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The 70-year Administrative Record of Impending Water Shortages and the Failure to Act Appropriately
February 28, 2015
THE PUBLIC RECORD IS CLEAR: The present degradation of water quantity and water quality in the Colorado River basin was predicted to occur as early as 1946. Here is a summary of the administrative record:
The Career of Northcutt Ely - During the administration of Herbert Hoover, Northcutt Ely served as deputy secretary in the Department of Interior. He is also the co-author of The Hoover Dam Documents (Part One), which is a compendium of legal documents known as the "Law of the River." Later on, he represented the Colorado River Board of California. He was lead counsel for California during the infamous US Supreme Court hearing known as Arizona vs California. It took 12 years to resolve this court proceeding (1952 to 1964).
It is true that Ely was a fierce advocate for protecting the water allocation of California and the investment of it's infrastructure to deliver that water, but this advocacy can just as easily be mirrored, or transformed, into an advocacy for the entire watershed from mountain to the sea. Ely's over-reaching goal was watershed sustainibility for human needs. Indirectly, however, he was a casual champion for preserving sections of the river's ecological integrity.
Ely strongly believed that watershed resiliency did not mean building more and more dams. He understood the threshold point of diminishing returns were going to be exceeded by the Colorado River Storage Act of 1956, and even further extended by the Colorado River Basin Project Act of 1968. Excessive reservoir storage increases consumptive losses in the form of evaporation and seepage. Over-developing the watershed with numerous diversions and reservoirs also decreases the quality of the water by loading the river water with salt and heavy metals.
As a result of his advocacy, two dams were not built on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument, and two dams were not built in the Grand Canyon. Though most historians would give this credit soley to the Sierra Club, other historians have identified Northcutt Ely's important role in this outcome.
See: Still the Wild River Runs: Congress, the Sierra Club, and the fight to save the Grand Canyon. Byron Pearson.
Please also read Jeff Ingram's review of Pearson's book here: Grand Canyon Futures. Jeff served the Sierra Club as the Southwest Regional Director.
THE ADMINISTRATIVE RECORD
1946 - "Light on the Mexican Water Treaty" (of 1944) by California water attorney Northcutt Ely. Introduced in Salt Lake City during the annual conference of the Colorado River Water Users Association.
Page 20 - A water budget was completed in 1946 by the state of California using the best available hydrologic data of the Colorado River basin. The Colorado River Compact was 24-years old at that time. The treaty with Mexico is a fixed allocation of 1.5 million acre feet (1.7 maf in times of surplus). This water budget may be the earliest acknowledgement in the public record that the annual average flow of the Colorado River basin cannot satisfy the demands of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
He projected by year 2000, when maximum consumption in the basin would occur, that these large reservoirs would not have sufficient reservoir elevations for the efficient generation of hydropower to reimburse the debt to the federal treasury, nor to mechanically lift water from the Colorado River reservoirs into aqueducts and canals for consumptive uses. California also objected to the needless and massive loss of water to evaporation in these "holdover" reservoirs, which increases salinity and which could be applied to a consumptive use in the lower basin for at least 50 years, or until the time the upper Colorado River basin fully developed it's Compact allocation.
As it turned out, Echo Park Dam was not built for reasons that the reservoir would destroy the values of Dinosaur National Monument and not for the reasons cited by the state of California. They still objected to the building of Glen Canyon Dam, which was authorized by Congress in 1956.
Page 600 - Northcutt Ely brings up the issue of water quality and the promise by the Commissioner of Colorado in 1922 that his state would limit Colorado River diversions across the Continental Divide to 300,000 acre-feet. Ely argues that the intent of this promise in the administrative record is to maintain low salinity levels for consumptive uses in the lower basin states and Mexico. Thus, the 1922 Compact is also an agreement for preserving the integrity of the river's water quality.
The Bureau of Reclamation's development plan for the state of Colorado in 1950 called for 2 million acre-feet to cross the Divide, thus aggravating the salinity issue for the lower basin users and, in this regard, the forthcoming Colorado River Storage Project Act of 1956 (CRSP) would degrade the intent of the 1922 Compact.
1967 - "The Oil Shale Industry's Water Problems" by Northcutt Ely. A speech delivered to the Colorado School of Mines at Golden Colorado.
In this address, Ely mentions importing water from other river basins as a possible remedy to address the over-allocation problem of the Colorado River basin. Remember please, that the point of this article is to demonstrate that the water managers have always known the Colorado River was headed for shortages.
This issue had been an ongoing discussion in Congress since 1963, which was strongly opposed by the distant states being asked to give water to the states within the Colorado River basin. To this day the pursuit continues, but the states of the Columbia River basin, the Great Lakes region and the Missouri River basin have adopted policies against water imports to the the users of the Colorado River system. And for excellent reasons, since they fully understand the water managers of the Colorado River continue to generate bad public policies in their insatiable quest for more and more water.
The following chronology demonstrates the legacy of dedicated scientists providing the best available science to water managers for the purpose of developing good management practices in a watershed:
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