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Search for consensus elusive in Colorado River Basin

The tale of the Colorado River has become tangled in part because of its evolution into two distinct water realities, that of the Upper and Lower River Basins. One operates in a deficit relative to its annual water allocation, the other a surplus. Arizona, Nevada and California are managing the river in reverse, backtracking to limits long since exceeded. Some of the water belongs to the Upper Basin, its origin. Indifferent before, these headwater states now cast a wary eye not only toward the Lower Basin but to each other’s plans to develop more from the river. Self-interest is replacing the collegial attitudes of the past.

To further complicate matters, water interests within the Upper Basin states have yet to fully reconcile their differences. This is certainly the case here, in Colorado, but it is played out similarly in states like California.

I described the rising tensions in the headwater states to Rita Sudman, Executive Director of the California Water Education Foundation, who calmly replied via email, “I think most people involved in the Western water debate will agree that flexibility is the key, that the ability to trade, transfer and make new types of arrangements including different types of storage, more conservation and deals, is all part of the mix to get more water to certain users.”

In other words, welcome to the party. 

California is steeled not only to rough and tumble inter-basin river tussles with states like Arizona but to the type of in-state competition simmering in Colorado. Sudman's most recent Colorado River Project River Report outlines the embattled state of the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), written to “settle California's chronic overuse of the Colorado River” as it winds its way through a predictable litany of court challenges.

A divisive component of the QSA, one that may ring familiar to Colorado planners, involves a “water conservation/transfer agreement between Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and the San Diego County Water Authority.” IID manages water for California’s verdant Imperial Valley, which comes entirely from the Colorado River. It’s a California ag gem that shines to the tune of more than $1 billion a year in crop production.

But as with Western Slope interests here who chafe at water transfers east, there’s push-back. QSA “is not popular in the Imperial Valley, where proprietary feelings about water have always run strong and there is a belief that the QSA was foisted upon the Valley with less than favorable results.”

Michael Cohen, senior research associate with the Pacific Institute, adds, “Some people don’t want to see any water leave the valley.”

Familiar indeed. Move the conversation a thousand or so miles east, into the Rocky Mountains along the same river, change the valley reference from Imperial to Grand, and the sentiment is nearly identical.

Colorado is also hard at work to establish more modern water-sharing mechanisms. Denver Water and 40 Western Slope water suppliers recently hammered out the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, signed in May. Among the provisions of the so-called “global” agreement is a commitment that “any new water project by Denver Water in the Colorado River Basin will be developed only in cooperation with those entities impacted by the development.”  In others words, we’ll stop taking Western Slope water without asking.

What’s changed is that for the first time, Colorado faces a water supply gap: There won’t be enough to meet the needs of users, at current levels, in the near future. Collaboration is in everyone’s best interest.

But the agreement may quickly be tested.  

As mentioned, Colorado and the other headwater states are entitled to more water. Colorado’s share may be as much as a million acre-feet, almost a third as much as it is using now – lots or water by any estimate.

Yet there’s a lack of consensus among officials here whether the state should aggressively pursue this water. There’s fear of a Compact “call," where future data indicates we miscalculated, are using water earmarked for the Lower Basin and are asked to curtail use. There’s deeply rooted opposition to the prospect of more growth along the Front Range. Certainly any new supply will find its way to urban users and developers.

And there’s a fear that further west-to-east diversions of any kind will diminish business and lifestyle prospects in Colorado’s Western Slope communities. Without certainty as to how the state would move to develop more water out of the river, and despite the “global” agreement,  opposition to developing the state’s remaining Compact allocation may well materialize – from within Colorado.

In California or Colorado, in the tale of the Upper and Lower Basins, the search for common ground – among basins, states, friends and neighbors – continues to be elusive.


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Bart Taylor

Bart Taylor is the publisher of ColoradoBiz magazine. E-mail him at btaylor@cobizmag.com.

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