Colorado River conference: U.S./Mexico relations, the Compact and towing icebergs

Posted: Dec 15, 2019

Navigating the Future of the Colorado River,” a conference held at the University of Colorado Law School last week, was filled with folks who have spent decades studying the river, interpreting the Law of the River (as the Compact of 1922 and many subsequent agreements are called) and defending the rights of their respective water users in the seven Upper and Lower Basin states.

Federal, municipal, tribal, legal and non-profit leaders talked about the state of the river, about rethinking our current path and about mapping a new course with policy changes and practical solutions—all with
a general acceptance that climate change will not be kind to the Colorado and its millions of users.

Despite the river’s long history as a contentious resource, a cooperative tone was set by keynote speakers Michael Connor, Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and was maintained by a varied group of stakeholders with little dissention.

Over the three-day program, this general entente was remarked on time again, mostly in a complimentary way as “progress,” a positive sign that the future shortages of Colorado River water won’t inevitably result in down-and-dirty litigation between the Upper and Lower Basin, or among individual states.

That Kumbaya vibe infused an optimism into discussions on how the Law of the River will treated going forward. Twenty years ago, said Pat Mulroy, “The whole body of law was rigid, not to be violated, like those tablets Moses had with the 10 Commandments on them.” But she, and most other participants, were insistent that the Compact is flexible enough to accommodate growth and climate change and, while it will have to bend significantly, it should not be allowed to break.

While I’m reluctant to criticize a spirit of cooperation, it seemed eerie. Anyone who’s seen the ‘No more H20 for Las Vegas’ bumpers stickers (and the like) knows that, when there are shortages, sides are taken and allocations are tallied. It’s difficult to imagine—as Colorado River supplies get more unpredictable and valuable, and as population grows—that any of the river’s politically-powerful stakeholders will stay in their corners. When the chips are down, they are going to defend their users and fight for every drop.

Real progress in a complex system like the Colorado River Basin will require realistic, practical solutions. Unfortunately, like an oil tanker needing miles of ocean to make a turn, change will not happen overnight.

Many possible mitigation and adaptation strategies were floated during the conference—some more feasible than others.

Les Lampe, of Colorado River Water Consultants, talked about how virtually no stones remain unturned in the study of long-term augmentation options. Some suggestions were familiar, like desalination plants, evaporation control and storm water storage. Others were more foreign, like weather modification, towing icebergs from the Arctic or piping in fresh water from the Mississippi. Robert Wigington of the Nature Conservancy talked about “water banks,” a set-up in which excess river water is stored in underground aquifers for later use (such as the Arizona Water Bank, an agreement between that state and Nevada).

Mario Lopez Perez, of the National Water Commission of Mexico, and many others, raised the importance of contusing conversations with our southern neighbors to implement some of the most innovative augmentation and restoration ideas for our mutual benefit.

Bonnie Colby of the University of Arizona discussed agricultural forbearance programs, which would pay farmers to leave their substantial water allocations in the system instead of irrigating their crops, during time of severe drought.

Colby’s talk was the most substantive consideration of the ‘elephant in the room’—agriculture. In Colorado, as in most western states, the majority of water (from 80 to 90 percent for Colorado) is consumed by farming and ranching. In 2010, Colorado farmers harvested six million acres. Much of that was used to grow livestock feed, including particularly thirsty crops like alfalfa and sorghum (millions of dollars of which was exported to far-flung places like the Middle East and North Africa). I don’t want to shut-down farms or deprive rural areas of their livelihoods, but we can continue to celebrate farmers while incentivizing more drought-tolerant crops. Major modifications in agriculture—including water transfers to growing urban areas—are a major piece of the adaptation puzzle moving forward.

Another topic given short-shrift was conservation. Drew Beckwith, water policy manager for Western Resource Advocates—who was referred to as a tenderfoot, in good-natured way—was the only participant to address the topic in any substantive way. He said that more aggressive water-saving strategies are among the cheapest, fastest and least environmentally-intrusive ways to gain “new” water. In his experience, Front Range homeowners have already expressed a willingness to conserve if it means maintaining the well-being of their outdoor resources.

Other than Beckwith’s reference, the role the general public will play in their own futures was basically ignored, or worse. One audience member mentioned how ignorant river users are about what’s to come. Another said that paying (even a little) for their water made people on the Front Range whine. Leaving 30 million people out of the discussion seems short-sighted.

Amid abundant landscapes filled endless waves of alfalfa, spectacular Vegas fountains and new subdivisions popping up every year, scarcity is not a familiar concept to many modern westerners. It’s time that end users better understand the river’s tentative future and contribute to solutions that will not only make human life and growth sustainable in the leaner days ahead, but also maintain the health of the river and delta.

Raising regional and national public consciousness about the Colorado may also contribute to the need for clear leadership, perhaps in the formation of a Colorado Basin forum, and the political will to implement fixes as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

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