Thoughts on the Lower Colorado River Basin Water Deal

A short post, to catch up on Colorado River current events. As you probably know, if you haven’t been living in a media-free cave, the three Colorado River states below the canyon region have proposed another alternative plan for saving the River’s reservoir system.

Their proposal, for answering the Interior Department’s call for cuts of at least two million acre-feet (maf) of water annually, is to cut three maf total over the next three years – and they want 1.2 billion dollars from the federal government to execute their plan.

Their plan is basically to pay farmers to voluntarily fallow some of their land. They say they will do half of the cuts – 1.5 maf – in 2024, the remainder over the following two years. Beyond that, there are no firm details at this writing as to how much of the cuts will come from each state, how much they will be paying farmers, et cetera.

Basically, what it looks like on the surface of it, is that the Lower Basin states have countered the Bureau’s four existing scenarios – two from the Bureau of Reclamation, one from California, and one from the other six River states – with an offer to do half of the minimum cuts the Bureau said we need, and they want a billion dollars to do it. What a deal.

If their plan to pay farmers to leave the water in the system sounds familiar, that may be because the four Upper Basin States tried a similar plan this year, the System Conservation Pilot Program, with a fund of $125 million from the ill-named Inflation Reduction Act. Upper Basin farmers did not rush to take up the offer. Only 88 submitted applications to participate, of which around 20 percent were rejected; the remainder will, if things work out as projected, save 39,000 acre-feet at a cost of $16 million. That is a very small piece of two million acre-feet.

It has been said that farming – especially irrigated farming – is a calling, not an occupation. I have heard farmers and ranchers talk about ‘a working contract with the land,’ and in the Upper Basin at least there seems to be something almost offensive to many farmers about the idea of being paid to not farm some of their land. Ranchers in the Upper Gunnison say it takes up to five years to bring a hayfield back to full productivity after a year of no water (or very little). We’ll see, I guess, if Lower River farmers have the same basic feelings….

A further reason for the low turnout for the Upper Basin’s System Conservation Program might be that Upper Basin farmers believe – correctly enough – that the two million acre-foot ‘structural deficit’ is not their problem and they should not be expected to exercise themselves to help deal with it. A logical enough response when working with a Compact that, as one of the Compact commissioners said, is ‘almost making two rivers out of one in the Colorado River.’ The ‘Glen Canyon Wall’ near Lee Ferry eliminated that ‘almost.’ There has been no indication from the Lower River states that they would be merciful to the Upper River states, should the drought (not ‘caused’ by the Upper States) drive the available flow past Lee Ferry below the Compact allotment; so why should the Upper River states feel empathy for the Lower Basin states?

It was reported in the national media, by the way, that the Upper Basin states have ‘accepted’ the Lower Basin’s proposal. They have not, yet. The four Upper states merely said it was okay for the plan to be evaluated along with the other four proposals in the Bureau’s ‘Supplemental Environmental Impact Study.’

All that noted – the Lower Basin proposal will probably be accepted for a variety of reasons. One reason is that the runoff from a good snowpack is probably going to give temporary relief on the reservoir levels; we should end the water year with both Powell and Mead Reservoirs higher than they were at the beginning of the year (water year is October to October), and that provides a little breathing room. (Keep in mind, though, that the Bureau first issued its major warning and challenge in 2022, saying that big reductions had to happen beginning in 2023. Now, nothing big will happen until 2024. Pray for snow next winter too.)

Another reason the proposal will probably be accepted is because if any of the other four proposals were to be chosen by the Bureau, one or more of the Lower Basin states would sue the government. There might be an element of desperation to both the gambit of promising to try to deliver only half of the requested cuts, and to the threat to sue if asked to deliver the whole 2 maf/year. The Bureau wants the Lower River region that serves a tenth of the national population and produces most of our winter fresh green stuff to cut their water use by almost one third – and do it next year. That’s a big request, maybe an unreasonable request.

Never mind that, had the Bureau and the seven Basin states been living in the real world, they would have taken care of the ‘structural deficit’ decades ago, with a gradual drop in Lower River use, reflecting the growth of use in the Upper River states that was eating into the so-called ‘surplus’ that the Lower Basin had grown to depend on take care of its system losses, and also its half of the allotment to Mexico.

And a final reason why their proposal will probably be accepted? 2024 is a presidential election year, with the current administration on the line, and both Arizona and Nevada are important swing states. ‘Nuff said.

It will come down to whether, next year, the three Lower River states can find enough farmers and cities willing to voluntarily give up a million and a half acre-feet of water next year. Tucson and the Gila River Indians have already made commitments. Meanwhile – pray for snow next winter.

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  1. We can always count on George to cut through the foam & fantasy and get down to the actual flow. Half what needs to get done and for over a billion dollars to farmers for not planting their crops. What a deal! And probably — thanks to a wet year — just barely enough.

  2. Most of the farmers using nearly free water for years are not known for their concern about others. IID is the most pampered and worst offender. No one should be holding their breath if the past is prologue.

  3. The first thing to catch my eye: “. . . and they want 1.2 billion dollars from the federal government to execute their plan.” Would that be the same federal government that I’m betting they want “off our backs and out of our pockets”? And a big “Amen” to Loretta: I join her in not holding my breath.

    1. Prayer might also be a better answer than depending on seven states with a century of dwelling in an eighth state – the state of denial.

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