November 28, 2008

Drought deepens strain on a dwindling Colorado

Flows falling: California first in line as Utah, other states fight for water.

By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune

The Colorado Basin states have been anxious about their shares of the Colorado River as early as the 1900s. The signing of the Colorado River Compact in 1922 was an important milestone in the management of the Colorado River and became the foundation for the law of the river. This compact included the seven Colorado River Basin states, and apportioned water from the Colorado River between the Upper and Lower Basin states.

The drought gripping Utah, Southern California and the rest of the Southwest this century shows no sign of ending. Scientists see it as a permanent condition that, despite year-to-year weather variations, will deepen as temperatures rise, snows dwindle, soils bake and fires burn.

That's grim news for all of us in the West, perhaps most especially for the 10 million residents along the northern stretch of the Colorado River -- Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado -- whose water rights are newer, and therefore junior, to those in Southern California, Nevada and Arizona.

Making matters worse, the Colorado -- the 1,450-mile-long lifeline that sustains more than 30 million souls and 3.5 million acres of farmland in seven states, 34 tribal nations and Mexico -- is in decline, scientists warn.

Even so, demand for the Colorado's water echoes from city leaders, industry giants, oil drillers, farmers, fishers, ranchers, boaters, bikers and hikers -- along with silent pleas from wildlife and the ecosystem. Trend analyses by federal scientists, probably conservative, predict the population dependent on the river will reach at least 38 million during the coming decade.

Right now, California, with the most senior rights and the largest share of the Colorado under a 1922 law, is struggling with a statewide water shortage. Not enough rain has fallen in the southland, as weathercasters like to call it, home to 18 million people, roughly half the state's population.

California already uses all of its Colorado River allocation. As the drought has worsened, Southern California water bosses have labored to keep the taps running through a host of conservation schemes. Meanwhile, water managers in Utah and the Upper Basin are working to get all of their water rights in use, even as their cities and counties register some of the highest per-capita consumption in the nation.

Demand is up. Flows are down. Something has to give. And when it does, Utah could be in trouble if it doesn't change its wasteful ways -- just as 19th-century explorer Maj. John Wesley Powell predicted.

The West lacks water, he wrote in his 1879 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, With a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah. "Disastrous droughts will be frequent."

Law of the River

The 1922 Colorado River Compact may have given California water rights senior to the other six states, but the Metropolitan Water District (Met), which supplies up to 60 percent of the water for 19 million people spread across six Los Angeles-area counties, made its claims after the state's allocation already had been divvied up. That means the most populous part of California is last in line among its peers when water runs low.

"If California ever did take a shortage," said Assistant General Manager Roger Patterson, "Met would take the hit."

That's already happened.

In 2003, California had to curtail its Colorado River use to its 1922 allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet per year, enough water for about 8 million households. Previously, under water-sharing deals with Arizona, the Golden State had been funneling about 5.2 million acre-feet.

Because of its junior standing, Met had to eat about half the total shortage. No one else in the state had to cut supplies, Patterson said.

In February, Met agreed to a rationing plan for most of Southern California, including Los Angeles and San Diego. It expects to add 5 million residents during the next five years. Since the Pacific Ocean blocks growth to the west, the district is pushing eastward, where it's hotter.

A federal judge has ordered California water managers to leave 30 percent more water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Northern California to stave off fish kills and keep the massive estuary healthy. More for the environment means less for Los Angeles.

Other populous regions of California also have taken steps to ensure a good water supply.

  • Developers in Riverside, Kern, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties must guarantee a 20-year water supply before they build.

  • The state has brought back a water bank, last used 17 years ago, in which Southern California cities can buy water from willing Sacramento Valley farmers. However, given the high prices farmers can get for their crops, especially rice, willing sellers might be hard to find.

  • Orange County residents are drinking recycled sewer water.

  • In San Diego County, the Coastal Commission greenlighted a $300 million desalination plant adjacent to a state beach. The operation still has to meet lots of conditions -- which probably will make the plant more costly to build and run -- but even if completed would supply no more than 9 percent of San Diego's current needs.
Met residents have cut back to about 185 gallons of water per person per day. Residents of Long Beach are down to 115 gallons.

"If Long Beach can do this," said Kevin Wattier, the city water department's general manager, "so can every other city in Southern California."

Splish, splash

Upstream, Utahns on average use 291 gallons of water per person per day, a rate second only to Nevada. In Salt Lake County, it's 255 gallons; Washington County, 350 gallons; Kane County, a bloated 430 gallons.

Sixty percent of Utah's water goes for outdoor use, including landscaping and agriculture. In California, agriculture consumers about 85 percent. California, however, is the fifth-largest farm economy in the world. By comparison, Utah's agriculture profile is nearly nonexistent, contributing less than 1 percent to the state's economy.

The system might seem out of balance. Yet no state, not even Nevada, which has the measliest Colorado allocation, wants to reopen the 1922 Colorado River Compact that divided the water. Each fears getting an even worse deal. Nor does anyone know what soon-to-be-settled Navajo claims on the river will mean to both basins.

There is, however, a growing sense that the Colorado Basin states are all in this together.

"Everybody ought to share in the reality of the river," said former Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam, now director of Washington County-based Citizens for Dixie's Future. "And there ought to be great flexibility in how we use it without losing it."

Dozens of scientific studies issued since 2004 have documented the Colorado's decline.

The river's annual flow has averaged 11.7 million acre-feet this decade, according to federal records. In 2002, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation measured only 6.2 million acre-feet passing Lee's Ferry below Glen Canyon Dam, the lowest flow of the decade. Even after this year's above-average precipitation, Lake Powell and Lake Mead combined are at 57 percent capacity.

A 2007 U.S. Geological Survey report found that, by 2050, rising temperatures in the Southwest could rival those of the nation's fabled droughts, including the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Hotter weather is expected to reduce Colorado River runoff by at least 30 percent during the 21st century.

If the USGS is correct, and if this century's trend persists, average annual flow in the Colorado could fall to 8.2 million acre-feet per year.

Imagine that. The Law of the River requires 9 million acre-feet to pass Lee's Ferry on the way to the Lower Basin and Mexico. Under a strict interpretation of the law, the Upper Basin could be left with nothing.

A far more likely scenario would have the states banding together to rework the river allocations. But when Arizona Sen. John McCain suggested just that during his failed presidential campaign, the shrieks emanating from Colorado's halls of power were enough to prompt the Republican nominee to back down.

Pipeline dream

Dennis Strong, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, in October told the state Water Development Commission that the state is using about 1 million acre-feet of its yearly 1.4 million acre-foot allotment from the Colorado.

Tribal water settlements yet to be signed would take up about 186,000 acre-feet, he said. New agricultural uses, mostly dedicated to controlling the salinity of the water that flows back to the Colorado, would take 35,000 acre-feet. Municipal and industrial uses along the river corridor would account for 5,000 acre-feet, and the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline would need 100,000 acre-feet, leaving about 74,000 acre-feet unused, theoretically.

Utah water managers are pushing the $1 billion-plus pipeline, which would lavish more water on a Dixie desert region likely to feel the full brunt of global climate disruption and permanent drought within the next 40 years.

The state hasn't actually secured rights to the 100,000 acre-feet for the pipeline. Strong said that would have to be nailed down by 2010, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to issue the license necessary to start building it. He's confident the water will come.

By 2040, the pipeline's water would be entirely committed to a regional population of about 400,000, Strong said.

Given current scientific warnings about the shrinking Colorado, that prospect looks shaky.

But Strong isn't worried. He's skeptical about global warming, though he "sees evidence" of it.

"Water managers," he said, "have been dealing with drought forever."

Sharing -- by the numbers

The 1922 Colorado River Compact divided the river during a wet cycle that assumed an average annual flow of 16.5 million acre-feet.

The law requires that 9 million acre-feet per year pass Lee's Ferry below Glen Canyon Dam every year to serve the Lower Basin states and Mexico. That leaves 7.5 million acre-feet for the Upper Basin.

An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to supply one or two Western households a year.

Sixty years ago, recognizing the danger of promising too much, the states amended Upper Basin allocations: Colorado would get 51.75 percent; Utah, 23 percent; Wyoming, 14 percent; and New Mexico, 11.25 percent.

More recently, the Upper Basin states acknowledged the drought and agreed that they will base their percentage allotments on 6 million acre-feet per year rather than the 7.5 million acre-feet assumed in the Colorado Compact.

"Nature acts, people argue." -- Voltaire

Based on analysis of many recent climate-model simulations, the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that warmer future temperatures will reduce future Colorado River flows and water supplies. Reduced flow also would contribute to increasing severity, frequency and duration of future droughts.

Steadily rising population and urban water demands in the Colorado River region will inevitably result in increasingly costly, controversial and unavoidable trade-offs to be made by water managers, politicians and their constituents. These increasing demands also are impeding the region's ability to cope with droughts and water shortages. --National Academy of Sciences

"I wish to make it clear to you, there is not sufficient water to irrigate all the lands which could be irrigated, and only a small portion can be irrigated. I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict." -- Maj. John Wesley Powell, 1893