It seemed inevitable that the shrinking Colorado River would be divided by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. On June 14, BuRec gave the seven Colorado River states 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 confirming cuts imposed under the 2007 and 2019 agreements. Nevada and Mexico suffered small losses, and Arizona was the first big loser.
BuRec said Arizona had to cut 592,000 acre-feet “because of the concession it made in 1968 to California to bring the Central Arizona Project online,” says University of Wyoming law professor Jason Robison.
That concession meant the Central Arizona Project’s 1.4 million acre-feet capacity had junior water rights. In a shortfall — as it is now — the Central Arizona Project, excluding tribal water rights, could be reduced to zero, a blow to cities and agriculture.
Here’s a question the Upper Basin states seem inclined to ask: If the Colorado River Agreement of 1922, allocating the river’s water, is law, shouldn’t California face major cuts? After all, California’s whopping allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet recently equaled the entire consumption of the four upper basin states, and its allocation is also less than nearly 1 million acre-feet of tribal water.
Thanks to a seven-party agreement in 1931, California established a priority order for each of its water users. Massive districts like the Palo Verde and Imperial Valley Irrigation Districts take priority over the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies drinking water to 19 million people in Los Angeles and Southern California. The state has a structure, but no plan for serious savings.
University of Wyoming law professor Jason Robison says of the Upper Basin states, “It’s more nuanced. But there is significant federal authority to manage these (BuRec) reservoirs in the upper basin, although none are very large. Where can other water supplies be found? Colorado’s 1876 constitution prioritized municipal water over 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 incentives to rip up lawns, along with water reuse programs and much higher water rates.
In rural Colorado, there isn’t much water available to conserve. The largest irrigation district in the Upper Basin, the 500,000 acre-feet Uncompahgre Valley Users Association, has already cut 150,000 acre-feet this year due to poor 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 false promises of reliable water — as an existential threat to farming communities.
“Are we going to water a field that produces some kind of crop, or are we going to water a golf course or a median?” asks the Pope. “What’s the use of a lawn?”
What the federal government can’t touch for now is any upper basin irrigation project created before the Colorado River Treaty was signed in 1922. In Colorado, a spreadsheet compiled by the state’s Department of Water Resources shows which projects by date are at risk of losing water. Some western slope irrigators are vulnerable because the water rights they use were only recently purchased by municipalities, earmarking them for future growth.
Many Colorado irrigators on private ditches are fortunate enough to have so-called “improved” rights of way dating back to the late 1800s. To get water from these irrigators will likely be a carrot and stick. But rather than accepting payments for non-irrigation, Pope says, “we’re going to be more concerned with 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 leave their land fallow or cut irrigation in half. But stopping irrigation on farms involves risks.
After a few dry years, hay fields can recover, landowners report, but anything more than that leaves bare dirt and dust in the air.
For now, BuRec appears to be sticking with its plans and hoping for the best, which means the emergency cuts could be drastic. As John Wyshate of Utah-based Living Rivers sees it, BuRec made a mistake when it told the seven states of the Colorado River basin to find 2 to 4 million acre feet to do without.
“The cuts,” he says, “have to go even deeper, to 6 million acre feet. The need is there.”
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.organ independent, non-profit organization dedicated to fostering a vibrant conversation about the West.