It seemed inevitable that the shrinking Colorado River would be separated from the Federal Bureau of Reclamation. On June 14, BuRec gave the seven states in the Colorado River compact just 60 days to find a way to reduce their total water use by up to 4 million acre-feet. No plans appeared.
But surprisingly, BuRec’s Aug. 16 press release did not impose new cuts on states, instead affirming mandated cuts under the 2007 and 2019 agreements. Nevada and Mexico took small losses, and Arizona emerged as the first big loser. .
BuRec said Arizona must cut 592,000 acre-feet “because of the concession it made in 1968 to California to get the Central Arizona Project online,” says University of Wyoming law professor Jason Robison.
This concession meant that the 1.4 million acre capacity of the Central Arizona Project has small water rights. In the absence – as now – the Central Arizona Project, in addition to tribal water rights, could be reduced to zero, a blow to cities and agriculture.
Here’s a question the Upper Basin states seem keen to ask: If the 1922 Colorado River Compact that parcels out the river’s water is law, shouldn’t California face big cuts? After all, California’s large allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet recently equaled the entire consumption of four Upper Basin states, and its allocation is also less than almost 1 million acre-feet of tribal water.
Thanks to a 1931 seven-party agreement, California established a priority order for each of its water users. Massive districts like Palo Verde and the Imperial Valley Irrigation District take precedence over the Metropolitan Water District, which brings drinking water to 19 million people in Los Angeles and Southern California. The state has a structure, but no plan for serious savings.
Of the Upper Basin states, says University of Wyoming law professor Jason Robison, “It’s more nuanced. But there is significant federal authority to run those Upper Basin reservoirs (BuRec), though none are very large. Where can other water breaks be found? Colorado’s 1876 constitution ranked municipal water above agriculture, making it difficult for cities like Colorado Springs or Aurora to run dry, even though their water rights are smaller. But residents may see lawn mowing incentives, along with water reuse programs and much higher water rates.
In rural Colorado, there is not much water available to store. The largest irrigation district in the Upper Basin, the 500,000-acre Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, already received a 150,000-acre cut this year due to light snowpack.
“The runoff just isn’t there,” says general manager Steve Pope.
Pope, like many others in agriculture, sees a desert city like Phoenix — which grew on the false promise of reliable water — as an existential threat to farming communities.
“Are we going to irrigate a field that produces some kind of crop, or are we going to irrigate a golf course or a median?” asks the Pope. “What is the benefit of a lawn?”
What the federal government can’t touch right now is any Upper Basin irrigation projects created before the signing of the Colorado River Compact in 1922. In Colorado, a chart compiled by the state’s Division of Water Resources shows which projects , by date, risk losing water. Some West Slope irrigators are vulnerable because the water rights they use were purchased by municipalities only recently, targeting them for future growth.
Many Colorado irrigators on private canals are fortunate to have so-called “perfect” rights that date back to the late 1800s. To wrest water from these irrigators is likely to be all carrot and no stick. But instead of getting paid not to water, Pope says, “we’d be more concerned about efficiency and system improvements.”
The Inflation Reduction Act provides $4 billion to Colorado River water users for this type of conservation alone. Meanwhile, Colorado is the only Upper Basin state to seriously test paying irrigators to occupy their land or cut irrigation in half. But cutting off farm irrigation involves risks.
After a few dry years, fields of grass can come back, landowners say, but anything more than that leaves bare dirt and dust in the air.
For now, BuRec appears to be following its plans and hoping for the best, which means the emergency cuts could be drastic. As John Weisheit of Utah-based Living Rivers sees it, BuRec made a mistake when it told the seven Colorado River basin states to find 2 to 4 million acre-feet to do without.
“The cuts,” he says, “should go even deeper, up to 6 million acre feet. The need is up to that point.”
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.organ independent non-profit organization dedicated to fostering a lively conversation about the West.