It seemed inevitable that the receding Colorado River would be divided by the Federal Bureau of Reclamation. On June 14, BuRec gave the seven states in the Colorado River Compact just 60 days to find ways to cut total water use by up to 4 million acre-feet. No plan has come.
But surprisingly, BuRec’s August 16 press release did not impose any new cuts on states, instead confirming mandatory cuts under the 2007 and 2019 agreements. Nevada and Mexico suffered minor losses and Arizona emerged as the first major loss.
BuRec said Arizona must cut 592,000 acre-feet “because California was granted a waiver in 1968 to get the Central Arizona Project online,” says University of Wyoming law professor Jason Robison.
That concession means the Central Arizona project has junior water rights to 1.4 million acre-feet of capacity. In the absence — as it is now — the Central Arizona Project could be cut to nothing except for tribal water rights, hitting cities and agriculture.
Here’s a question the Upper Basin states seem willing to ask: If the 1922 Colorado River Compact is the river water parceling law, wouldn’t California face massive cuts? After all, California’s massive allotment of 4.4 million acre-feet is currently equal to the entire consumption of the four upper basin states, and its allotment is also about 1 million acre-feet inferior to tribal water.
Thanks to the Seven-Party Agreement of 1931, California established a pecking order of priority for each of its water users. Giant districts like the Palo Verde and Imperial Valley Irrigation Districts have priority over the Metropolitan Water District, which brings drinking water to 19 million people in Los Angeles and Southern California. The state has structures, but no plans for serious savings.
As for the upper basin states, University of Wyoming law professor Jason Robison says, “It’s more nuanced. But there is significant federal authority to operate those (BuRec) upper basin reservoirs,” though none too large. Where can other water cuts be found? Colorado’s 1876 constitution reserved municipal water for agriculture, making it difficult for cities like Colorado Springs or Aurora to run dry, even though their water rights are junior. But residents may see incentives to tear up lawns with water recycling programs and very high water rates.
In rural Colorado, there isn’t much water available to conserve. The largest irrigation district in the Upper Basin, the 500,000 acre-feet Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association has already cut back by 150,000 acre-feet this year due to light snowpack.
“The runoff just isn’t there,” says general manager Steve Pope.
Pope, as well as many others in agriculture, see a desert city like Phoenix — which grew on the false promise of reliable water — as an existential threat to farming communities.
“Are we going to water a field that produces some kind of crop, or water a golf course or a median?” asks the Pope. “What’s the point of the lawn?”
Any upper basin irrigation project built before the signing of the Colorado River Compact in 1922 is the federal government’s for now. In Colorado, a spreadsheet compiled by the state Department of Water Resources shows which projects, by date, are at risk of loss. the water Some Western Slope irrigators are vulnerable because the water rights they are using were recently purchased by municipalities, with the intent of future growth.
Many Colorado irrigators on private ditches have been fortunate to have so-called “absolute” rights since the late 1800s. To draw water from these irrigators, it can be all carrot and no stick. But instead of getting paid for not irrigating, Pope says, “we’ll be more concerned with the efficiency and improvement of the system.”
The Inflation Reduction Act provides $4 billion for this type of conservation to Colorado River water users. Meanwhile, Colorado is the only Upper Basin state that has seriously tested paying irrigators to let their land fall or cut irrigation in half. But stopping irrigation in fields involves risk.
Hay fields may return after a few dry years, landowners report, but that leaves more soil and dust in the air.
For now, BuRec appears to be sticking to its plans and hoping for the best, which means emergency cuts could be drastic. As John Weisheit of Utah-based Living Rivers observes, BuRec made a mistake when it asked the seven Colorado River basin states to seek to do without 2 to 4 million acre-feet.
“Cuts,” he says, “should go deeper, up to six million acre-feet. At that point there is a need.”
Dave Marston is a publisher of authors in the range, writersontherange.orgis an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging a vibrant conversation about the West.