The Desert Dawg Blawg

All things California desert: Travel, politics, environment, adventure, offbeat experiences, local hotspots, insider's tips, people and commentary about life in Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley and the California desert region.

Click on the Article Header to read the whole story!

California Water Crisis Ratchets Up

Posted by Morgan Miles Craft On 8:29 AM
The Colorado River Water Dance: Too Many Straws in a Dwindling Glass
By Morgan Craft

The Colorado River provides water to millions of users in seven western states, and Mexico. With millions of people relying on the river for drinking water in the United States, and over 3.5 million acres of farmland in production in its drainage basin, the Colorado River is the single most important natural resource in the Southwest.

The Colorado Basin (click on image to view larger)
In 1922, the seven western states that represent the Colorado River Compact (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California) signed an agreement to divide water from the river. At that time, Las Vegas was a whistle stop, and Phoenix had a population of 50,000. Today, greater Phoenix is home to over 4 million people, with Las Vegas nearing 2 million, and the large sucking sound heard from the river before it trickles into Mexico is the thirsty 24 million souls that live in Southern California today. (click to read on...)
The formula for dividing the river’s water was based on an expected flow of 16.8 million acre-feet (MAF) per year. 15 million was divided equally between the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico), and Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada and California), with 1.5 MAF left over for Mexico by treaty. Of the 7.5 MAF available to the Lower Basin, California, which wielded significantly more power than its two Lower Basin neighbors at the time it was divvied up, was allotted 4.4 MAF of the precious resource. The Colorado River, which had regularly flowed all the way to the Gulf of Mexico up until 1956, ceased to do so. It had all been spoken for.

Of California’s 4.4 MAF allotment, Imperial County farmers, already well-established by that time, succeeded in claiming 3.1 MAF via the All-American Canal, making the farmers there California's largest consumer of Colorado River water. Of the water the Imperial Irrigation District transports over its 3000 miles of canals, approximately 97 percent is used for agricultural purposes. The roughly 400 farmers use almost 70 percent of the state's entire share. The Metropolitan Water District, with its 26 Southern California member agencies, and which serves over 18 million people, fell last in line after Imperial County and the Coachella Valley. Arid San Diego, with its 3.2 million residents, was at the far end of MWD’s system. Neighboring states regularly have proven that California overuses its entitlement, prompting multiple legal challenges.

(click on image to view larger)
These allotments were calculated as a result of an extremely wet decade preceding the agreement, when average river flows were measured at 16.8 MAF, yet further studies revealed a historical long-term flow of only 13.5 MAF. There is not enough water in the river, on average, to fulfill all of the legal entitlements. Eleven years of drought haven’t helped, with the 2000-2004 drought being the most severe multi-year drought on record, with an average annual flow of 9.6 MAF.

Lake Powell, on the Utah-Arizona border, essentially the reservoir for the Upper Basin, is currently at 60% of normal level – down nearly 72 feet. The Compact mandates that the Upper Basin states, via Lake Powell, provide a minimum annual flow of 8.23 MAF to the Lower basin, causing a multi-year overdraft of the lake. Lake Mead, the Lower Basin’s main reservoir, held back by Hoover Dam, is at 46% capacity, down 188 feet.

Lake Mead, just above Hoover Dam, is at 46% of capacity
Faced by an ongoing drought, increased demand due to ballooning development and multiple challenges to its prolonged overuse of Colorado River water by neighboring states, the long term outlook for water in California has undeniably become a huge concern.

In 2003, the main water service agencies in California, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA), and Metropolitan Water District (MWD), along with California and the federal government, signed the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), meant to clearly define the state’s use of Colorado River water for the next 35-75 years, and to keep it within its 4.4 MAF limit. Also contained in the agreement were measures to rehabilitate the Salton Sea.

The complicated 13-part, multi-agency agreement essentially creates a series of valuable water transfers from Imperial Irrigation District, the state’s senior water rights holder, to MWD, CVWD, and SDCWA, totaling billions of dollars. Most of this water is to be made available to the thirsty coastal cities as a result of water efficiency projects, canal modernization, conservation, and “water marketing”, or transfers of agricultural water, the largest in US history. The $321 million concrete lining of the All-American and Coachella canals, funded by the state, SDCWA and MWD, which saves an estimated 132,700 acre feet of water each year (that’s over 31 billion gallons), and IID’s plan to pay Imperial Valley famers to let their fertile fields go fallow (called conservation), are just some of the measures.

Of the billions in “water marketing” revenue to be recouped by the Imperial Irrigation District, $133 million was earmarked for Salton Sea restoration. Because water conservation and decreasing the amount of irrigated farmland would reduce the typical agricultural runoff that historically flows into the sea, the federal government demanded a plan to keep the water flowing. IID, whose water to its farms was the main source of the sea’s replenishment, demanded that it not be solely responsible for the solution and its costs. As its part of the agreement, the state agreed to pick up the rest of the tab, whatever that would become. The costs for restoration of the sea have been estimated at up to $2 billion.

Back in 2003, then Interior Secretary Gale Norton proudly stated that “With this agreement, conflict on the river is stilled.” Recent developments prove this to be an overly optimistic assessment.

On December 13th, Sacramento Superior Judge Roland Candee ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state to agree to what was deemed an open-ended contract to cover environmental mitigation costs for the Salton Sea, “an unconditional contractual obligation,” which could plunge California further into debt. To the degree that all aspects of the QSA are intertwined, the ruling, although tentative, would nullify the entire agreement. The California State constitution prohibits such large expenditures without a defined appropriation, meaning, no one had given any thought to how the state would come up with its share, particularly given the budget woes it currently is facing.

The QSA is part of a larger federal agreement that affects all the other states in the region. If California’s only plan to deal with the Colorado River water issue unravels, it could have a ripple effect across the entire West. Judge Candee began hearing arguments challenging his ruling on December 17th, and has given no clue as to when he might make his ruling final, though the inevitable quagmire of countless appeals could keep it in limbo for years.

For the moment, at least, you can keep your lawn green, and that Olympic-sized pool full right to the top.

Sources: US Geological Survey, Western Water Assessment, Bureau of Reclamation, Department of the Interior, Metropolitan Water District, Imperial Irrigation District, State of California Resources Agency

0 Response to "California Water Crisis Ratchets Up"