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Will the Bureau's Colorado River study live up to the hype?

One measure of the high anxiety around water in the West is the hyper-interest in the Nov. 30 release of the final phase of Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River study. This phase promises to be the most interesting, approachable part of the study, focusing on a long list of proposals submitted by the public to restore the Colorado River to a healthy balance, where supply can meet growing demand.

But those looking for a silver bullet from the Bureau’s research might be disappointed. It’s a good possibility this final report won’t live up to the hype. For one, researchers have warned that policy recommendations will be avoided. The study won’t propose a plan to fix the imbalance in the river. We’re instead promised more information that will facilitate good policy-making. The question is whether the report will lead to answers to the big, intractable challenges that Western water planners face.

That said, the Bureau study has already broken new ground. It has quantified use throughout the seven-state Colorado River Basin and forecast it decades into the future, a first. Modeled against the study’s supply data, it’s how we know with certainty there’s an imbalance – that the demand for Colorado River water exceeds supply. 

I’m told the final report will analyze the dozens of proposals to fix the imbalance against the study data. It’s a fascinating list of proposals ranging from suggestions to increase supply, reduce demand, modify operations and conceive of ways to govern or regulate water differently. At minimum, if the report provides meaningful feedback on the feasibility of the more promising suggestions, planners will have the makings of a new and helpful tool kit of options to consider when dealing with river issues.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the final report will help resolve huge policy issues that loom.Two issues top my list:

1. Will the Upper Basin be ‘made whole’?

In the 90-plus years the Colorado River Compact and related agreements (the ‘law of the river’) have managed its allocation, the river has tilted downstream, decidedly in favor of the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. For decades, the Lower Basin has used its share plus the unused portion earmarked for the Upper Basin by the Compact. But now, the Upper Basin needs the water and likely will pursue its entitlement, as every gallon of ‘surplus’ water that flows downstream equates to economic loss.

Colorado is required to protect its allocation by statute, and the study has already determined it uses less than the Compact entitles by a wide margin, as much as a million-acre feet. Will the study contemplate a future where the Upper Basin uses more water, not less? It's a near certainty Colorado will develop its remaining allocation, much as New Mexico and Utah are. What impact will this have Basin-wide?

2. Can Basin-wide planning co-exist with prior appropriation?

Of the suggestions relating to ‘governance and implementation’ received by the Bureau, none dealt with the long-term efficacy of ‘prior appropriation’ (first in time, first in right). Western water law has developed with prior appropriation at its core, but as a 19th-century concept, some view it as barrier to effective planning.

Natural resources law specialist Michael Blumm, writing in the informative book The Public’s Water Resource by Colorado Justice Greg Hobbs, sums up a growing opinion in water circles: “The current system of water allocation (prior appropriation)suffers from poor enforcement, little citizen involvement, and virtually eschews comprehensive planning entirely.”

But a higher level of Basin-wide planning seems inevitable. If Blumm is right, prior appropriation may have to modified. That’s a tall order. Will the study offer a way forward?  

Other questions may elude the study. Drought and climate change can be measured fairly easily. Can inaction by policy-makers be “modeled?" It’s difficult to see how. I’m guessing the study will take a close look at the viability of widespread desalination - an expensive and resource intensive process. Again, is their political will to follow-through, today, before a crisis unfolds?

But if the study doesn’t offer a management “silver-bullet” that some hope for, the Bureau will still have done a service. It’s already added much to the discussion. Possible short term disappointment aside.

I’ll review the results next time.

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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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