Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

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

Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's newest novel, Durango, is timely, as many Westerners agonize over drought and the energy industry's use and abuse of water.

Hart's novel, however, takes us to another front in the water wars, the decades-long dispute over damming southern Colorado's Animas and La Plata rivers to provide more water for the growing town of Durango.

Hart's historically accurate story begins in the pioneer era, as he explains Native-white relations and the role of water in their interactions. For the Utes, the major tribe in the region, "Water and existence could not be separated. Water itself had a spirit." But for the whites, comparatively recent immigrants, "They fought over it and more than a few times killed each other over it. This behavior gave rise to the saying known to all ranchers in the West: 'Whiskey is for drinkin'; water is for fightin'."

More recently, the Utes—who have first rights to the river's water but have largely been denied the use of it—find themselves pitted against pro-development financiers, anti-growth newcomers and locals trying to do what they think is best for the region. Hart's fictional protagonist, Daniel Sheridan, does his best to bridge these different worlds.

A descendant of early settlers, Daniel is haunted by the knowledge that his real-life ancestor, Union Gen. Philip Sheridan, "treated the Western Indians brutally following the (Civil) war." Now the Sheridans ally with the Utes, seeking to redress past wrongs—hoping that a plan for the dam can be negotiated in a way that aids the Indians while easing tensions with local whites. However, Daniel's honor is besmirched by a scandal created by unscrupulous moneymen, who want to silence his pro-Indian views.

Sheridan is an idealized Western type, a venerable old rancher who drinks whiskey and loves his woman. While Hart makes the story of the conflict over the dam tense and exciting, his characters lack depth.

Durango, the novel, idealizes Durango the town. "Over the years a frontier mystique grew up around Durango as embodying an ideal Western small-town-America style of living that was human scale. It was an honest place. It was solid and trustworthy. It was about as close to perfect as a place could get."

This book review originally appeared in High Country News (


By Gary Hart


256 pages, $15.95

Published in Literature

To snatch a moment from the wild and capture it in words that pulse with life is quite a feat. Stephen Grace, author of the 2004 novel Under Cottonwoods, makes it seem effortless. When he describes sandhill cranes rising from the wetlands of Montana’s Blackfoot Valley, the reader can almost hear the thunderous applause of their wings.

It takes an entirely different kind of gift to comprehend and then explain the tortured sophistry of the policies that are destroying those cranes for the sake of alfalfa farms, feedlots, casinos, suburban lawns and swimming pools. But Grace can do that, too. In his most recent book, Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future, Grace acts as both poet of Western wilderness and a knowledgeable translator of water policy.

It should be acknowledged that he does not accomplish this alone. Dam Nation's debt to Marc Reisner's 1986 classic Cadillac Desert is so heavy that Grace's passages on explorer John Wesley Powell, L.A. Aqueduct builder William Mulholland and Bureau of Reclamation dam-champion Floyd Dominy, among others, could be mistaken for Cadillac Desert's CliffsNotes. Yet, 12 years after Reisner's death, at a time when drought has cracked fundamental assumptions about the Colorado River's ability to keep the West in water, Grace's use of his predecessor's work seems less a case of larceny than of public service.

Grace sugars few pills as he describes how 19th-century mining law governs 21st-century water-sharing, illustrates how pork-barrel politics corrupt decision-making, provides a primer in groundwater-mining and takes short but appalling looks at the challenges posed by pollution and climate change.

But, unlike Reisner, Grace is not jaded. Twenty-six years ago, as then-President Ronald Reagan joked about taunting Mikhail Gorbachev with an aerial view of L.A.'s suburban spangle of private pools, Reisner's morbid wit seemed justified. Now that helicopters survey Southern California pools not to impress Soviet leaders, but to police breeding grounds for mosquitoes stagnating behind repossessed homes, nihilism is out. The times demand solutions rather than sarcasm.

Grace believes that drought and climate change won't necessarily condemn the West, offering as evidence gray-water and sewage-reclamation pilot programs, conservation easements, turf buy-back efforts, ag-to-city water markets and a handful of dam demolitions. Recent reports about temporary conservation easements designed to return small flows to the long-parched Colorado River Delta reinforce Grace's case for optimism.

But Grace sounds unconvinced—and is unconvincing—when he writes about the plunder of our aquifers: "Developing a system that manages groundwater in the West in a sustainable manner is as easy as standing blindfolded on a greased bowling ball while removing a straitjacket and solving differential equations. But it is something we must summon the will to do."

Grace is not a pundit; he is a poet. He introduces Dam Nation with this plaintive passage about a tributary of the South Platte River near his home in Denver:

"Between boulders big as houses and through slopes of scrambled talus, the little stream meanders down the mountains. It glides over beds of polished rocks and slips past pads of moss. In huddles of wind-twisted trees, it floods the gaps between roots. From other streams, it gathers volume until it is too wide for a person to leap across. Each riffle creates a small violence of water, and in curved and hollow places, the stilled flow deepens. Mayflies ride across its rippled skin. Among the forests that crowd its shores, owls open the soft fans of their wings and dippers dive from the trees. Ponderosa pines armored in bark that smells like vanilla reach their stiff limbs across the water. Children gather to swing from ropes above pools that darken to jade. Anglers cast flies into eddies, droplets of water flinging from the arcs of their lines in a bright scatter. Retirees with binoculars in hand scan the banks for birds. Adventurers craving jolts of adrenaline pilot tipsy boats through whitewater that lifts in leaping peaks and gnashes in scissoring waves. Denverites on the plains below drink from it and grow their grass with it and flush their toilets with it, and they head to the mountains seeking solace and adventure in its flow. This stream is in their bodies and homes and souls. It is everything, it is life itself. And it is not enough."

Twelve chapters later, the pressure on the West's limited water remains intolerable. But by intertwining poetry and policy, Grace redraws the line between engineered and wild places in a way that demands a clear respect for both.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine its Future

By Stephen Grace

Globe Pequot

360 pages, 24.95

Published in Literature

Across maps of the arid West, expensive water pipelines are being plotted to meet the region's profound need for water. Among those under serious consideration are a 263-mile pipeline to bring water from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas; southwestern Utah's 139-mile Lake Powell pipeline; and the 500-mile Flaming Gorge pipeline from Wyoming to Colorado. Each would cost billions of dollars.

But what if there’s not enough demand for water to pay for these projects?

This might seem like an implausible question in a region defined by growth and expansion for over a century. But in fact, demand for water is falling in many parts of the country. Between the 1970s and the late 2000s, the amount of water used by American households fell everywhere—by tens of thousands of gallons per household each year in Phoenix and Seattle, to nearly 100,000 gallons a year in Las Vegas.

The trend is due to a slew of reasons, including smaller households, water-efficient indoor fixtures, conservation programs and the protracted economic slowdown that devastated housing markets, especially in the West. But even with the economic recovery and projected population growth in many Western cities, the tendency to assume that household use will stay steady is demonstrably out of line with reality.

Declining demand has surprised many water-system managers and created complex financial challenges for ensuring future water supplies. For those systems planning to finance multi-billion-dollar projects, the challenges are especially daunting.

Like those in the rest of the country, Western water projects are typically financed by issuing bonds to cover a project's upfront costs. The subsequent debt and interest costs are then repaid to bondholding investors using revenues the water utilities generate by selling water. The arrangement worked well when the federal government bankrolled most projects. But those days are over: Federal funds have largely dried up.

That means water utilities must assume far-larger debt obligations to finance big-ticket projects. It also means they need to sell more and more water, and at higher rates, to repay those debts.

For water-challenged cities like Las Vegas and San Antonio, which have seen the benefits of strong water-conservation programs, this creates a financial catch-22. Las Vegas was an early pioneer in demand management, when, in the 1990s, it began rewarding homeowners for tearing up their lawns and replacing the grass with desert vegetation. The program was a big success, reducing water demand by 18 percent.

To help offset this evaporating demand, Las Vegas turned to connection fees paid for by new households that were added to the system. But when the housing market stalled and then collapsed, that lucrative revenue source plummeted. Las Vegas saw its water-connection fees from new housing starts fall to $3 million in 2010, from a peak of $188 million during the housing boom.

As a result, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has recently begun allowing customers to replant the lawns they were once paid to tear up. It’s a short-term revenue fix that only contributes to the region's dire water-supply shortage.

So how necessary are some of these hugely expensive proposals, especially when demand management has proven effective in reducing water-supply pressures? Moreover, if water managers push ahead in building these expensive projects, what financial risks will ratepayers and investors have to take on?

For those thinking the risk scenarios are implausible, take a look at the Las Vegas Valley Water District. Nearly $2 billion of its bond debt was downgraded in 2011, due to the double-whammy of declining water sales and emergency capital expenses to finance a massive new intake pipe from water-deprived Lake Mead. Consider as well Colorado Springs, whose water system was placed on a credit watch last March in light of the slow economic recovery, rising water rates and a nearly $1.5 billion capital program to build a new pipeline, which will pump water from a tributary of the Mississippi River.

Lessons can also be learned from Australia, which responded to severe water shortages by financing a bevy of expensive new water-desalination plants. Today, four of the six plants have been placed on standby due to declining water demand, triggered in large part by higher water rates necessitated by the projects’ costs. The nation's first large-scale desalinization plant in Florida faces a similar problem.

Here’s the bottom line: Price-sensitive demand, growing populations and climate change trends are creating unprecedented challenges to our Western water resources. How water managers solve these challenges—and pay for them—should be less about pie-in-the-sky solutions and more about old-fashioned thrift.

Sharlene Leurig is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She is a water-financing expert at Ceres, a national nonprofit group based in Boston that advocates for business leadership on climate change.

Published in Community Voices

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