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The Risky Business of Slicing the Pie

• March 22, 2010 • 9:00 AM

Conservationists find themselves at the back of line in divvying up water from one of the world’s most litigated rivers.

In this, the final installment, of the Miller-McCune.com series on the Colorado River, Ben Preston examines the cooperation between American and Mexican entities. The Colorado River conservation community is tight-knit, but there are transnational political considerations to be made when working with a natural resource that isn’t confined by political boundaries.

Part I: SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
Part II: JUST ADD WATER: COLORADO DELTA RESURRECTS

Part III: THE RISKY BUSINESS OF SLICING THE PIE

After 10 years of drought in the Colorado River watershed, this year’s extremely wet winter season has been a boon to every living thing that depends upon the river’s water, from the Yuma clapper rail to the San Diego apartment dweller.

In theory, anyway.

As of March 17, the National Water and Climate Center reported on its Web site that the Upper Colorado River snowpack — where 85 percent of the river system’s water originates — is at only 83 percent of its average. While the levels of lakes Powell and Mead — the river’s two largest reservoirs — have risen in recent months, officials speculate the reason for the rise to be more closely linked to rain in agricultural areas. Rain there lessens demand for releases from the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams.

El Golfo de Santa Clara, Mexico. The Colorado River is one of the most litigated rivers in the country, and conservationists find themselves dead last on the list when it comes to divvying it up. (John Goodman / ZUMA Press)

Despite concern that the river’s resources are stretched thin, Herculean efforts are being made by environmental groups and government agencies to navigate the perilous labyrinth of Colorado River water rights to secure a sustainable future for wildlife habitat that either has been restored or is slated for restoration. None of the 29 dams along the river’s 1,450-mile course were designed with environmental impacts in mind. Times have changed, and so have priorities, and the importance now given to the riparian ecosystem — both the river and the land extending from its banks — has greatly aided conservationists in reclaiming some of what was lost.

Nicknamed the American Nile, the Colorado River is one of the most regulated, litigated and depended-upon rivers in the world, and one of the most politically complex. With tens of millions of city dwellers using the river for drinking water and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland relying upon it for irrigation, dividing water rights among the various parties has always been complicated.

In the 1920s, as seven U.S. states jockeyed for assigned water allotments, the river was simply sliced into two basins — Upper and Lower. The Upper Basin contains Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, and the Lower California, Arizona and Southern Nevada. Based upon the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s average annual flow estimate of 17.5 million acre-feet, the Upper Basin received an annual allotment of 7.5 million acre-feet, the more developed Lower Basin got 8.5 million acre-feet. And 1.5 million acre-feet were set aside for Mexico.

States largely were left to their own devices to figure out a further breakdown amongst themselves based upon irrigable acreage and urban populations. Negotiations took decades, resulting in one of the longest and most costly Supreme Court cases in American history — Arizona v. California.

Unfortunately, the 17.5 million acre-foot annual flow estimate presented at the Colorado River Compact meeting in 1922 was not a realistic number. In the arid American West, rainfall varies greatly, and the river’s annual flow can be as low as 4 million acre-feet one year to as high as 22 million only a few years later.

Furthermore, river-flow-gauge data from the past hundred years shows a slight downward trend in average annual flow. According to Joe Gelt, a researcher at the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center, data spread over three centuries indicates that the river’s average annual flow is closer to 13 million acre-feet.

Regardless of flow numbers, the river was dammed to store its capacity for human consumption, all but drying up downstream ecosystems over the years. The passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 tipped the scale slightly, in theory, back toward Mother Nature, but it has taken years for state and federal government agencies and nongovernmental organizations to get restoration programs off the ground. Although plants and animals endemic to the Lower Colorado River corridor aren’t necessarily political or nationalistic, the international border has been a major stumbling block in coming up with a comprehensive, transnational plan covering the entire ecosystem.

Even today, most riparian habitat areas are fed by agricultural runoff.

The largest, the Cienega de Santa Clara — a 12,000-acre wetland near the Gulf of California is all that remains of a once vast Delta ecosystem — is fed by runoff from Arizona’s Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District. Since the drained water is too salty to return to the main stem of the Colorado River, for the last 45 years it has been released through a channel called the Main Outlet Drain Extension into the Cienega.

“If we continue to rely on this gap in the system, we’re not going to have much of an environment left,” said Jennifer Pitt, a resource analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund specializing in Colorado River Delta issues.

As water and irrigation districts find solutions to inefficiencies in the system, unintended impacts are often felt as well. Recently, Mexican authorities complained bitterly when California’s Imperial Irrigation District opted to line the All American Canal — an 82-mile water conduit feeding Imperial and Coachella valleys’ agriculture with Colorado River water — with concrete to prevent water loss. Seepage through the unlined canal had provided millions of gallons of water to a nearby aquifer across the border, which in turn fed agricultural operations in the populous Mexicali Valley.

A pilot plan to fire up the long-dormant Yuma desalination plant in May 2010 to de-salt agricultural return flows from Wellton-Mowhawk had caused concern that the Cienega would again dry up, destroying one of the most important migratory waterfowl flyway stopovers in North America.

Pitt said that coming up with solutions for cross-border disputes can be even more tricky than interstate squabbles, drawing in numerous treaties, jurisdictional overlaps and even attention from the State Department, but multiagency cooperation has led to hope that salty effluent from the desalinization plant will feed the Cienega. The pilot plan calls for the plant to run for 365 days over 18 months at one-third of its capacity.

On the international front, progress began to be made toward a binational ecological plan near the end of the Clinton Administration. As George W. Bush took over as president, an international conservation conference, with 350 attendees, was planned to see what could be hammered out. “Vicente Fox and George W. Bush looked like they’d be down to cooperate, but [the conference] was held on Sept. 11-12, 2001. Let me tell you, the wind was taken out of our sails. We were headed in the right direction, but events much bigger on the geopolitical scale broke down the U.S.-Mexico relationship,” said Pitt. The Sept. 11 terror attacks virtually closed U.S. borders, and the ensuing invasion of Afghanistan diverted the administration’s focus from water negotiations with Mexico.

Then, Mexico’s decision as a United Nations Security Council member to vote against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq soured U.S.-Mexico relations, and that damage is only beginning to be overcome today. “The U.S. and Mexico are at the table talking,” said Pitt. Currently, aside from the treaties in place, the language of U.S. laws isn’t generally sympathetic to the water issues, driven by the environment or thirst, of the poorer neighbor to the south.

Away from Washington, there is some progress among federal agencies, NGOs and researchers. Restoration projects like the Bureau of reclamation’s Multi Species Conservation Program and projects led by the Sonoran Institute, Pro Natura, EDF and a number of academic research teams are loosely coordinated, but there is an effort afoot to set up a formal structure for obtaining water rights — meaning dedicated flows rather than just inadvertent ones — for conservation and restoration areas.

(It helps collegiality that the Lower Colorado River conservation community is a small one. Pitt, who is based in Colorado, has worked with the Sonoran Institute’s Francisco Zamora Arroyo, whose office is in Tucson. Both of them have spoken and toured project sites with the Bureau’s Terrence Murphy and members of his MSCP team, who are all headquartered in Boulder City, Nev.)

“We’re not talking about restoration of the pre-development Delta. Mexico has developed agriculture and communities there that aren’t interested in moving,” said Pitt. Solutions currently on the table include a multi-organization water trust aimed at purchasing permanent water rights, possible expansion of desalination, and, because Mexico doesn’t have any storage reservoirs of its own, banking conservation water for Mexico further upstream in Lake Mead.

Pitt maintained that for the Colorado River Delta Water Trust, as it would be called, to work, an annual base flow of 50,000 acre-feet per year is needed, with occasional “pulse flows” — to simulate the river’s natural cycle of flooding — of up to 260,000 acre-feet per year.

There are still a number of issues to work through. For years, Southern California took more than its annual 4.4 million acre-foot allotment; currently, the take is about 5.2 million. But Arizona is developing, and wants its water back from California.

A vast and complicated legal arrangement, the Quantification Settlement Agreement, has been the subject of hot debate as the various entities involved attempt to figure out the best agricultural and urban uses of the Southern California’s smaller, but legally mandated, allotment while also trying to save the Salton Sea from disappearing.

The possibility of building more desalination plants is on the table, but Mexico waits anxiously to see what happens north of the border. Last in line to have their fate decided are the conservationists.

“I don’t know that we’ll get a deal at the end of the day,” said Pitt, “but I’m optimistic.”

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Ben Preston
Ben Preston is a 2011 graduate of the masters in journalism program at Columbia University. Before that, he was a staff reporter for the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based news website, Noozhawk.com, and has covered Western water and forest issues as well as local and state politics. In 2009, he traveled to Iraq to cover the U.S. Army 425th Civil Affairs Battalion, which was running reconstruction programs in Baghdad.

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