environmental NGOs. Most recently, they met (via Zoom) with representatives of the Upper Basin States under the umbrella of the Upper Colorado River Commission. Although the briefings varied in length and how deeply they got “into the weeds” concerning the modelling and science behind the study, the general messages and discussions were similar:

Balancing the river system’s water budget will require deeper cuts in total system water use than now contemplated by the basin Drought Contingency Plans. Further, future conservation targets and reservoir operations rules cannot be static. They will have to accommodate declining long-term average flows and increased variability. There is a general agreement that the post-2026 guidelines should work effectively down to a mean natural flow of 11-12 million acre-feet per year. Nevada’s John Entsminger suggested 11 maf at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center Conference in 2019 – one of the last and most meaningful public conversations among the basin leadership before the pandemic shut us all down. For comparison, the estimated natural flow at Lee Ferry for the current 2000-2021 period is about 12.4 maf/year…

Our hope is that collectively, they will be open to a wide range of different future options and that they will pursue different options in parallel. We would also hope that one of those options is to recognize that we now have a fundamentally different river to manage than the one that their predecessors thought they had when the 1922 Compact, 1944 Treaty with Mexico, and 1948 Compacts were negotiated, therefore, managing today’s river may require breaking the chains that unnecessarily tie us to the past.

2 thoughts on “Reverence or Pragmatism? The Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin’s Compact Dilemma — InkStain #COriver #aridification

  1. I think there is another consideration on the spectrum between reverence and pragmatism. It’s respect. The goal should be to find ways to recognize and address realities we all face without disregarding or abandoning the foundational basis for agreements that have worked to form societies, economies and a way of life. Preparing for what is likely to come is just good planning. How to do it is where respect (and a lot of good thinking) will also have to play a part.

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