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How Far Can We Bend the Law of the River?

Photograph by John Fleck

With this post we welcome John Fleck, a reporter with 20 years of experience with the Albuquerque Journal  covering science and environmental issues. In the past decade, he has made aridity, climate change, drought and the resulting water policy questions a central topic of his newspaper work. As Albuquerque and Santa Fe, northern New Mexico's two largest metro areas, have shifted in recent years to using water imported from the Colorado River Basin, his journalism has emphasized the relationship between New Mexico's water and broader regional waterscience, politics and policy questions. He is the author of "A Tree Rings' Tale," a book for young people about climate, science, water and the West, and is working on "Moving Water", a book about Colorado River water policy in the 21st century.

– John McChesney, Rural West Program Director

By John Fleck

The Law of the River – the stack of compacts, statutes, court decisions and operating rules governing the division of the Colorado River’s precious water – once had a sacred aura. “It was tantamount to having been written on tablets,” in the worlds of Las Vegas water manager Pat Mulroy.

No more. If we learned anything at the University of Colorado’s Navigating the Future of the Colorado River Basin conference June 8 - 10, it was that:

  • River managers are almost giddy about the success of their efforts to bend the Law of the River to their will in solving the collective Colorado River water management problems over the last two decades.
  • Future problems, posed by growing demand in the face of climate change, will sorely test the problem-solving institutions that built the past success.

Mulroy, a force of nature who has become a dominant voice in policy discussions about the river, was the conference’s keynote. She laid the groundwork for three days of discussions among water managers, academics and activists with a recitation of the last decades’ deals – Interim Surplus Guidelines (pdf), which ultimately led to the end of California’s supply of surplus Colorado water, and a 2007 shortage sharing agreement that lays out the rules for how Arizona and Nevada will cut back their if Lake Mead shrinks to critical levels.

The Interim Surplus Guidelines were a surprising success. California actually cut its usage in 2003, something many in the basin thought would never happen. The 2007 shortage guidelines have yet to be tested, and this year’s massive upper basin snowpack, now melting and filling the big reservoirs behind Glen Canyon and Hoover dams, means that test will not come for a number of years.

The hard negotiations among the federal government and the seven basin states that led to agreements rather than litigation means the Colorado no longer deserves the title Marc Reisner bestowed on it a quarter century ago of the “most litigated river in the entire world”, said Mike Connor,  who worked on river issues as counsel to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and now heads the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

But the problems ahead clearly could dwarf those that triggered the deals Mulroy and Connor are so fond of. Jeff Lucas of the University of Colorado’s Western Water Assessment, in a pre-conference presentation to the Upper Colorado River Compact Commission, laid out the problem – climate change, driven by rising greenhouse gases, is likely to sap the river’s flow, he said. Terry Fulp of the Bureau of Reclamation put numbers to the problem with a newly released Bureau climate change scenario suggesting 9 percent less water in the river, on average, by 2050.

If there’s less water in the river, who will come up short?

The University of Colorado’s Doug Kenney, one of the conference organizers, played provocateur, laying out his thesis that the upper basin states – New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming - will suffer the climate change squeeze, being forced to bear the brunt of the shortfalls. “Things turn pretty ugly pretty fast,” Kenney said as he laid out the scenario. (For a nice summary of his ideas, see, his appearance at last year’s Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas. Or read his report (pdf).)

Kenney’s role as provocateur was a success, triggering a sometimes comical back-and-forth among conference participants about the nuances of the Colorado River Compact and whether the upper basin will bear the burden of climate change on its own, or whether the shortages will be shared with the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

Disagreements over the question had a friendly tone, but they were a reminder of the tough challenges ahead if Mulroy-style negotiated solutions are to be had. “The next steps,” she said, “are going to be daunting.”


Last modified Mon, 27 Jun, 2011 at 9:02