29 August 2008

Politics and the River

Primary Sources:
August 2005: U.S. Department of the Interior
Water 2025 August 2005 Report
9 December 2005: North County (California) Times
Water officials: Las Vegas could outgrow Colorado River by 2007
22 January 2007: Ely (Nevada) Times
New Colorado River accord makes rural groundwater more valuable to SNWA
February 2007: National Academies Press
Colorado River Basin Water Management: Evaluating and Adjusting to Hydroclimatic Variability (pdf)
30 April 2007: State of Colorado, Office of the Governor
Gov. Ritter Announces Signing of Historic Colorado River Pact
12 May 2007: Gallup Independent
Navajo Nation discusses water issues in Las Vegas
November 2007: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation
Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lakes Powell and Mead, Final Environmental Impact Statement
13 November 2007: CBS News
Water Politics Looms Large For Candidates
December 2007: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation
Record of Decision, Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead (pdf)
14 December 2007: CBS News
7 States Sign Colorado River Pact
14 December 2007: Los Angeles (California) Times
Colorado River water deal is reached
14 December 2007: National Public Radio
Western States to Share Colorado River Water (audio)
14 March 2008: U.S. Department of the Interior
Secretary Kempthorne Issues the 2008 Annual Operating Plan for the Colorado River
April 2008: Journal of the American Water Resources Association (subscription required)
Garrick et al., 2008: "Models, Assumptions, and Stakeholders: Planning for water supply variability in the Colorado River Basin." J. Amer. Wat. Resour. Assoc., v. 44, pp. 381-398.
8 April 2008: Reuters
Metropolitan Partners with Arizona, Nevada to Fund Construction of New Reservoir...
15 August 2008: Pueblo (Colorado) Chieftain
McCain: Renegotiate 1922 Western water compact
15 August 2008: Grand Junction (Colorado) Sentinel
State officials assail McCain's remarks on Colorado River Compact
15 August 2008: Denver (Colorado) Post
McCain suggests raiding Colorado's water (Op-Ed)
18 August 2008: Phoenix (Arizona) Examiner
Democrats map out Obama's plan for the West
18 August 2008: Denver (Colorado) Post
A maverick on the Colo. River (Op-Ed)
18 August 2008: Grand Junction (Colorado) Sentinel
McCain roils the water (Op-Ed)
19 August 2008: PolitickerCO.com
Top state Dems say Colorado will decide presidential election
19 August 2008: 9News.com (NBC affiliate, Denver, Colorado)
Romney clarifies McCain's comments on Colo. River
20 August 2008: Grand Junction (Colorado) Sentinel
McCain to Allard: Don’t believe the hype about my water remarks
23 August 2008: YubaNet.com
Kempthorne Announces $98.3 Million Contract by Bureau of Reclamation for Drop 2 Reservoir/Water Delivery Project
25 August 2008: Las Vegas (Nevada) Review-Journal
Water accord fine with Mulroy
You may need Acrobat Reader for some of the links above. Additional sources include Wikipedia and specific links provided below.

In a CBS News story in late 2007 on Great Lakes water-sharing agreements, the role of water in regional and national politics was aptly stated: "When it comes to water, the 2008 presidential candidates are remarkably parched for words. They are well aware that there are few faster ways for a candidate to get into political trouble than to wade into the sensitive subject of the water shortages afflicting large areas of the nation. That's especially true when it comes to proposals for regional water sharing."

It's certainly interesting to see, finally, that domestic water issues have come to the forefront of political debate and may play a role in voter support during an election year, maybe even at the level of the presidential election. Earlier this month, Senator and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain (R-Arizona) gaffed with what may have been an offhand comment to the Pueblo Chieftain suggesting that the complex collection of agreements that cover the allocation of the water in the Colorado River, on which his own state often get the short straw (get it? Water, straw...drinking water? Oh, never mind...) ought to be renegotiated, presumably in order to improve Arizona's position in the Basin. Following widespread coverage of Senator McCain's comment, including a blistering (though self-serving) editorial comment in the Denver Post, only limited backpedaling has become evident, and primarily on the part of McCain's supporters. In effect, McCain realized only too late that such a comment scratched the thin skin from a centuries-old festering conflict over a scarce resource among a largely libertarian population. It's a hornets' nest that McCain has slapped around and that, along with this week's Democratic National Convention being held in Denver, could very well lose him the West in the upcoming election.

Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that "the West is a red-state region" just because President Bush appealed better to the population in the last election--the one political defining characteristic of the western U.S. that I have observed in about eight years of residence (primarily in Colorado, now in Arizona) is that the people this side of the 100th meridian think for themselves, make choices that are best for their wallets and their land, and don't want the Federal government to interfere in the loose "controls" that the states have established for regulatory and administrative authority. The West is neither red nor blue, and almost certainly not green (though there are LEED-approved pockets here and there). The color of western libertarianism is brown, the color of the parched landscape on which they make their living. And libertarianism is not a political party out here, it's a lifestyle.

In response to Senator McCain's comments in the press, Senator and now Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama (D-Illinois) initially claimed to support the status quo in the Colorado River Basin. The DNC is in Denver, Colorado has been declared a swing state in the November election, and Senator Obama doesn't want to rock the boat. Good strategy: if you don't have something intelligent to say, keep your mouth shut and do some research. In the meantime, on 20 August, Senator McCain wrote directly to fellow Senator Wayne Allard (R-Colorado) a letter that was intended to soften his original comments to the Pueblo Chieftain and assuage the concerns of Upper Colorado River Basin legislators, residents, and media. Portions of the letter have been excerpted by the Grand Junction Sentinel and a link is provided there to the entire text of the letter. I think Senator McCain, though seemingly a politician who could and should have learned much regarding one of the most prominent tensions of his home constituency, still has a lot of work to do to restore his visibility and explain better his thoughts on this issue, or he risks the irrelevance that decades in DC can breed.

The Colorado River Basin covers parts of seven states in the western U.S. and provides water resources for municipal supply, irrigation, industrial uses, and power generation to more than 30 million people, some one-tenth of the national population. Much of the Colorado River drainage area can be classified by precipitation climatology as semi-arid, occurring as it does in the southern Basin and Range province of the West between the Sierra Nevada (to the west), the Sierra Madre (to the south), and the southern Rocky Mountains (to the northeast and east). The Colorado River itself originates on the western side of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, in one of the lesser-seen areas of the Park saturated with alpine beauty, few people, and the ingenuity of an innumerable and protected beaver population.

Four states constitute the Upper Colorado River Basin: Colorado, Wyoming (from which the Green River emerges as tributary to the Colorado), Utah, and New Mexico. Numerous inter-basin transfers occur in the upper storage system for river operations in Colorado, literally siphoning "western-slope" water to the sprawling Colorado Front Range cities of Loveland, Boulder, and points downstream in the South Platte rivershed. Three states constitute the Lower Colorado River Basin: Nevada, Arizona, and California.

At approximately the location where the River crosses from Utah into Arizona, at the outflow from Lake Powell and upstream of the Grand Canyon, is Lee's Ferry, where River flows have been measured for more than a century and at which point the allocations of River water among the Basin states are determined. Allocations and appropriate uses are authorized by the Law of the River, a collection of numerous interstate and tribal compacts and agreements, federal legislation, one international treaty (with Mexico), and one U.S. Supreme Court decision (California v. Arizona, 1964, supplemented 1979). In essence, the original agreement dictated that the annual average flow volume at Lee's Ferry of 16.5 million ac-ft (MAF) measured in the several years prior to the agreement would be split such that 7.5 MAF were allocated to the Upper Basin states, 7.5 MAF to the Lower Basin states, and the remaining 1.5 MAF allowed to cross the border into Mexico for agricultural and municipal uses in the Colorado River delta region.

An essential problem with the original Compact allocations is that they specified absolute volumes of water for apportionment, instead of percentages of the annual flow volume. The implications of this are immediately apparent when looking at the long-term mean annual flow at Lee's Ferry, as shown by Garrick et al. 2008 (figure 2):
Of primary importance here is that the original allocations were based upon a very short flow record, and one which was not representative of the long-term trends in Colorado River flow volumes at that. The several years of flow records prior to 1922 produced a mean annual flow volume of about 18 MAF, which was then apportioned among the Basin states by the Compact, allowing even for a surplus of 1.5 MAF. After 1922, however, the mean annual flow volume promptly diminished and its long-term value has remained somewhere in the range of 14.4 MAF annually. So, 16.5 MAF must be squeezed each year from a mean annual flow volume of about 14 MAF, and this deficit operation is supported by the system itself: massive reservoirs such as Lakes Powell, Mead, and Havasu (as well as many more within the Upper and Lower Basins) constitute more than 60 MAF of storage within the Colorado River System, enough to support flow deficits for years to come. However, because of design and other considerations, not all of that storage is accessible throughout the Basin (releases from Lake Havasu don't help River users in Colorado and Utah), and the overall storage volume diminishes with time due to sediment collection upstream of each major dam.

One other essential problem with fixed allocations of the Colorado River flow volume is the natural interannual variability. In the figure from Garrick et al. (2008) reproduced above, it is obvious that the Basin goes through wet and dry periods that have been attributed with high correlation to El Nino cycles and climatological pressure patterns over the North Pacific Ocean. Abnormally high flow volumes in the time around 1987 have been attributed to an El Nino pattern around that time that resulted in deeper-than-normal snowpack and rapid runoff generation on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Abnormally low annual flows since about 2000 have water managers throughout the Colorado River Basin worried for the future of the system and the population that depends so much upon it.

New Interim Guidelines for Basin system operation were adopted by the collection of Colorado River Basin states early in 2007 and were signed into effect by the Secretary of the Interior in December 2007. Basically, the New Interim Guidelines reinforced the Law of the River, which had suffered from conspicuous overdrafts by the various states (most notably California) and legislative amendments over time. At the same time, however, the Interim agreement changed the operating mode of the Basin from that of surplus operational rules, resulting from the wet climate in the Upper Basin in the late 1990's, to a tentative shortage condition following on several years of drought in the southwestern U.S. California's Governor Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought emergency earlier this year, Arizona is home to three of North America's deserts and a burgeoning population, and Nevada was found to have the fastest-growing state population in the 2000 Census, almost all of that growth occurring in the area of Las Vegas where resources are drawn primarily from the Colorado River. The New Interim Guidelines adopted by the seven Basin states represent, however, an affirmation of the original interstate compact and agreements, and Senator McCain would have done better to have learned more about this long-term effort before re-opening the discussion.

Nevada, Arizona, and California cooperated to fund the new Drop 2 Reservoir in Imperial County, California, adjacent to the All-American Canal that provides Colorado River water to widespread agricultural development in the Imperial Valley. The new reservoir is planned be designed and built by the Bureau of Reclamation by 2010 at a cost of $100M, providing 8,000 ac-ft of storage for flows that are often considered "lost" as the River crosses the U.S.-Mexico border. As often cited in the media, one acre-foot (ac-ft) of water is enough to support two average American families for a year. Nevada will receive two-thirds of the reservoir yield of approximately 600,000 ac-ft between the start of operations and 2036 in exchange for its majority contribution to the funding of construction and operations. California and Arizona will each receive one-sixth of the new reservoir's yield. At a time when the Lower Basin states could be fighting to secure their own existing allocations, it is certainly encouraging to see such a cooperative interstate undertaking in the works.

Meanwhile, there remains a lot of pessimism on the future of climate change and its impacts on the water resources of the semi-arid Southwest...

1 comment:

Concerned Taxpayer said...

Very interesting...got the link from google alerts...will read and absorb in KY