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It’s been 30 years since Marc Reisner’s landmark history of Western water, Cadillac Desert, was first published. The book’s dire tone set the pattern for much subsequent water writing. Longtime Albuquerque Journal reporter John Fleck calls it the “narrative of crisis”—an apocalyptic storyline about the West perpetually teetering on the brink of running dry.

When the book’s second edition was released in 1993, on the heels of a particularly dry string of years in California, Reisner saw fit to characterize the drought as a “punishment meted out to an impudent culture by an indignant God.”

Thanks to books like Cadillac Desert, Fleck writes, “I grew up with the expectation of catastrophe.” Yet in his own reporting, Fleck, who recently became director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, discovered a very different story.

“Far from the punishment of an indignant God,” he writes, “I found instead a remarkable adaptability.”

Fleck’s new book, Water Is for Fighting Over … and Other Myths About Water in the West, chronicles the remarkable and often-overlooked adaptive capacity of the farmers and millions of urbanites who depend on the Colorado River. He highlights several irrigation districts and cities that have substantially reduced water use while enjoying higher farm incomes and supporting bigger populations, despite more than a decade and a half of serious drought.

The most fascinating parts of the book focus on river politics. One of Fleck’s great insights is that the Colorado is essentially a decentralized system where “no one has their hand on the tap.” The fundamental challenge is “problem-solving in a river basin where water crosses borders, where it must be shared, but where no one is in charge.”

The book draws its title from the old saw—often misattributed to Mark Twain and endlessly reiterated—that whiskey is for drinking but water is for fighting over. This is the primary “myth” Fleck takes on. The ferocity of Colorado River politics has been likened to the Middle East conflict, but as Fleck notes, a surprising spirit of collaboration has arisen on the Colorado over the last two decades.

Rather than fighting, he writes, the river’s water bosses have crafted a series of agreements that have increased water-use flexibility and buffered some of the effects of extreme drought. The members of the “network,” as Fleck puts it, are able to do that because they have a deeply rooted distrust of the vagaries of court, and have “come to the shared conclusion that arguing over legal interpretation is the wrong path.”

Indeed, the network’s members haven’t taken each other to court since 1952. But in arguing that collaboration is the great untold story, Fleck overlooks one of the most fascinating aspects of the Colorado’s recent history: the aggressive brinkmanship that also drives its politics.

Far from being averse to fighting, some members of the network—most famously Pat Mulroy, the former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority—have actively used the threat of litigation to force counterparts to compromise and cooperate. That coercive pressure is the antagonistic yang to the cooperative yin. And therein lies the great paradox of the 21st-century Colorado River: The credible threat of legal assault, artfully deployed, has provided the anvil against which many of these cooperative agreements have been hammered out.

In fact, it was just such a provocation that ultimately catalyzed the agreements that Fleck lauds. In 2004, as the drought worsened, some water managers began telegraphing meticulously coded threats to each other over disputed interpretations of critical parts of the law of the river. The network effectively stood at the brink of legal war. Not long ago, John Entsminger, who worked as a lawyer for Mulroy at the time and is a prominent figure in Fleck’s story, told me: “It was unclear at that point whether we were going to negotiate, or whether we were headed toward the U.S. Supreme Court.”

It wasn’t a fight, but the plausible prospect of a fight, that forced water managers out of their entrenched positions to begin developing the series of agreements that, they hope, will keep us one step ahead of climate change and the still-deepening drought.

These days, the network’s members don’t like to talk about this coercive element in river politics. That’s largely because after their acrimony in 2004 spilled into public, they made a pact to keep their differences out of the media. But in spite of the apparent outbreak of peace, the water bosses continue to prepare for the possibility of war.

The story that Fleck tells is a hopeful one, and a very important one—but it’s not quite the whole story. Two and a half years ago, Entsminger replaced Pat Mulroy as the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Entsminger is far more conciliatory than Mulroy. Yet in a candid moment not long after he took charge, he acknowledged to me that, sometimes, water really is for fighting over. Those who think otherwise do so at their own peril.

“We don’t want to fight,” Entsminger said. “But if we fight, we want to win.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Water Is for Fighting Over ... and Other Myths about Water in the West

By John Fleck

Island Press

264 pages, $30

Published in Literature

In 1922, seven Western states agreed to divvy up the water in the Colorado River, paving the way for giant dams, reservoirs and aqueducts to move and store it.

Over the next century, the arid region, prone to erratic storms and punishing droughts, saw farms and cities grow and grow—with the belief that the water they relied on so heavily was inexhaustible.

But the Colorado River Compact, as the agreement is known, contained a serious flaw: The states overestimated how much water flowed through the river, which begins high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and runs southwest for 1,450 miles, before entering the Gulf of California in Mexico. In nearly a century since then, roughly 40 million people have come to rely on an allocation of water that doesn’t actually exist.

That miscalculation underpinning management of the West’s most-important river is one of the many manmade errors that have contributed to the region’s current water crisis. That crisis and, more specifically, its human origins are the subject of a new documentary, Killing the Colorado, which premiered Aug. 4 on The Discovery Channel. Based on the award-winning series by ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, the film examines the Colorado River’s growing inability to deliver the water that farmers, cities and entire ecosystems across the West rely on. While a prolonged long dry spell has exacerbated current shortages throughout the region, the film posits that most of the scarcities were not caused by nature, but by short-sighted policies and poor planning.

That leaves a harder question: If the real problems are manmade, can’t we find a way to fix them?

The film begins in one of the country’s most productive agricultural areas, California’s Imperial Valley, where huge farms blanket what was once a desert. The transformation was made possible by water from the Colorado River, piped 80 miles across the desert through the All-American Canal. But in California, Imperial Valley farmers are coming under increasing scrutiny for using the vast majority of the state’s water—a pattern that repeats throughout the West, where roughly 80 percent of the available water goes to agriculture.

Blaming farmers for using so much water becomes suspect, however, if you’re sitting in New York in the middle of winter, eating an organic kale salad. The greens, as one farmer points out, probably came from the Imperial Valley. For audiences not accustomed to finger-pointing, such examples create an uncomfortable reckoning, as well as an iteration of the film’s central theme: that the water crisis is everyone’s doing.

The film offers plenty of painful moments, nowhere more so than in its discussion of our very own Salton Sea. Created by an accidental breach in an irrigation canal, the sea has been kept full for decades by drainage from Imperial Valley farms. But as farmers find ways to use less water, the Salton Sea is shrinking, exposing dry beds of toxic dust. The result is an impossible dilemma: Conserve water, and worsen the region’s sky-high asthma rates; or keep it full by using the region’s scarcest resource.

Elsewhere in the West, agonizing questions around scarcity play out over big water projects, such as one proposed for southern New Mexico’s Gila River. In early July, the state agency in charge of planning and operating the diversion finally disclosed its plans, setting in motion the environmental review process, which will inform the federal government’s final decision on whether to approve the project. Experts questioned the high cost and long-term viability of the project—and the risk of repeating last century’s mistakes. But in moving the diversion proposal this far, proponents have played on deeply held attitudes about water in the West: Get as much as you can, before someone else does.

That such fears continue to influence decisions about water management today is one of the film’s more pointed arguments. The proposal for the Gila, it notes, is just one of the many new dams and diversions currently planned for the Colorado as states throughout the Upper Basin scramble to claim every last drop they have a right to develop.

As Lustgarten says in the film, “When faced with scarcity, the unfortunate reaction for many is to take a little more.”

If pinpointing the problems associated with the water crisis is challenging, the solutions appear even more so. In recent years, for instance, city water providers have been buying up farmers’ water rights, addressing the imbalance between urban and agricultural water rights. But the water trading also creates a whole new set of problems.

Those costs are evident in towns like Crowley, Colo., a community built around irrigation canals and a once-vibrant agricultural economy. But beginning in the 1970s, farmers sold off most of their water rights to growing cities like Pueblo and Colorado Springs. Fields and orchards turned to weeds, and as one current resident describes, “Crowley became a ghost town.” Today, prisons are the biggest employer in the county. The filmmakers avoid judgment on the issue on water-trading, instead offering a cautionary tale about the massive consequences—largely unforeseen—surrounding those decisions.

Meanwhile, as water’s scarcity drives up its value, Wall Street investors are entering what is now a multi-billion dollar business in water trading. One of those players is Water Asset Management. The $500 million hedge fund has invested in everything from Imperial Valley farms with prime water rights to desert cities like Prescott, Ariz., in need of new water supplies to support its growth. In many ways, it’s a win-win; the hedge fund money is helping farmers and cities find ways to save water and develop, while also securing huge profits for themselves by selling the water saved. The film suggests that markets are going to play an increasingly important role in allocating water in the West, but leaves open the thornier questions of whether, for instance, the growth fueling demand for new water supplies should be revisited, or whether water should be treated solely as a commodity, rather than, say, a basic human right.

If there’s a central lesson the film wants to convey, it’s that there are no easy fixes when it comes to the West’s water crisis. Who, for instance, should bear the cost of using less water? The answer, at least, seems obvious: everyone.

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

Three years ago, state hydrologists in the Colorado River Basin began to do some modeling to see what the future of Lake Mead—the West’s largest reservoir—might look like. If the dry conditions continued, hydrologists believed, elevations in Lake Mead—which is fed by the Colorado River—could drop much faster than previous models predicted.

For decades, the West’s big reservoirs were like a security blanket, says Anne Castle, the former assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department. But the blanket is wearing thin. Under normal conditions, Lake Mead loses 1.2 million acre-feet of water every year to evaporation and deliveries to the Lower Basin states plus Mexico; that all amounts to a 12-foot drop. Previously, extra deliveries of water from Lake Powell offset that deficit, but after 16 years of drought and increased water use in the Upper Basin, those extra deliveries are no longer a safe bet.

“There’s a growing recognition that even these huge reservoirs aren’t sufficient to keep the water supply sustainable anymore,” says Castle.

For the three Lower Basin states—California, Arizona and Nevada—that rely heavily on Lake Mead, the situation is particularly urgent. For the last several years, Mead has hovered around 1,075 feet above sea level, the point at which harsh water-rationing measures kicks in. And if conditions in the reservoir continue to worsen, the Interior Department could even take control of water allocation from Lake Mead.

So with the threat of a federal takeover looming, water policy leaders in the Lower Basin states, along with the Bureau of Reclamation, the reservoir’s operator, began meeting last summer to discuss ways they can jointly boost water levels in Lake Mead. Some of the details are now available and indicate that all three states are now willing to accept additional water cuts from the reservoir on top of the cuts that they previously agreed to make in 2007.

Those measures follow a set of federal guidelines adopted nine years ago to manage water deliveries from Lake Mead, given the likelihood of future shortages. The guidelines established a series of thresholds for the reservoir’s water levels that would trigger increasingly severe cutbacks for the Lower Basin states. At the time they were negotiated, few people anticipated that the drought would last as long as it has, but as Lake Mead inched closer to the critical 1,075 mark, water managers in the Lower Basin realized the existing guidelines were not enough to prevent an eventual shortage.

While the terms of the new agreement between California, Arizona and Nevada are still being negotiated, a few details have emerged. For starters, the Bureau of Reclamation has pledged to cut 100,000 acre-feet annually through efficiency measures such as lining irrigation canals to prevent seepage, or possibly by re-opening the long-shuttered Yuma Desalting Plant.

The three states’ willingness to collectively ration their water use would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago, when states fought each other in court to win as much water from the Colorado River. The cooperation is a nod to how new climate realities are re-shaping old water politics in the West. Take California, for instance. Legally, the state could hold on to every drop until Lake Mead is nearly down to mud, since the 1968 law that authorized the Central Arizona Project’s construction gave California the highest priority water rights to the Colorado River. But at that point, says Castle, they’re just as impacted as everyone else.

Other collaborative agreements to reduce the strain on the Colorado River include a 2014 Memorandum of Understanding between the big water providers in the Lower Basin states, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Central Arizona Project, pledging “best efforts” to conserve 40,000 acre feet in Lake Mead. In 2014, major municipal water providers in Arizona, California, Nevada and Colorado also agreed to fund new water conservation projects through a pilot initiative called the Colorado River System Conservation program.

For the Lower Basin especially, the negotiations are necessary to avoid the potential federal takeover, says Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Although the secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell, has not voiced any immediate plans to that effect, in the past, she has made public statements on the matter.

For Buschatzke, the threat is clear: “She’ll take action if we don’t collaborate,” he says.

Here are the cuts states could face:

Arizona would lose 512,000 acre-feet of its total 2.8 million acre-feet per year allotment if Lake Mead dips below the 1,075 feet threshold. That’s 192,000 acre-feetmore than the 320,000 acre-feet it had previously agreed to cut under the 2007 guidelines. Further cuts occur if the reservoir continues to drop. In another unprecedented move, Arizona water officials are talking about trying to spread cuts across all sectors of the state’s economy that rely on CAP water for drinking and irrigation—cities, farms, industries, Indian tribes and others—instead of letting only farmers take the brunt of the cuts, as dictated by their junior water rights.

California: Thanks to the 1968 law that authorized CAP’s construction, California’s 4.4 million acre feet allotment is shielded from most of the cuts should a shortage on Lake Mead be declared. But as part of the new negotiations, the state has volunteered to cut its water use from Lake Mead by 200,000 acre feet if the reservoir’s levels fall below 1,045 feet, and up to 350,000 acre-feet if levels sink to 1,030 feet.

Nevada: The state with the smallest allotment of Colorado River water, Nevada would take a much smaller share of the cuts—8,000 acre-feet if Mead drops below 1,045 feet, and 10,000 acre-feet after that—because it has the rights to only 300,000 acre-feet.

According to Buschatzke, the three states anticipate finalizing the agreement by early this fall, at which point negotiators will begin working the new measures into law. Those changes in law will likely not happen before 2017.

For Castle, the discussions are part of a new era in water politics—one that looks increasingly collaborative.

“We haven’t seen states versus state or state versus feds for a long time,” she says. “There’s a recognition that litigation is failure—that we need to come together and make things work.”

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News, where this story originally appeared.

Published in Environment

Much of the state of California is currently facing a water crisis, thanks to a record-setting drought. Yet here in our desert environment of the Coachella Valley, the happy anomaly of apparently plentiful and affordable water continues as the status quo.

However, that does not mean all is settled regarding water in the Coachella Valley.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (ACBCI) has filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court to obtain senior water rights over the shared Coachella Valley aquifer. The suit, filed on May 14, 2013, against the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) and the Desert Water Agency (DWA)—stewards of much of valley’s public water supply since 1918 and 1961, respectively—is expected to go to trial no later than February 2015.

On May 13, the latest legal maneuver occurred when the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion, which has since been granted, to join the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Heather Engel, the CVWD’s director of communications and legislation, said the agencies did not object to the move.

“The Department of Justice has a stake: They own the tribal land, so it makes sense for them to get involved,” she said.

Craig Ewing, president of the DWA board of directors, agreed.

“The federal government owns the tribal lands,” he said. “The fact that they want to join their tribal trustees in the lawsuit is no surprise. It poses no real significant change for us, so we didn’t oppose it.”

The Independent contacted Kate Anderson, the Agua Caliente director of public relations, to request a one-on-one interview with an ACBCI representative. That request was denied, and we were told to instead submit a list of questions.

We asked what the tribe’s objectives are in filing the lawsuit. The response: “The tribe’s objectives would be (1) having the court affirm the tribe’s preexisting, senior rights to groundwater; (2) having the court order DWA and CVWD to implement a plan to cease any withdrawals of groundwater that infringe upon the tribe’s rights or cause the aquifer to be in a state of overdraft; and (3) requiring DWA and CVWD to use high quality water—be it treated Colorado River water or water from another source—to recharge the aquifer.”

Engel explained some of her agencies’ objections to the tribe’s claims. “If we start with the senior rights, the CVWD believes that, based on current law in California, nobody owns the groundwater,” she said. “Anyone in the Coachella Valley, anyone in the state of California can drill a well and pump groundwater. So it’s not our water to give them senior rights.”

Ewing, again, agreed. “No one has the (exclusive) right to the water currently, because it is a public aquifer. Anyone can put a pump in the ground and pump it, including the tribe. So for them to say that they have a right to the water goes against our understanding of the legal status of the aquifer today.”

Why did the ACBCI choose this to file this lawsuit—which some say redirects resources that could be better spent on conservation and replenishment—at this time? The tribe’s response: “The water agencies admit that ‘overdraft’ (a condition created in the aquifer when water pumped out exceeds the amount replenished on an annual basis) has been a problem in the valley for over 75 years. The agencies are exclusively dependent on (an) imported water supply from the Colorado River, a known polluted water source.”

The tribe continued, “The agencies have turned a deaf ear to the tribe’s written complaints about this situation for going on 20 years.”

Ewing argued that the tribe’s claims that Colorado River water is polluted are off-base.

“Colorado River water helps recharge (replenish) the basin and has for 40 years,” he said. “That Colorado River water meets all federal and state clean water standards. So to suggest that it is somehow inferior water is to us just plain wrong.”

A report from the California Department of Water Resources released in April, “Groundwater Basins With Potential Water Shortages,” seems to refute the tribe’s claims that overdrafts are a serious problem in the valley, at least in recent years. A map of the monitoring of wells located in the area between Palm Springs and the Salton Sea indicates that from 2013-2014, an overwhelming majority of those wells reflected groundwater-level gains or minimal declines—which was not the case in much of the rest of California.

When asked about the benefits of cooperation compared to an expensive lawsuit, the tribe responded strongly.

“The tribe and the United States attempted for many years to work in concert with DWA and CVWD to address the issues in this litigation,” said the ACBCI response. “CVWD and DWA continually refused to acknowledge the tribe’s rights or to engage the tribe in any meaningful dialogue. The decision to initiate litigation came only after attorneys for the water districts informed the tribe that they saw no reason to continue discussions with the tribe.”

Finally, we asked each of the involved parties what they think will result from the lawsuit.

From the ACBCI: “By establishing its ownership interest in the valley’s groundwater, the tribe will have a seat at the table when it comes to the management of the aquifer. It is too early in the lawsuit to predict how these issues will be resolved or identify specific steps that the tribe will take at the lawsuit’s conclusion.”

Engel of the CVWD said: “The bottom line is that obviously the CVWD thinks we’re doing a good job managing the groundwater supply. There is a plan in place. This is not something that’s new to us. We’ve been managing the supply since 1918, and we think that we’ll continue to do a good job for all the residents of the Coachella Valley.”

The DWA’s Ewing speculated that the lawsuit could have a rather complex outcome. “Well, the courts will determine what the policy is. If they determine that the tribe does have senior water rights, then the thing to remember is that this is not an aquifer that is currently divided between (just the) Desert Water Agency and CVWD. There are lots of other players who have pumps in the ground—farmers, country clubs and some industries out in the more rural parts of the valley—and all of them will have to get in line with the courts to determine how much everybody gets if one entity gets something. It could take a long, long time to sort out who gets what should the courts decide that the tribe gets something.”

Ewing added that the legal wrangling could continue for many, many years.

“The tribe has raised several issues in their lawsuit, and if they take as long as they could take through appeals and further hearings and a full adjudication, in my own opinion, the lawyers who will settle this case haven’t been born yet.”

Published in Local Issues

The Salton Sea—the picturesque historical landmark located at the southeastern edge of Coachella Valley—is receding.

Will it survive? Or will it dry up and become a massive generator of harmful dust emissions—posing a serious threat to public health and the local economy?

This simple and important question has been debated for more than 20 years now, and was the driving force behind the creation of the Salton Sea Authority (saltonsea.ca.gov), a joint-powers agency chartered by the state of California in 1993 to ensure the preservation and beneficial uses of the Salton Sea. The SSA is composed of two representatives from each of five member agencies: the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla tribe, Riverside County, Imperial County, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Imperial Irrigation District.

This still-unanswered question spurred Gov. Jerry Brown to recently sign Assembly Bill 71. According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, “This bill would authorize the authority (SSA) to lead a restoration funding and feasibility study, in consultation with the (State of California Natural Resources) agency. This bill would also require the secretary (of the CNRA) to seek input from the authority with regard to specified components of restoration of the Salton Sea. By imposing duties on a local joint-powers authority (the SSA), the bill would impose a state-mandated local program.”

In plainer language: The bill is intended to identify strategies to address the serious environmental and social challenges facing the Coachella Valley and the rest of Southern California due to the Salton Sea’s tenuous future.

The most immediate result of the bill was the earmarking of $2 million in the 2014 state budget to fund a study to determine appropriate restorative actions.

“AB 71 was successful, because after it was passed, we managed to get funding, which was a really good feeling,” remarked Roger Shintaku, executive director of the SSA. “We fought long and hard to get the funding.”

Keali’i Bright, the deputy secretary for legislation with the California Natural Resources Agency, is the point-person on the state’s involvement in the Salton Sea campaign.

“We’ve gone into contract with the Salton Sea Authority and their sub-contractor. … The study itself is very promising,” said Bright. “There’s an idea out there that we can encourage the development of a lot of geothermal and renewable energy resources around the Salton Sea, and that development can bring economic prosperity, and also provide revenues for further restoration activities.”

How would the revenue created by such development flow back into the restoration effort?

“More than 91 percent of the land under the sea basin is owned either by the Imperial Irrigation District or the United States government, so they would probably do some kind of leasing with development companies,” said Bright. “But one of the specific task orders in the study is to look at how you actually get revenue.”

Shintaku’s SSA is supervising the creation of an action plan as the first phase of the study.

“The first step in the feasibility study is to take the plan and make it more detailed and goal-oriented,” he said. “We’ve broken down specific tasks we want to accomplish along with the schedule, because we need to finish the feasibility study by May 2016.”

Of course, revenue and cost considerations can make or break any long term plans—especially when it comes to a project as daunting as saving the Salton Sea.

“We need to examine what was laid out in the past and then try to inject the reality of today’s finances in an effort to see what we can do,” Shintaku said. “The bottom line is that we want to advance ecosystem restoration, and we want to advance any mitigation efforts, but we have to look at our own financial ability first, because we can’t really count on anyone else coming in.”

What about the state budget funds earmarked to support SSA efforts? “The state is obligated to help out,” agreed Shintaku. “At the same time, we’re looking at what we can do locally without help from the state or federal governments. We’re doing what we can to move this forward.”

Everyone agrees that time is of the essence—as the Salton Sea’s water supply will soon decrease. In 2003, the San Diego County Water Authority, the Imperial Irrigation District, the Coachella Valley Water District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the State of California and the U.S. Interior Department signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement, which requires that annual allotments of Colorado River water are diverted into the Salton Sea. However, that agreement ends in 2017.

Can anything be done in the near term to address the other challenges linked to this looming environmental, economic and public-health crisis?

“The renewable projects themselves could be dust-storm preventers,” Bright observed. “… By this autumn, the state will begin constructing 600 to 700 acres of projects on the ground. Our focus and investment is in habitat ponds, which are really the most difficult to build. They’re deep-water habitats designed to grow fish, basically, so birds have fish to eat. Meanwhile, (the Imperial Irrigation District) is focusing on shallow-water habitats that are slightly less challenging, but equally important.”

Curiously, there seems to be no serious discussion about delaying the QSA deadline on Colorado River-water allotments.

“That’s way above my pay grade,” said Bright. “But I don’t know if the benefits are really there, because the tipping point on the salinity of the sea is already being reached. Undoing the QSA would be a monumental feat. We’re trying to work within our current framework toward the best solution and give us some kind of pathway to the future.”

Shintaku said that no matter what is done, the Salton Sea will always be around, in one form or another.

“If nothing else happens, and there’s still agriculture in the area, there’s going to be water draining into the sea,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the real question. The real question is: What kind of sea will there be?

“As we move forward after the feasibility study, we’d like to try to improve on what’s happening with the species-conservation habitat and develop projects that maintain habitats and address future concerns of dust proliferation,” he continued. “We cannot say for certain that all 365 square miles of seabed will be a dust bowl. We won’t know until the sea actually recedes. That’s another challenge for us, to develop a program that will allow us to do dust control when such conditions arise, or avoid it by keeping areas wet or planting vegetation.”

Of course, all of this work is being attempted in the midst of the worst drought California has seen in recorded history. How could this reality not serve as an impediment?

“My feeling is that it’s been helpful, because it’s put the focus on water issues in the Legislature and where we put our priorities for water,” said Bright. “So in this year’s California Water Action Plan, the Salton Sea was put in as one of the priorities. … Other water areas have definitely been impacted by the bandwidth suck of the drought, but this is probably one of the few areas that hasn’t.”

Published in Environment

As all eyes in the West turn to the skies for relief from 14 years of “mega-drought,” as Gov. Jerry Brown put it when he declared a drought emergency in January, this is as good of a time as any for those of us in the West to ask: “How did we get caught between a rock and a dry place, and what, if anything, can we do about it now?”

To answer that question, we have to go back to the boom-boom years of America’s dam-building. No politician in the West was a bigger believer in the transformative power of impounded water than Arizona’s favorite son, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was the Bureau of Reclamation’s biggest booster in Congress when the agency proposed mind-boggling water projects to tame the mighty Colorado River.

Never mind that the Hoover Commission, in a report commissioned by Congress, warned in 1951 that the Bureau of Reclamation would bankrupt the nation with senseless dams and irrigation projects, while holding future generations of Americans hostage to unpaid bills and unintended consequences.

At a time when Goldwater and the Bureau of Reclamation were enjoying a Golden Age of water projects, their chief nemesis was an environmental crusader named David Brower. Brower, president of the Sierra Club and founder of the Earth Island Institute, single-handedly led the fight against building Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. And lost. He called that defeat “the darkest day of my life.”

Time and old age have a way of bringing people to their senses. Toward the end of his life, Goldwater took political positions that left most of his libertarian allies scratching their heads in bewilderment. Is Barry going senile? Did somebody poison his soup?

No, Goldwater’s public epiphany came about when PBS aired Cadillac Desert, a series based on Marc Reisner’s eponymous book. In the third episode, when Goldwater and Reisner were discussing the adjudication of the Colorado River, the silver-haired Goldwater looked out across the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix and asked, “What have we done to this beautiful desert, our wild rivers? All that dam-building on the Colorado, across the West, was a big mistake. What in the world were we thinking?”

That admission reverberated across the high mesas of the Southwest like summer thunder. A few months later, when Brower and I talked over lunch, I asked him, “What did you do when Goldwater said it was all a big mistake?”

He cackled and then let out an expletive. “I reached for the phone and called (Goldwater), and I said, Barry, let’s do the right thing: Help me take out Glen Canyon Dam. He said he would! Then he died a few months later.”

Brower died a few months after that.

Taking out Glen Canyon Dam would not have altered today’s water crisis in the Southwest, but it would have made a resounding statement. It would have said: “Wild rivers rock.” It would have said, “We should have left well enough alone.”

We can’t go back to that America any more than we can return to the days before the Civil War, or to the Indian Wars, and fix things. We’re stuck with the aftermath of those decisions, many of them poorly informed, unwise or downright bad. And, sadly, as the Hoover Commission warned 63 years ago, the consequences will be with us for generations to come.

The Colorado River, though, is a special case. It has always been a special case—now more than ever. The drought that grips the Southwest today is the worst in 1,250 years, say some experts, and it shows no sign of releasing its grip. No doubt, the region’s leaders despair over vanishing options. The Bureau of Reclamation has announced it may start rationing water to downstream states by 2015. And no climate model is predicting rain.

What in the world were we thinking?

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Portland, Ore., and is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire through Indian Territory.

Published in Environment

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has an unenviable job even in a wet year, but in prolonged periods of drought, the task of managing the Colorado River is even harder.

The agency is in charge of balancing the water levels in the country’s two largest reservoirs: the serpentine desert lakes called Powell and Mead. Seven Western states depend on water from the Colorado for everything from showering to growing lettuce, and keeping the reservoirs at the proper level makes sure everyone gets their legal share—that is, until drought complicates things.

Fourteen years of drought exacerbated by a dry spring, and an even drier July, prompted the Bureau of Reclamation to do something it’s never done before: release less water from Lake Powell. That means water levels at Lake Mead, 250 miles downstream of Powell, will continue to drop, threatening to render one of two intake pumps inoperable, and leaving Las Vegas with only one source of water—and no backup.

Unlike many major cities in the Southwest that supplement Colorado River water with groundwater, Las Vegas depends almost entirely on the river. And according to a 2007 Colorado River water agreement, Arizona and Nevada would be the first to feel the effects of an official shortage declaration—when the Bureau of Reclamation would deliver less water to users in those states than normal—while California would not be affected. Reclamation's Lower Colorado River director, Terry Fulp, says a shortage could occur as soon as 2016.

So it’s easy to see why water managers in Southern Nevada are trying everything they can think of to get more water into Lake Mead—including going after a meager 10,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water from a wildlife refuge on the Salton Sea. Just days after Reclamation announced its water cuts on the Colorado, the Southern Nevada Water Authority sent a letter to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge accusing its managers of illegally using Colorado River water to maintain wetlands and grow food for migrating birds.

The Salton Sea is a strange place. Created by accident in 1905 by a blowout in an irrigation canal, the 381-square-mile lake became an important migratory stop-over and nesting site for many species of birds, including the endangered Yuma clapper rail. In 1930, President Hoover recognized the ecological importance of the sea by declaring portions of it a national wildlife refuge. Now, due to water efficiency measures on farms in the Imperial Valley and rural-to-urban water transfers, the sea is drying up, risking the health of both birds and people, who could choke on toxic dust from the sea bed, as happened downwind of Owens Lake in the early 20th century.

As a wildlife refuge, the folks at Sonny Bono are concerned primarily with the birds, and in order to maintain their wetland habitat, they have been buying 10,000 acre-feet of water from the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) for decades. “It’s not like we’re stealing water here,” says Michael Woodbridge, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Southwest Region. “We’ve been doing it a long time and through the proper channels.”

But the Southern Nevada Water Authority disagrees, arguing that using Colorado River water to create habitat for birds is not technically irrigation, and therefore violates Imperial’s contract with the Bureau of Reclamation. (SNWA representatives declined to comment on the letter, citing “legal implications associated with this issue.”)

Although this water sale has been happening for years, a July court case gives SNWA a new legal leg to stand on. In Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Indians v. Nevada Dept. of Wildlife, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that using water to construct waterfowl habitat is not “irrigation,” and that Nevada water law speaks of “irrigation solely in the context of agriculture and distinguish(es) such use from the application of water for recreational, aesthetic and wildlife purposes.”

Even before this new legal challenge, Patricia Mulroy, who heads up SNWA, has long held a grudge against the Salton Sea, calling it “an accident” and “agricultural runoff; that’s all it is,” in the Las Vegas Review Journal. Mulroy also told the newspaper that “it’s ludicrous to imagine fresh water being sent to evaporate in a lake that’s already saltier than the Pacific Ocean while Lake Mead threatens to shrink low enough to shut down Las Vegas’ water intakes and the turbines at Hoover Dam.”

Mulroy is also critical of previous efforts by the IID to replenish the sea, including a 2010 delivery of nearly 50,000 acre-feet of water that Reclamation is now forcing the district to pay back. The fact that Imperial has the right to much more Colorado River water than Nevada—3.1 million acre-feet, more than 10 times the Silver State’s annual allotment—could also have something to do with Mulroy's grudge. Still, SNWA maintains that neither drought or the recent court case influenced its decision to criticize water use at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea refuge.

For its part, IID maintains that sending irrigation water to the Salton Sea is legal. “It is folly to object to Colorado River water being used for environmental purposes at the Salton Sea. It is misguided. It is wrong as a matter of environmental policy, and it is wrong as a matter of law,” IID General Manager Kevin Kelley told the Imperial Valley Press.

So what could SNWA’s accusation mean for the Salton Sea? If the refuge can no longer buy water from IID, it could accelerate the exposure of the sea bed and potentially hasten the creation of toxic dust clouds. More certain is that without Colorado River water, tens of thousands of migrating birds won’t have rye grass to eat in the winter, which could force them to chomp crops on neighboring fields, angering farmers.

As Woodbridge says, “You can’t manage for wildlife in a place like the Salton Sea without water.”

Emily Guerin is a correspondent for High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Local Issues

Ah, San Diego: As Coachella Valley residents know, the city to the south features great weather, a zoo with adorable panda bears, sandy beaches, turquoise swimming pools—and very little water.

Unlike other arid Southwestern cities, San Diego doesn’t have an aquifer to draw its drinking water from, so it imports about 80 percent of it. For many years, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California supplied most of that water. But a policy that would allow the Los Angeles-dominated agency to cut San Diego’s supply by 50 percent during drought has always made the city uneasy.

For years, San Diego has been looking for ways to wean itself off L.A’s supply, and in the 1990s, the city began eyeing the Colorado River, which is diverted through the desert in a series of huge concrete canals to the Imperial Valley, where about 80 percent of the country’s winter vegetables are grown. The valley is a heavy-hitter in the water world, with rights to one-fifth of the Colorado’s flow. In 2003, under immense pressure from the feds, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to sell some of that water to San Diego. But Imperial County officials worried the water transfers would hasten the demise of the Salton Sea, and sued after the deal was inked. Now, a recent ruling should put much of the dispute to rest, allowing the largest rural to urban water transfer in U.S. history to continue.

Legally, California is allowed to take 4.4 million acre-feet from the Colorado, but for many years, the state sucked more than that. Upstream states didn’t mind, as they weren’t using their entire allocations. But that changed around the millennium, when, as Ed Marston reported in High Country News in 2001, “the other states, growing larger and thirstier with each passing year, worried that they would never get to use their full apportionments of the Colorado if California’s use became institutionalized.”

So the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation rolled out the “4.4 plan,” designed to shrink California’s take of the Colorado back to its legal share. The plan called for lining the All-American Canal, which carries Colorado River water to Southern California, and sending the “reclaimed” water to cities. Cutting water use in the Imperial Valley, rather than in urban areas, was another major part of the plan.

In order to reduce its use of the Colorado without leaving urban residents dry, California has been scrambling to work out a series of conservation measures and farm-to-city water transfers. Under the terms of the plan, negotiated by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the Interior Department would wean California off the surplus Colorado River water slowly, over 15 years—if California could line up the water transfers by Dec. 31, 2002. If California couldn’t work it out, Babbitt and then his successor, Gale Norton, vowed to cut off the state from surplus water at the stroke of midnight.

And on New Year’s Eve, as California water agencies futilely struggled to finalize a crucial deal, Norton did just that, slashing California’s cut of the Colorado River by over 700,000 acre-feet, enough water for 1.6 million households.

The dramatic New Year’s cutoff worked. Later that year, the Imperial Irrigation District signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement, agreeing to send 200,000 acre-feet of water per year to San Diego for the next 75 years, or about 9 percent of its total Colorado River allotment. To meet the terms of the deal, Imperial Valley farmers fallowed some 36,000 acres of farmland.

But the water transfer, and accompanying efficiency measures, had an unexpected consequence: They accelerated the demise of our very own Salton Sea, which was created in 1905 by a blowout in an irrigation canal and fed only by continued leaks.

Here’s the problem: If the sea is allowed to dry without treatment, it will generate 17 tons of unhealthy dust a day, according to the Pacific Institute. Winds pebbled with stinking salty sand will sicken asthmatics, children and the elderly, especially in the eastern Coachella Valley. Crops in the nation’s winter salad bowl—the Imperial Valley—will be harmed. In short, if nothing is done to restore the Salton Sea by 2018, we’ll all feel the fallout. (One minor bit of fallout: a series of valley-wide foul smells from the decaying lake, most recently on July 2.)

So the Imperial County Board of Supervisors and other plaintiffs sued, arguing the Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA, violated state environmental rules. In 2009, a judge agreed with the plaintiffs, but that decision was later overturned on appeal. The case finally made it to the Sacramento County Superior Court, where in June, Judge Lloyd Connelly upheld the 2003 agreement.

San Diego’s water authority was thrilled; General Manager Maureen Stapleton told the Los Angeles Times that the decision is “landmark victory in San Diego’s historic quest for a more reliable water supply.”

Up in the Imperial Valley, the mood was more somber. “Regardless of how the judge ruled, all parties to the agreement need to acknowledge that the Salton Sea is suffering, and its continued deterioration poses great risks in the future to the environment and public health,” Kevin Kelley, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, wrote in a statement.

As uncertain as the future of the sea is, Colorado River users may have a bigger problem on their hands: over-allocation. Last December, the Bureau of Reclamation released a report predicting water demand will soon outstrip supply, due to drought, climate change and increased growth in the Southwest. In May, water districts, environmental groups, farmers and tribal members met in San Diego to discuss a way forward. The Imperial Irrigation District participated in the meeting, but made one thing very clear: no more rural to urban water transfers.

“We like to farm,” Tina Shields, Colorado River resources manager for the irrigation district, told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t think anybody down here is going to volunteer for more transfers.”

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor of High Country News (the site from which this was cross-posted). The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment

On April 14, a Sunday, the Colorado ski resort Vail Mountain celebrated closing day in the invariable way: Skiers and boarders sported neon onesies and mullet wigs. The less modest squeezed into denim short shorts to flaunt calves and quads sculpted over a winter on the slopes. Alcohol was over-consumed and confiscated in lift lines. But even without it, the mood was buoyant: It was, unusually, a 13-inch powder day. By Wednesday, 24 more inches had fallen.

Skier spirits were still soaring the following Sunday, when Vail hosted Closing Day: The Sequel. Pleading for a third closing day via Facebook, one powder hound goaded: “I dare you to close more times than Brett Favre has retired.”

Colorado snowpacks—which supply the Colorado River, a crucial water source for millions of Westerners, including those of us here in the Coachella Valley—began April at 72 percent of their average heft. Thanks to storms and frigid temperatures, instead of starting to melt as they typically do, north and central Colorado snowpacks ballooned last month. In late April, Old Man Winter was forcing Major League Baseball cancellations in relatively temperate Denver. Boulder set a record with more than 4 feet of snow that month. By May 1, the statewide snowpack weighed in at 83 percent of average.

In the end, though, the spring storms were momentary distractions from the Southwest’s real weather story: The region’s major river basins, the Colorado and the Rio Grande, are still mired in a decade-plus-long drought. It’s often said that persistent drought is the “new normal” here thanks to global warming, but that’s something of a misnomer. Using tree rings, scientists have found that the region has experienced droughts lasting decades, and even centuries, long before humans began meddling with the climate. The aridity we’ve experienced of late isn’t any more extreme than it was then. But the heat is—and it bears a human fingerprint. The combination leads scientists to call it a “global-change-type drought,” meaning more of the same can be expected in the Southwest as extreme heat exacerbates the region’s characteristic dry spells.

Precipitation in the Rio Grande Basin is expected to decline by more than 2 percent at midcentury. It’s highly uncertain how climate change will impact the moisture that falls on the upper Colorado, if much at all. But dust-on-snow events have already caused snowmelt to happen earlier in the year, a trend that reduces overall runoff by about 5 percent, as more water is evaporated into the atmosphere from plants and soils. That’s a significant amount for overstretched water supplies, and warmer temperatures are likely to intensify the effect.

Troublingly, at the same time, water demand is on an upward trajectory.

This spring, the effects of hot, dry year upon hot, dry year are already beginning to make themselves painfully plain. That’s especially true in New Mexico. Seventy-seven percent of the state is suffering “extreme” drought, which is only a little better than “exceptional” drought—as bad as it gets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A year ago, most of the state was in drought of the “moderate” variety. Even so, more than 30 miles of the Pecos River, in southeastern New Mexico, went dry last summer. This year, Carlsbad farmers are pressing the state to shut off Roswell farmers’ groundwater wells, which they say are illegally draining the Pecos of water that belongs to them.

Drought has a way of bringing simmering conflict to full boil, and it did so concurrently on the lower Rio Grande. “The river here looks a lot like the Sahara Desert,” says Phil King, water engineer for south-central New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Irrigation District, which wets the chile and onion fields and pecan orchards around Las Cruces. Though Rio Grande Basin snowpacks were 67 percent of average in early April, runoff into Elephant Butte Reservoir through July was conservatively forecast at a pitiful 5 percent of normal, and after a decade of drought, the reservoir sits 90 percent empty. The “river” below it is a sand channel and will remain that way until June 1, when releases begin, and will dry up again in early July when they end. Farmers are surviving on groundwater, but it’s a safety net of diminishing returns. Wells are beginning to go dry or produce brackish water, and irrigators downstream in Texas have asked the Supreme Court to shut them off for the same reason Carlsbad wants Roswell’s pumps idled. The system is dangerously near a breaking point.

“It’s the most critically short year we’ve ever had in the history of the Rio Grande Project,” a series of dams and reservoirs in New Mexico and Texas, King laments. “Each successive year of short water gets worse and worse.”

That principle holds true on the Colorado River, though things aren’t nearly so dire. Since 2000, demand for water has outpaced supply. Reservoir storage has made up the difference, ensuring the states below Lake Mead—Arizona, Nevada and here in California—get their full annual supplies. (Ironically, upstream of Lake Mead and Lake Powell—where most of the water supply originates, but storage is less formidable—water-users have experienced shortages.) But the cushion the wet ’80s and ’90s provided is thinning. Lake Powell, the basin’s second largest reservoir, was 85 percent full in 2000. Today, it’s about 45 percent full. And this year, runoff in most of the Upper Basin is forecast lower than you might expect given the late boost to snowpacks, because after a dry year—in 2012, Upper Colorado snowpacks topped out below 70 percent of normal—the landscape has cottonmouth: Parched soils take a cut of the snowmelt that would otherwise fill rivers. After snowmelt, the water line of Lake Powell will likely sit below even last year’s modest peak.

“The more severe the drying with climate change, the more likely we will see shortages and perhaps empty reservoirs despite our best efforts,” said Ken Nowak in 2009, upon the release of a study he co-authored on whether smart management could mitigate the risk of water shortages on the Colorado River. It found that the risk of the Colorado’s big reservoirs emptying in the next 15 years or so was slight. Still, Nowak’s cautionary note remains as true today as it was then: “The important thing is not to get lulled into a sense of security with the near-term resiliency of the Colorado River Basin water supply. If we do, we’re in for a rude awakening.”

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment