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Colorado River Shortage Agreement Falls Short

December 17, 2007
by john weisheit

The agreement signed last week by Interior Secretary Kempthorne and the seven states of the Colorado River basin at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, is not a heroic achievement at all.

Click here to read the Record of Decision.

Click here for the Biological Opinion.

Click here for coverage in the Arizona Republic.

Click here for coverage in the New York Times.

The Department of Interior needs good news right now, even if it is contrived, since the ethics of the department have been crumbling in cronyism, according to this Associated Press story.

This water shortage management plan merely reflects the unfinished work initiated by the Colorado River Basin Project Act of 1968, which is the Congressional response to the Supreme Court decision called AZ v CA (1963-4).

Incidentally, this is the legislation that saved Grand Canyon from dams as a result of the campaign from the Sierra Club and the state of California.

This agreement is about the preparation of one document on an annual basis: the Annual Operating Plan (AOP) for the Colorado River. Specifically in response to whatever the projected circumstances will be on an annual basis. For example, If they have surpluses, this is what they will do. If they have shortages, this is what they will do. When they have supplies from augmentation, this is what they will do.

Augmentation to the river supply are things that have not yet been built or finished. For example, the proposed Drop 2 Reservoir and the Yuma Desalting Plant.

There really is nothing long-term or, more importantly, visionary, about this plan at all. It is an "interim plan". If the situation gets worse, the states will re-consult and initiate a revised plan. This is about, at best, micro-managing water resources and with an attitude of let's-wait-and-see-what-happens.

Why it took 40 years to finish the job is because this was a time period of surplus, which was created at first by a lack of consumption in the Upper Basin states, and then later by the abundant snow packs of the 1980s and 1990s. It is interesting that the managers have this wait-and-see attitude, which means they are not really managers at all, but opportunists. To paraphrase honest authors of western water history: they are mountebanks.

The long-term components of forgotten but necessary action items yet to be determined are:

  • how will they finance and build massive augmentation projects?
  • how will they operate the system when a reservoir empties?
  • how will they manage hydropower collaspe?
  • how will they vacate the sediment accumulating in the reservoirs?
  • how will they manage probable maximum floods when one finally arrives?
  • how will they decommission obsolete dams without interrupting water deliveries?

The major rescue idea from the hydraulic despots, for the moment, is the massive desalination of ocean water. The 1968 Act allows augmentation activities for Colorado River basin states. However, because they have not initiated any arrangements for planning or financing over the last 40 years, until now, whatever they might have up their sleeves is probably--too late. It will take decades to get this infrastructure in place. Since the Iraq War has robbed the US Treasury and the present economy is precariously resting on jack stands, it is not clear that the capital for augmentation planning and development can be acquired easily anytime soon.

This situation should force the water managers to do what could have done in the first place: planning within the confines of finite resources, stop coveting other water communities, maintaining affordability for citizens, and conserving the water that Nature provides as much as possible. Conservation that creates a reserve supply and not conservation that creates more resource dependancy by reaching beyond appropriate build-out, which fosters only more demoralizing congestion and pollution.

More information:

Climate change and the death of stationarity: A new era for western water? Stephen Gray.


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