Monday, September 26, 2022

As climate change moves southwest, here’s a better way to share water from the shrinking Colorado River

The Colorado River is an important lifeline for the US Southwest. It supplies water to seven states, Mexico, 29 Indian reservations and millions of acres of irrigated agricultural land. The river and its tributaries support 16 million jobs and provide drinking water to Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Tucson – in total, 40 million people.

These rivers run through many of the world’s most iconic national parks, including the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Canyonland in Utah. Today millions of people come to the Colorado River Basin to fish, boat, and roam.

Southwestern states, tribes, and Mexico share and update Colorado’s waters under the Colorado Compact of 1922. But today, due to climate change and rapid development, there is a huge gap between the amount of water allocated to the parties and the amount actually present in the river. With users facing unprecedented water shortages, the compact is hopelessly inadequate to deal with the realities of the present and the future.

I have studied water resources development for 35 years and have written extensively about Native American water rights and the future of America’s rivers. As I see it, the compact rests on three fundamental flaws that now plague efforts to develop a new vision for the sector. I believe the most useful way forward is for states and tribes to negotiate a new agreement that reflects the realities of the 21st century.

The Colorado River and its tributaries drain seven western states and parts of 29 Indian reservations.

Incorrect data and allocation

The Compact Commissioners made two fatal mistakes when they allocated water in 1922. First, they evaluated the river volume based on erroneous data, which wildly underestimated it. Actual annual historical flows were far less than necessary to meet the compact’s instructions.

There is evidence that the commissioners did this purposefully: it would have been easier to reach an agreement if there was more water to go. This strategy guaranteed that the compact would allocate more water in the river than it actually was, a condition now referred to as a “structural deficit”.

Second, a fixed amount of water was allocated instead of a percentage of the actual flow of the river. This approach would be viable if the river flow is stable and the settlement is based on sound science. But Colorado’s flow is highly variable.

The compact artificially divided the river into an Upper Basin (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico) and a Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada and California), and allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of water to each basin. One acre-feet of water is enough to cover one acre of land to a depth of one foot, or about 325,000 gallons.

In 1944, a treaty allocated an additional 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico, for a total of 16.5 million acre-feet. However, the actual inflow has generally been less than that amount. The volume of the river at the time of the compact was about 18 million acre-feet per year, but the 20th century average was closer to 14.8 million acre-feet. And then things got very bad.

Drought and climate change have pushed the Colorado River to a crisis point.

Over the past 20 years, climate change has further reduced Colorado’s volume. A “megadrought”, now in its 21st year, has reduced flow by about 20%, and studies predict this will drop by 20% to 35% or more by mid-century. At the end of August 2021, Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, was only 35% full. Lake Powell, the second largest US reservoir, was less than 30% full.

That month, the Bureau of Reclamation announced an official reduction that would force Arizona, Nevada and Mexico to make significant cuts in water use. In short, the original fixed allocations are no longer in reality fixed.

In my view, a better way of allocating water in percentages between states and tribes would be based on a five-year rolling average that will change as river flows change. Without such changes, the compact would only perpetuate a hydrological illusion that leads water users to claim water that does not exist.

no parent involvement

Apart from these errors, the compact is also based on a fundamental injustice. The 30 Aboriginal nations in the Colorado River Basin are the original users of the river, and their reservations cover vast areas of land. But he completely missed out on the 1922 allocation.

The Compact Commissioner, whose views reflected the open racism of that era, recognized that the natives did not deserve their allotment. Making matters worse, nearly every statute, compact and regulation promulgated since 1922 – a body of rules collectively known as the Law of the River – has either ignored or marginalized basic water users Is. Many tribes, scholars and advocacy groups see this as an injustice of vast proportions.

The tribes have approached the court to claim part of Colorado’s waters and have won significant victories, beginning with a 1963 decision in Arizona v. California, in which the US Supreme Court ruled for five Indian reservations in the Colorado River Basin. for water rights. The tribes continued their claims through several negotiated settlements beginning in 1978 and continuing today. They now hold more than 2 million acre-feet of water in the lower basin and 1.1 million acre-feet in the upper basin. and 12 tribes have unresolved claims which may total up to 405,000 acre-feet.

Currently, however, the tribes are not drawing all their water because they do not have the pipelines and other infrastructure they need to divert and use it. This allows non-Indian communities to access surplus water, without payment in most cases. I believe that a new agreement should include tribes as equal partners with the states and give them meaningful and important roles in all future negotiations and policy making in the basin.

a new vision

Compact states are now renegotiating interim river management guidelines that were first adopted in 2007. This process should be completed by 2026 when this agreement expires.

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I see these discussions as an excellent opportunity to discard the impracticable provisions of the Compact and negotiate a new agreement that responds to the unprecedented challenges now affecting the Southwest. As I see it, a compromise negotiated by and for white men, in an era when people drove Model T cars, cannot serve as the foundation for a dramatically different future.

In my view, the compact of 1922 is now an albatross that can only stop innovation. Eliminating fixed rights to water that don’t actually exist could prompt members to negotiate a new, science-based agreement that’s fairer, more inclusive, and more efficient and sustainable.

This article is republished from – The Conversation – Read the – original article.

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