24th Annual American Bar Association Environmental, Energy, and Natural Resources Law Fall Conference

Denver, Colorado                                October 5-8, 2016

A Glass Half Empty – Flint, Environmental Justice, and America’s Drinking Water Infrastructure Problem

At the 24th Annual American Bar Association Environmental, Energy, and Natural Resources Law Fall Conference in Denver, a panel of three professionals in the field of environmental justice tied themes of environmental justice to the history, issues, and lessons learned from the recent drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Randy Hayman, from Beveridge & Diamond in Washington, D.C., opened by stating that the Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”) is the most important piece of legislation the United States Congress has ever passed, because “water is life.” The SDWA gave U.S. citizens assurance that their water would not be contaminated by anything that could cause serious health problems. Considering the necessity of water to human survival, Hayman said the SDWA is inherent to environmental justice.

The majority of Hayman’s statements were about the history and execution of the SDWA. Many regulatory checks were put in place by Congress to ensure that everyone is confident their water is safe to drink and use for everyday needs. Other than wells serving fewer than twenty-five people, every public water system is subject to the rules of the SDWA, and failure to meet the standards set forth by the law can result in fines of $25,000 per day. The damage does not just end at the fine, however. Public confidence in officials erodes when a community violates SDWA rules. Therefore, public officials face the dilemma of whether to publicize the existence of a water crisis, because failure to solve the problem swiftly result in the public’s trust quickly diminishing.

The moderator asked Hayman to elaborate on the Lead and Copper Rule, a health standard that minimizes the amount of those contaminants in public pipelines. Lead and copper particles enter the water stream from pipes, pollution, and natural processes. As long as the amount of either remains below a specified “action level,” the water is still considered safe for human consumption. An action level is an amount of contamination that will require additional action from water system administrators, including treatment, public notification, or exposure minimization. Exceeding an action level is not a violation itself—nor is it necessarily a health and safety hazard—but it could indicate the existence of a water-pollution problem. According to Hayman, because education about safe contaminant levels is insufficient, news of a community’s water getting contaminated at all sometimes causes panic. Hayman suggested officials should take greater steps to inform the public about lead and copper, since it is only when those measurements rise to very high levels that they become a potential threat to health.

The second speaker was Quentin Pair, a professor of environmental justice at Howard University School of Law who also works in the environmental justice division at the Department of Justice. According to Pair, environmental justice is the civil rights of the Twenty-First Century. In his discussion, Pair said the themes of the civil rights movement are tied directly to modern environmental justice because the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of environmental has very similar language to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act – equal treatment is emphasized in both. He mentioned how critical it is to consult the general public first about environmental issues, rather than waiting for elected officials to take notice. He believes grassroots organizing can begin to solve environmental problems much more efficiently and effectively than any other public resource because local community members know which issues are most important to their neighbors than elected officials.

As part of his discussion, Pair shared the story of the beginning of modern environmental justice in Warren County, North Carolina. Beginning in 1973 a large landfill was used to dispose of contaminants without the knowledge or consent of one of the poorest counties in the state, the populations of which were more than seventy percent black at the time. This controversy was addressed in several lawsuits, including United States v. Ward in 1982. This trend has since continued, and three out of every four disposal facilities in the country are located in minority and low-income communities. According to Pair, race is the most significant determinant of the location of these disposal facilities across the country. He said that in order to talk about environmental justice, it is impossible not to consider how much damage environmental racism has caused.

Michelle Wilde Anderson, a law professor at Stanford who focuses on state and local government, was the final speaker on this panel. She brought the discussion full-circle by connecting what the other speakers discussed to the Flint crisis. She described the professionals who initiated the documentation of the contaminated drinking water in Flint, including a pediatrician who investigated the doubling and tripling of lead levels in her patients’ blood. Those professionals did what Pair criticized public officials for not doing: they listened to the community and learned what was wrong.

Wilde Anderson also described how the cause of the crisis was a revenue problem rather than a spending problem. Because of an abundance of deferred spending and loans in the 1970s, Flint did not have the resources to meet local needs. Public infrastructure suffered as a result of the lack of resources, and old systems that were not properly maintained grew more vulnerable to leaking contaminants over time. Ultimately, she said, the decision to rebuild these outdated infrastructure systems is left to the taxpayers, and the longer those systems go without repair the more likely health hazards are to occur in the near future. Wilde Anderson views Flint as a warning or a wake-up call to the nation because old pipeline systems will fail without better and more regular maintenance.

The panel then accepted questions from the audience. One audience member asked how federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), could do a better job dealing with environmental injustice. Pair suggested those problems could not be solved without providing more funding for environmental justice, which Congress has denied. He further noted that many communities do not trust the federal government to solve all of their problems, so the EPA currently has neither the political nor the financial support needed to tackle those issues. Another audience member asked how local communities can recognize access to safe drinking water as a basic human right. Wilde Anderson answered by saying that leaders do not try hard enough to make water available to communities that cannot afford it, so communities fall short of recognizing access to safe drinking water as an essential human right. The costs associated with delivering water to these communities are high, and not many cities have completed these critical delivery infrastructure projects.

Travis Parker

Image: “There’s Something in the Water.” Flickr user Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons.


6th Annual Carver Colloquium

Denver, Colorado                                September 29, 2016

Water for Sale: Prior Appropriation or Free Market Trade?

The Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute hosted the sixth annual Carver Colloquium on September 29, 2016. Former Colorado Supreme Court Justice, Gregory Hobbs, and Professor Gary Libecap, of the University of California, Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, compared the relative merits of the prior appropriation system and the free market system of water allocation.  The debate over which system of water allocation is better suited for today’s environmental realities quickly evolved into an in-depth discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of the doctrine of prior appropriation, as well as an insightful comparison between Colorado’s use of prior appropriation and California’s hybrid utilization of prior appropriation and riparianism. University of Denver Sturm College of Law professor Jan Laitos moderated the event, which consisted of a ten-minute opening comment by each speaker, followed by three discussion questions from Professor Laitos, and a thirty-minute session in which the speakers answered questions from the audience.

Justice Hobbs began by reciting a poem and providing a brief history of water law in Colorado.  He discussed how the terrain of the American West requires the prior appropriation system of water allocations because the riparian system is not realistic in a place where the few sources of water are scattered across an arid landscape.  Water rights, he said, are for the beneficial use of the people, and Colorado’s historical use of the prior appropriation doctrine reflects that reality.

Professor Libecap followed Justice Hobbs’ introduction with a brief explanation of California’s current approach to water allocation.  In California, the riparian doctrine is still used in conjunction with the prior appropriation system.  The state owns the few large water projects that serve the main metropolitan areas, and contracts between water rights holders in the water-rich north and the water-scarce south tend to result in unfair distributions to the detriment of southern water users.  This complicated situation has led to heavy reliance on groundwater supplies, which has caused severe shortages.  Professor Libecap noted that the doctrine of prior appropriation is not to blame for California’s drought situation.  Instead, Mr. Libecap pointed to the ill management of water supplies by state legislators and municipalities.

After the introductory remarks, Professor Laitos directed his first question to the two speakers: Could a “water markets” system or “water capitalism”—where water rights are bought and sold like a commodity—ever replace the prior appropriation system?  Justice Hobbs began by stating that water rights are a type of property right and such rights cannot be bought and sold like a product or commodity.  He said he did not believe system in which water was bought and sold like a commodity could be successful, especially in Colorado because water rights are a public good determined by beneficial use, and although water rights can be owned, the use of such a right is dependent on use by all other owners.  While prior appropriation is an adaptable system and could promote a “water market,” water rights could never be traded like other commodities.  Professor Libecap did not view the prior appropriation system as significantly different from a “water market.”  He noted that there have been many water contracts created in California, and said water acting as a commodity in a water market promotes a more versatile system, with more cooperation between water-rights owners.  Legislators in California are considering the use of legislative mandates to control the current water shortage, but Mr. Libecap insisted that this kind of approach would be unmanageable and inflexible for responding to market and climate changes.

Professor Laitos then asked whether it is old fashioned that in 2016, when our society is more technologically advanced, the largest and most senior water rights holders are still ranchers and farmers as opposed to factories and production sites.  Justice Hobbs argued that Colorado should remain true to its roots, saying that although Coloradans need to find a way to meet the growing water demands of booming urban areas, they should not do so at the detriment of older agricultural water rights holders.  Professor Libecap claimed that the media is misinformed about the actual amount of water used by agricultural producers.  Californian farmers are not opposed to trading or sharing water rights with the urban population; their main concern is that the state legislature will see them as old fashioned and outdated, and will proceed to forcefully take their rights away and reapportion them to others.

Professor Laitos’ final question was whether the speakers believed that the prior appropriation system is equipped to accommodate the countervailing needs of the environment—keeping water in the stream to protect water quality and aquatic wildlife—and of making sure a senior appropriator has enough water—even if it means dewatering that stream? Justice Hobbs responded that prior appropriation is equipped to deal with environmental concerns but that it comes at a cost.  He pointed out that federal legislation has created permitting regulations that overlay Colorado’s prior appropriation system for any new major water projects, but those processes can take fourteen to eighteen years.  Because of the increasing difficulty and uncertainty associated with getting those supplies through new transbasin or storage projects, Front Range municipalities are forced to turn to accelerated water-market acquisition, stoking the fears of buy and dry on the Eastern Plains. Professor Libecap agreed that prior appropriation is perfectly set up to deal with environmental flows. Nevertheless, he cautioned against states like California turning to solutions that involve issuing mandates to protect stream flows, which he called a tax on senior rights holders and one that causes endangered species to become the enemy, thus creating a conflict between local and environmental objectives. Instead, he argued, if states really want to protect stream flows in the long term, they need to turn to market solutions like leases, option contracts, or outright sales to protect that water. That way the environment “owns” it and the farmers benefit financially, both of which prevent the type of conflicts mandates will have down the road.

In the final portion of the debate, the audience asked questions of the speakers. Justice Hobbs clarified that the prior appropriation doctrine used in Colorado does not create the “use it or lose it” problem because the key concept of the prior appropriation system is beneficial use. Applicants are only required to show actual use (historic consumption) and what is left over returns to the stream for the public; thus, nothing is lost.  Then, Professor Libecap commented that the hybrid system currently used in California, when compared to the much more streamlined Colorado system, lacks the clear statutory structure and direction required to create an active and effective “water market.”  Professor Libecap also assuaged the general fear that recreational or aesthetic water use in times of drought are frivolous by noting that such uses are so minuscule that they do not have much impact on broader water issues.  Finally, Justice Hobbs advised that the only problem with the prior appropriation system is management and enforcement of the system; he felt that the government sometimes gave in to pressure from private parties, which decreases the effectiveness of the system.  Justice Hobbs proposed that more administrative control in the future should combat this governmental failing and make the prior appropriation system more successful.

Tina Xu

Image: The Colorado River. Flickr User Rennett Stowe, Creative Commons

 

 


Water, Oil, and Tribal Sovereignty: 

The Fight for the Dakota Access Pipeline

Denver, Colorado

On September 27, 2016, the University of Denver Sturm College of Law hosted a panel discussion about the current legal fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.  The panel addressed legal, historical, social justice, and environmental justice topics related to the dispute.  The discussion was co-sponsored by DU’s Natural Resources & Environmental Law Society, Native American Law Students Association, and the DU Water Law Review.

Professor Fred Cheever, a DU Law professor and co-director of the school’s Environmental & Natural Resources Law Program, moderated the discussion and introduced the issue. The Dakota Access Pipeline (“DAPL”) is an approximately 1,170-mile pipeline constructed to transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois.  The pipeline’s path is intended to span four states—North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois—and cross the Missouri River at a point located a half-mile from the Standing Rock Indian reservation in North Dakota.  The DAPL route would pass through tribal lands of great cultural, religious and spiritual significance to tribes.

Professor Brad Bartlett, a visiting assistant professor in the Environmental Law Clinic at DU Law, offered a timeline of events regarding the DAPL legal conflict. In July 2016, Earthjustice, on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, filed a declaratory and injunctive relief complaint in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).  The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe intervened and joined the lawsuit in August 2016.  In the initial complaint, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe argued that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) violated multiple federal statutes, including the Clean Water Act, National Historic Protection Act, and National Environmental Policy Act, when it issued permits to move forward with construction of the DAPL. First, the DAPL’s route is intended to pass under the Missouri River just a half a mile upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation boundary. A federal permit is required under the Clean Water Act for any construction project impacting federally regulated rivers —including the DAPL’s crossing of the Missouri River. In this case, the permitting process triggers requirements under the National Historic Protection Act that intend to protect areas of great cultural significance to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, such as sacred sites and burial grounds.  The Tribes argue that the Corps pre-authorized construction of DAPL without ensuring compliance of the National Historic Protection Act, allows the Corps to circumvent its statutory responsibility to ensure that the DAPL does not harm historically and culturally significant sites. The Tribe’s injunctive relief complaint seeks to stop the DAPL from proceeding and causing irreparable harm.

Professor Bartlett oversees DU law students in the environmental law clinic who worked in conjunction with Fredericks Peebles & Morgan LLP, a national Indian law firm, to file a complaint on behalf of the Yankton Sioux Tribe on September 8, 2016, for declaratory and injunctive relief in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Yankton Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to stop construction of the DAPL.  The Yankton Sioux Tribe Reservation is located in South Dakota along the Missouri River.  The complaint seeks to prevent the Corps and other federal agencies from violating the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), the Clean Water Act, the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, and the Administrative Procedures Act.  Specifically, NEPA requires a federal agency to complete an environmental impact statement, including public engagement and detailed comparison of alternatives.  Additionally, the complaint requests that the Corps engage in a more meaningful consultation process with the tribal communities.  Professor Bartlett noted that neither has happened as of September.

On September 9, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg denied the tribes’ motions for an injunction.  Immediately following this decision, the Justice Department, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior issued a joint statement moving to stop construction of the DAPL on land near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation until the Corps could revisit and reconsider previous decisions under federal laws.  The joint statement also requested that tribes and government agencies meet to evaluate the current government-to-government consultation and to determine how to better include tribes in decision-making processes concerning pipeline construction.

Professor Bartlett also noted that the tribal response to the construction of this pipeline has resulted in the largest congregation of Native Americans in the past 100 years.  Police and private security forces have responded with arrests and violence to tribes’ peaceful acts of civil disobedience. As of September 2016 a prayer camp still remains in the area with ongoing protest demonstrations.

The second panelist, Dr. Angel M. Hinzo, is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Interdisciplinary Indigenous Studies at the University of Denver Interdisciplinary Research Institute for the Study of (In)Equality (IRISE) focusing on Native American history from the mid-19th century to the present.  In the panel, Dr. Hinzo recounted how the history of U.S. governmental and tribal relations is characterized by contrasting, and often conflicting, worldviews.  She said the federal government’s extraction of natural resources embodies western values of exploitation for economic gain.  For example, proponents of the DAPL have framed the project as benefiting the public good by creating jobs during the construction phase of the pipeline and contributing to federal sales and income taxes. Tribes, on the other hand, view the same natural resources, as sentient beings to be respected and revered, not exploited. The current DAPL conflict illustrates this fundamental difference in worldview because the pipeline would transport crude oil over an area rich in cultural and natural resources.  Historically, according to Dr. Hinzo, the Corps—the oldest agency dealing with natural resources in the United States—has harmed native lands and the environment.

Additionally, Dr. Hinzo raised concerns that the construction of pipeline threatens local tribal burial sites.  In September 2016, the pipeline construction company—Dakota Access LLC—destroyed burial sites near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to build the DAPL.  Dr. Hinzo emphasized that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (“NAGPRA”) provides regulations to protect culturally significant sites during infrastructure projects, which the Corps and pipeline workers did not respect. Dr. Hinzo also argued that discussions around the DAPL need to better address the NAGPRA. Lastly, Dr. Hinzo noted the social costs associated with the oil-and-gas boom in North Dakota. Communities living near fossil fuel extraction have witnessed an increase in violence and sex trafficking.  Low income tribal communities living near the proposed route of the DAPL, who already experience difficulty with these issues, are increasingly at risk.

The panel’s third speaker, Mr. David Neslin, is of counsel at Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP in Denver, Colorado.  He previously managed the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission within the state’s Department of Natural Resources, which regulates all oil and gas development in Colorado.  During his career, Mr. Neslin has also represented multiple tribes in natural resource–extraction issues.

First, Mr. Neslin noted that the sole issue of the preliminary injunction action was whether the Corps violated federal laws when it issued permits allowing construction of the DAPL to move forward.  In general, preliminary injunctive relief actions seek to halt a project and maintain the status quo until the court has a chance to go through the full litigation process and resolve the issue.  Consequently, the court’s denial of the injunction in this case was a narrow decision because it did not go to trial or produce a full development of record.  Next, Mr. Neslin spoke about the importance of the administrative record to the court’s decision and how this case represents a good example of why it is vital for parties to develop and convey a cohesive narrative to the court.  While people can disagree about the substance of such records, he said that the Corps adequately documented its compliance and “checked all the boxes” needed to comply with federal regulations as to tribal consultations and environmental impacts of the DAPL.  As noted earlier, the federal government is required to provide permits under the Clean Water Act to allow the DAPL to move forward, triggering requirements under the National Historic Protection Act to ensure proper treatment of sacred sites.  Because the Corp followed and completed steps outlined in the permitting process, Judge Boasberg denied the tribes’ motions for an injunction.  Mr. Neslin argued that it was the Department of Justice’s multiple affidavits, for example, that illustrated the ways in which the Corps took the proper steps in allowing the DAPL to move forward.  The tribes, he said, could have done a better job of illustrating and citing examples to the court of the DAPL’s impacts on tribal cultural resources.  Finally, Mr. Neslin noted that the district court opinion serves as a reminder of the potency of judicial deference toward agency decision making in cases like this.  Traditionally, courts defer to agencies—such as the Environmental Protection Agency—to determine whether infrastructure projects have followed proper procedure when considering environmental and cultural impacts.  When not one overarching agency exists to ensure proper compliance, as in the case of the DAPL, multiple federal agencies follow their own processes when dealing with a discrete aspect of the overall project.  Mr. Neslin said that federal segmentation of this kind results in piecemealed environmental and cultural impact assessments, overlooking the potential for studying the impacts of the project as a whole.

The final panelist, Ms. Heather Whiteman Runs Him, is a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund (“NARF”) in Boulder, Colorado, where she works on tribal water and natural resource rights issues.  She provided an overview of tribal water rights and upcoming meetings between tribes and the U.S. government to evaluate current administrative consultation requirements.  Ms. Whiteman Runs Him explained that NARF’s role in the current DAPL actions is to coordinate multiple amicus briefs in support of tribes’ ongoing defense. Ms. Whiteman Runs Him explained that the foundation of tribal water rights under federal law rests on the Winters Decision, which says that the establishment of an Indian reservation includes an implied reservation of water for future use in an amount necessary to fulfill the needs of the reservation.

While Winters recognized tribal rights to water, Ms. Whiteman Runs Him noted, some tribes are working with state and federal governments to quantify their water rights and build water infrastructure in order to put their water to use.  Currently twenty-nine tribes have settled their water rights, while many more have not.  Settlement negotiations are generally expensive, lengthy, and multi-step processes that involve analyzing the land base of the reservation, hydrology, soil science, economics, etc. Ms. Whiteman Runs Him emphasized that neither the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe nor the Yankton Sioux Tribe have either quantified or settled their reservation water rights, but that does not diminish the Tribes’ rights to a reliable and safe water supply for their citizens.  These tribes have concerns about the DAPL’s affect on their water supply because the pipeline’s proposed route traverses the Missouri River, a major municipal water source to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, directly upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Reservation, and the point of diversion for its drinking water.

Ms. Whiteman Runs Him explained that federal agencies are required to establish policies and procedures to meet the consultation standards of the National Historic Protection Act.  Most federal agencies have established such policies; the Corps, however, has a history of failing to comply with federal standards in regard to tribal sovereignty.  Ms. Whiteman Runs Him believes that federal agencies need to “make the letter of the law match the spirit of the law” by not only requiring the Corps meet requirements of the administrative process, but also implementing requirements in a way that is meaningful to the intent of the regulations.

One major point illuminated throughout the panel discussion and the question and answer period is the adequacy of a permitting process that allowed the DAPL to move forward in the face of federal trust obligations to tribes.  As previously mentioned, the permitting process for the DAPL requires certain mitigation activities under federal regulations to ensure proper treatment of sacred sites.  While federal agencies may have completed the required steps to receive permits, the tribes argue that such steps lack substance and do not adequately and meaningfully consider tribal input.  While the permitting process may be administratively sufficient, many question whether the process actually fulfills spirit of the federal trust obligations to substantively consult and include tribal input.

Lindsey Ratcliff

Image: The Dakota Access Pipeline being installed between farms, as seen from 50th Avenue in New Salem, North Dakota. Flickr user Tony Webster, Creative Commons.


“CONFLICTS AND COOPERATION: THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF INTERSTATE WATER COMPACTS”

Denver, Colorado                          April 8, 2016

WHAT’S AT STAKE IN THE NEGOTIATION AND LITIGATION OF INTERSTATE WATER COMPACTS?

The final panel of the Symposium  reflected on all the concepts discussed throughout the day, and provided great insight for the future of interstate water compacts.

Professor Jason Robinson, of the University of Wyoming Law School, moderated the three-member panel through a series of pre-scripted questions and insightful answers from each of the panelists.  The panel included: David Robbins of Hill and Robbins, P.C.; Chad Wallace of the Office of the Colorado Attorney General; and Christine Klein of the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

Question 1: “Broadly speaking, what do you view as the most significant shortcomings in the processes by which existing interstate water compacts were negotiated?”

Klein, bringing her perspective from her current work in Florida, said that past compact negotiators “ignored the hard stuff,” and suggested that future negotiations should address those difficult issues while momentum driving the negotiations exists.  Wallace next observed that existing compacts did not “leave enough room” to address future water uses between the parties, such as groundwater use developments and hydrologic interactions.  Robbins concluded by reiterating Wallace’s observations.  He also addressed the fact that existing compacts do not generally include effective dispute resolution mechanisms or grievance processes.

Question 2: “How exactly have these shortcomings in the negotiations been detrimental to the composition and administration of existing compacts?”

Robbins answered first, continuing his line of thought from the last question.  He stated that sovereigns do not want to “give up sovereignty unless they do it intentionally and by their own control.”  With this understanding, Robbins argued that earlier compact negotiations failed to establish dispute resolution mechanisms because these mechanisms intrude on state sovereignty and are outside that state’s decision-making control.  Wallace agreed with Robbins and observed an unwillingness in party states to engage in dispute resolution in the face of ambiguities or unforeseen challenges in the compact’s administration.  Wallace reiterated the difficulties in finding mechanisms to address groundwater use on surface flow.

Klein furthered the conversation on dispute resolution mechanisms by using the Delaware River Basin Compact as an example: the commission implementing that compact has the authority to regulate withdrawal permits, rather than the states.  She then discussed the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes Compact that creates “common minimum standards” and some adjudicatory authority of the commission to address disputes.  Using these more recent compacts, Klein suggested that eastern states that do not have a history of, nor existing, compacts, can look to these unique approaches for problem-solving as they craft new compacts. For example, Klein suggested new compacts could be “tailored” to the “character and flavor and history of the states involved.”  Wallace again reminded the audience that compacts are voluntary concessions of state sovereignty, and those compacting states can engage in that process however best meets their needs.

Question 3: “What is the most important lesson you believe can be gleaned from interstate water compact litigation in the U.S. Supreme Court over the past two decades?”

Wallace joked that “the justices don’t really like to see us.”  He stressed that, because litigation can lead to rigid imposed apportionments, the threat of litigation is an effective tool to “get everyone’s attention” and bring stakeholders to the negotiating table.  Klein emphasized the importance of personalities and personal relationships in compact administration because “compacts are a marriage to death do us part.”  Robbins strongly agreed with Wallace’s previous observation that courts interpret compacts as contracts.  Robbins further argued that such interpretations cannot account for issues of state sovereignty.  Finally, Robbins reminded the audience that there is no “right answer” in interstate water compacts and that compacts are “about making a deal” between sovereigns.

Question 4: “Do you anticipate an increase or decrease in interstate water compact litigation in the future, and which factors do you consider most determinative?”

Wallace expressed optimism that compact administrators are learning to work collaboratively and “keep their options open.”  He referred back to his earlier point, that litigation will likely be a tool to induce negotiations between parties.  Robbins, without making an express prediction, remarked that “serious litigation” on a compact “only happens once; after that, you risk contempt [of court] for not complying” with the imposed judgment.

Question 5: “To what extent, if any, do you anticipate new interstate water compacts will be formed in the future, and which considerations underpin your prognosis?”

Klein addressed this question, discussing in detail her knowledge of current negotiations over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (“ACF”) system among Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.  Klein suggested that these states could “learn from the Western experience” because of the West’s robust history with compact negotiation and litigation.  Klein also suggested that the ACF states have the opportunity to negotiate a compact or equitable apportionment that can “fold in” contemporary concerns, such as the Endangered Species Act and groundwater use, that plague western compacts negotiated before these concerns arose.

Question 6: “How likely is it existing interstate water compacts will be amended or renegotiated in the future?  Which factors do you consider most significant to the initiation and success of such efforts?”

Wallace asserted that renegotiation of existing compacts “just won’t happen.”  Existing compacts, for their shortfalls, are a significant foundation for those resources; any negotiations or amendments would, Wallace posited, “fill in the gaps.”  Robbins then said that, from the perspective of state sovereignty, any renegotiation or significant amendment to existing compacts would require states to “give up something.”  The states would have to change their existing relationships vis-à-vis concessions of state sovereignty.  Robbins also discussed the ability of compact commissions to adopt regulations that govern the administration and implementation of the compacts, and he used the Rio Grande and the Arkansas as two examples of such commission regulations.  He suggested that retaining these existing mechanisms is both more likely and more preferable to complete renegotiation.  Wallace then reiterated the need for compact administrators to build trust and respectful personal relationships amongst themselves.  Robbins concluded the scripted questions with a reminder that, while not preferable, any negotiator must be ready and willing to litigate in the event that negotiations fail.

The floor then opened for audience questions.  One audience member posed a hypothetical question and asked if severe drought, similar to the drought in Australia, would force the renegotiation of the Colorado River Compact.  Robbins assured the audience that the Colorado River Compact addresses shortages, so renegotiation, even in the face of severe drought, would be unnecessary.  Wallace agreed, and further said that such an event would not force compact parties to allocate water differently because all would already be receiving less under the shortage allocations in the compact.

The next question from the audience inquired into the possibility of a compact specifically for the Ogallala Aquifer.  Robbins believed such a compact would be unlikely because of the very different uses of the aquifer by the three overlaying states, and because the Supreme Court decisions on the Republican and Arkansas litigation posited that existing compacts already address groundwater use.  Klein expressed similar skepticism, and described a case between Mississippi and Tennessee regarding different uses and contested ownership of a common aquifer.  Wallace then pointed to the Colorado Supreme Court case of In Re: the Application for Water Rights of Park County Sportsmen’s Ranch as an example of the inclusion of groundwater aquifers in existing compacts and use laws.

Robinson thanked the audience and the panel, and with the conclusion of this panel came the end of the 2016 Symposium.

Aubrey Bertram


“CONFLICTS AND COOPERATION: THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF INTERSTATE WATER COMPACTS”

Denver, Colorado                          April 8, 2016

WAR OVER THE RED RIVER: IMPLICATIONS OF THE TARRANT REGIONAL WATER DIST. V. HERRMANN DECISION

At the University of Denver Water Law Review Annual Symposium, Professor Tom Romero, a faculty member at Sturm College of Law and faculty advisor for the Water Law Review, introduced the sixth panel, which featured two attorneys arguing for each side of the Supreme Court case Tarrant Regional Water Dist. v. Herrmann.

Professor Romero began by outlining the case, which the United States Supreme Court (“Court”) decided in 2013, and how it affected litigation over interstate water compacts.  The water compact at issue, the Red River Compact (“the Compact”), includes Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas.  This case originated in the Compact area shared by Texas and Oklahoma.  Before introducing the attorneys, Professor Romero summarized the issues in the case, including the Dormant Commerce Clause and water marketing issues that the Supreme Court had not reviewed in many years.

The first attorney Professor Romero introduced was Kevin L. Patrick, a shareholder at Patrick, Miller and Noto, P.C.  Mr. Patrick was counsel for petitioner Tarrant Regional Water District (“District”) in the case.  The District provides water to north-central Texas.  The second attorney on the panel was Star Waring, a shareholder-partner and member of the Natural Resources and Water Law Practice Group of Dietze and Davis, PC.  Ms. Waring is the Practitioner in Residence for the Natural Resources and Environmental Law program at Sturm College of Law.  Ms. Waring spoke on behalf of Susan M. Ryan of Ryley, Carlock, and Applewhite, who was counsel for two amicus parties for respondents in the case, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (“OWRB”).

After the introductions, Mr. Patrick and Ms. Waring further developed the history behind the case, the Compact, and the two parties. The panelists then presented in a point-counterpoint style.

Mr. Patrick began first by explaining key historical points that led to this dispute.  The first negotiations surrounding the Red River occurred when the United States signed the Treaty of Amity, Settlement, and Limits Between the United States of America and His Catholic Majesty on behalf of the Republic of Mexico.  Under this treaty, Mexico relinquished access, use, and ownership rights to the Red River.  Mr. Patrick next jumped to 1978, when Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas divided the waters of the Red River, creating the Compact. Congress passed the Compact into federal law in 1980.  Mr. Patrick made his first argument in favor of the District by detailing that Southeastern Oklahoma to the north of the Red River receives large amounts of rain annually, while North Texas just to the south of the Red River receives unusually small amounts of rain annually.  Mr. Patrick concluded this point stating that Oklahoma discharges 32.5 to 34 million acre-feet of unused stream water through the Red River annually.

Ms. Waring then presented her first counterpoint and explained that although southeastern Oklahoma is abundant in its annual precipitation, the southwestern portion of Oklahoma is very dry. Ms. Waring argued that area of Oklahoma should be the focal point as it contains the largest metropolitan area in the state, Oklahoma City.

Next, Mr. Patrick and Ms. Waring provided a visual of the Red River Compact, and pointed out sub-basin five as the area of the Compact at issue in this case.  Mr. Patrick and Ms. Waring provided a Compact excerpt, Section 5.05(b)(1).  Section 5.05(b)(1) declares that the signatory states shall have equal rights to the use of runoff originating in sub-basin five and designated water flowing into sub-basin five.  Furthermore, anytime there are 3,000 cubic feet per second flowing at a particular point, each of the four states has a right to take twenty-five percent of the water in the river sub-basin.  For reference, Mr. Patrick mentioned that ninety-six percent of the time, there is a flow of 3,000 cubic feet per second in sub-basin five, so the four states have the right to take twenty-five percent of that flow the majority of the time.  Before moving into the procedural history leading up to the Supreme Court appearance, Ms. Waring posed the major question surrounding this case asking “why did Tarrant try to buy water rights from the state of Oklahoma if in fact it had the right to come and divert that water from the Red River in the first place?”  Both Mr. Patrick and Ms. Waring agreed that because the case was appealed from a summary judgment in the district court, the parties could have developed a better factual record had the dispute made it to trial.

Moving into the procedural history, Mr. Patrick and Ms. Waring explained that the District initially filed the lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma.  The District sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the OWRB’s enforcement of Oklahoma statutes.  Those statutes apply stricter standards to applicants seeking to divert water within Oklahoma’s borders for out-of-state use.  The District sought to enjoin this enforcement on the grounds that the Compact pre-empted the statutes and that the statutes violated the Dormant Commerce Clause by discriminating against interstate commerce.  The District Court denied OWRB’s first motion for summary judgment motion on its claims of Eleventh Amendment Immunity. The court granted OWRB’s second motion for summary judgment seeking to dismiss the District’s Dormant Commerce Clause claim.  After appeals, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that the Compact did not entitle a Texas water district to take a share of water from a tributary located in Oklahoma, and affirmed the District Court’s decisions.

Mr. Patrick and Ms. Waring then discussed the District’s first Petition for Certiorari, and Mr. Patrick discussed how the Untied States Solicitor General supported granting Cert and believed that the plain language of the Compact favored the District.  The panelists discussed the fact that the Supreme Court looked to a number of other sections of the Compact, focusing more on states’ rights instead of previous legislative history in regard to the Compact.

Before getting to the Supreme Court decision, Mr. Patrick and Ms. Waring broke down the parties’ arguments.  First, Mr. Patrick listed the main points that the District would have made, including arguments on preemption and the Dormant Commerce Clause.  For pre-emption, the District interpreted the provision regarding sub-basin five as allowing it to divert water from a tributary in Oklahoma.  In other words, the District sought to prove that the plain language of the provision created a sub-basin defined by coordinates, not state boundaries, in which each state could access its equal share of the shared pool water from anywhere in the sub-basin.  For the Dormant Commerce Clause, the District argued that the language of the Oklahoma anti-diversion statute for out-of-state entities was discriminatory.  Additionally, it argued that there should be a rule to look at legislative history instead of the states’ rights.  Next, Ms. Waring went into OWRB’s arguments.  The OWRB’s main argument was that the District did not have the authority to enter into Oklahoma physically to divert water for use in Texas.  Furthermore, the OWRB argued that the twenty-five percent allocation of sub-basin five in the Compact meant twenty-five percent of the water within the state’s own boundaries, not anywhere in the sub-basin.  The OWRB argued that states don’t relinquish sovereignty lightly and that whenever a state allows cross-border rights, they are always expressed with clear language.  Finally, the OWRB argued that the dormant Commerce Clause does not apply to “allocated” water and that if anything, Texas’s past efforts to buy that water cut against the District’s argument that it was entitled to the water.

Next, Mr. Patrick and Ms. Waring dove into the Supreme Court case and Justice Sotomayor’s 2013 decision.  The Court affirmed the Tenth Circuit decision on different grounds.  The key rulings, according to Ms. Waring, were that the Court agreed with the OWRB’s argument that a state retains sovereignty over water resources within its boundaries, that the District’s past conduct in attempting to purchase water from Oklahoma demonstrated no cross-border rights, and therefore the District could divert up to twenty-five percent of water in sub-basin five within Texas, but not from Oklahoma.

In their conclusion, Mr. Patrick and Ms. Waring reiterated that it would have been interesting to see the factual record developed had the case gone to trial.  Additionally, they shortly discussed how the lack of language on state boundaries and border-crossings in the Compact played an important role throughout the case.  Finally, the attorneys closed by outlining the key takeaways from the case and from their discussion before taking questions from the attendees.

Joshua Oden

 


“CONFLICTS AND COOPERATION: THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF INTERSTATE WATER COMPACTS”

 

Denver, Colorado                          April 8, 2016

ADDRESSING COMPETING OBLIGATIONS UNDER COMPACTS & THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT

In this panel, Karen Kwon and James “Jay” Tutchton presented differing sides of ongoing conflicts between the federal law and state water compacts concerning the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  Kwon, from the Office of the Colorado Attorney General, works in water compact litigation and negotiations.  She has contributed to two amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court of the United States regarding state compact issues.  Tutchton has been a public interest environmental attorney for over twenty years, and he is currently a Senior Staff Attorney with the Defenders of Wildlife.  Federico Cheever, an environmental law professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law who has written about the ESA, moderated the panel.

First, Kwon offered her approach to this conflict.  She began with a brief recitation of the implications the ESA has among interstate relations.  For instance, the ESA affects water and wildlife management between states because endangered species recovery in one state can affect water supplies in other areas.  Additionally, the ESA implicates the allocation and use of compact water.  Recovery of underwater species under the ESA often requires reserving a steady water supply for recuperation efforts.

 

Then, Ms. Kwon focused on the state perspective of this competition and described several values that Coloradans hold.  First, Coloradans value their environment.  Conserving and promoting species promotes that way of life.  Second, that quality of life requires a certain availability in water supply.  Attaining a reliable supply of water helps to preserve species and further Coloradans’ way of life.  Finally, Coloradans seek to maintain their ability to manage the resources within their borders.

Kwon next analyzed the ESA and discussed its advantages and disadvantages.  One of its advantages is that lawyers can use it as a tool to effectuate change.  Through litigation, lawyers can try to modify or stop projects that jeopardize endangered species.  Another point in the law’s favor, the ESA protections have proven successful in preventing extinction.  On the other hand, the ESA’s disadvantages include the fact that very few species have recovered to the point that they can leave the endangered species list.  Also, some view the ESA as a threat instead of a tool because the ESA threatens liability for those who do not adhere to its guidelines.  Finally, the ESA contains no long-term incentives looking to the future.  Instead, it focuses on present happenings and immediate incentives.

Before posing her solution, Kwon presented two examples in Colorado of conflicts between the ESA and compacts: the Delta Smelt in the Bay Delta and the Silvery Minnow in the Rio Grande.  The Delta Smelt conflict could dramatically cut the amount of water flowing to Southern California and directly affect the Colorado River.  The Silvery Minnow conflict involves a dwindling fish population in the Rio Grande River, which divides several states’ waters.

Kwon’s proposed solution to this problem is as follows: fit species conservation within the existing structure of water allocation in and between states.  Through this framework, states can create long-term goals and accomplish them while working within the ESA’s parameters.  Additionally, states may find flexibilities under the ESA to allow compliance with water compacts while recovering species.  Kwon then offered several examples from Colorado that embody this solution.  First, a Colorado policy, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (“CWCB”) work to “keep species common” and to recover and de-list already-endangered species.  To do this, the two entities collaborate with public and private groups to collect, exchange, and analyze data and resources on endangered species.  Overall, they use this data to collaborate and try to intervene before listing species as endangered.

Another example illustrating Kwon’s proposed solution concerns the Upper Colorado Recovery Program.  In this program, several public and private entities collaborate to recover four endangered species of fish in the Upper Colorado River without interfering with water rights or compacts.  The program avoids this interference by implementing flow augmentation, monitoring non-native fish, screening large diversions, and constructing fish ladders to help habitat access.  Through these actions, the program maintains compliance with the ESA while promoting the recovery of several endangered fish.  Kwon also mentioned a third example: a water lease in the 15-Mile Reach in Colorado.  Through this action, the CWCB leases approximately twelve thousand acre-feet to preserve the natural environment flows in that area and maintain the goals of the parties involved, such as water use and development.

Kwon summarized by re-emphasizing that the challenges facing species are growing, such as a lack of both long-term solutions and scientific consensus.  In order to combat these challenges, she stressed that water advocates must collaborate and utilize scientific methods.

Tutchton took the podium next, and he started by explaining that the ESA’s process, like a play, consists of “acts.”  In the first “act,” the ESA prescribes the requirements for listing a species as endangered. Researchers utilize the best available science to determine whether extinction poses a danger to a species or a distinct population segment of vertebrate.  The second “act” includes the consultation process, during which the government re-thinks its activities in light of the listing.  This portion prohibits the federal government from making the species’ situation worse.  Finally, the third “act” prohibits anyone from “taking” the endangered species.  In this context, both killing a member of the species and destroying its habitat constitutes a “taking.”

According to Tutchton, the ESA is a paper tiger.  That is, it looks tough, but lawyers may easily disarm it.  In practice, the ESA only removes or modifies the worst-of-the-worst projects.  In the water world, however, Tutchton concedes that the ESA commonly helps water species gain protection and escape extinction.  He attributes this characteristic to the fact-heavy situations and objective, scientific determination. An apparent advantage for water wildlife is that researchers can collect data to calculate with scientific precision the results of a particular action, and thus protect endangered water species from peril.  For example, Tutchton mentioned one case where the predicted extinction of a three-inch fish overruled the construction of a dam.  In that case, researchers produced enough data to conclude the species would become extinct if developers built the dam and blocked its construction.

Next, Tutchton briefly mentioned that one can comply with both of the laws of the river, and then quickly turned to the success of the ESA.  For instance, while the government has de-listed relatively few species, the ESA’s regulations have seen success in perpetuating the survival of listed species.  Going against those that criticize the ESA for a lack of de-listing, Tutchton admitted the ability of the species to recover depends on the means one wants to use.  Certainly more drastic measures can get faster results, but those drastic measures may venture beyond one’s comfort zone.  In practice, the small measures produce small effects, often resulting in maintenance or slow growth of a species.

Additionally, while Tutchton understands the desire for local control, he argued several counterpoints.  First, all species, as national resources, are of national interest.  All people, no matter where they live, have an equal right to enjoy the nation’s wildlife.  Furthermore, the need to list a species represents a local failure of conservation.  The federal government does not manage wildlife until after listing occurs.  Then, the federal government steps in to intervene for the endangered species.  Finally, Tutchton admitted that handing control back to the state, which often caused the endangered status, disappoints him.

Then, Tutchton touched on the issue of drought.  He declared that Westerners routinely live in a drought.  In fact, he hopes people in Colorado and the West more generally remove the word “drought” from their vocabularies, as these areas normally experience little or no precipitation.  Furthermore, Westerners should consider rain or snow an abnormality, especially in states located in a former dust bowl.  Thus, organizations should expect drought-like weather and act in accordance with the expected conditions.

Finally, Tutchton spoke about the future of the ESA.  First, he pointed out the ESA underrepresents real life.  The ESA currently protects fifteen-hundred species, but scientists speculate that number should be around six or eight thousand.  Next, he mentioned that species originally evolved before humans changed the earth’s landscape.  Wildlife originally developed when rivers regularly flooded and followed their natural course.  Now, humans use rivers for transportation and for development.  Creating and managing the workarounds needed to protect the species will only present more difficulty as human development continues. Tutchton summarized by emphasizing that he favors ESA litigation, as it helps to represent underrepresented points of view in critical ventures.

            Connor Pace


“CONFLICTS AND COOPERATION: THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF INTERSTATE WATER COMPACTS”

Denver, Colorado                          April 8, 2016

COLORADO RIVER COMPACT ISSUES AFFECTING THE NAVAJO WATER PROJECTS

At the University of Denver Water Law Review’s Annual Symposium, Assistant Attorney General and member of the Water Rights Unit of the Navajo Nation Department of Justice (“NNDOJ”), Stanley Pollack, spoke about issues and challenges the Colorado River Compact pose to the Navajo Nation’s water projects.  The mission of NNDOJ’s Water Rights Unit is to protect the water rights of the Navajo Nation.  The NNDOJ, as the Navajo Nation’s representative in state and federal litigation, is currently pursuing five general stream adjudications.

Pollack prefaced his presentation by focusing on various Colorado River issues and how interstate compacts put different restraints on Navajo water development, particularly in the context of drinking water projects.  Pollack emphasized the need to provide drinking water to the Navajo Nation.  Pollack pointed out that thirty to forty percent of the Navajo physically haul their drinking water in barrels.  Pollack illustrated this point with a picture drawn by an elementary school student from Lake Valley, New Mexico.  The picture was one of many drawings elementary school children submitted during the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project (“Supply Project”) hearings.  The drawings were supposed to depict what water meant to the children and the importance of water.  The drawing Pollack showed was of a pick-up truck with two large barrels with the word “water” written on them in the truck’s bed.  This drawing demonstrated that there were generations of children within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation that do not think drinking water is something that comes out of a faucet, but from a barrel in the back of a truck.

Pollack then asked the audience to imagine themselves as members of the Navajo before the explorative efforts of the Europeans.  He showed aerial maps of what the Navajo Nation used to be in contrast to what it became after European migration and the establishment of the United States.  The Navajo called their homeland Dinétah, and it encompasses the land between the Four Sacred Mountains: Mount Blanca, in Southern Colorado; Mount Taylor, in New Mexico; San Francisco Peak, in Arizona; and Mount Hesperus, in Colorado.  What becomes evident, said Pollack, is that this is high desert country, subject to a dry and arid climate with little development.  He emphasized that the Navajo had been thriving in this area for hundreds of years, until the day when foreign people came along and began drawing boundaries on the land.

 

The first boundary was the establishment of the Navajo Reservation.  The reservation greatly reduced the land that the Navajo called home.  Next, state boundaries began forming and the Navajo saw the U.S. government parcel up its homeland, subjecting them to boundary lines the Navajo had no say in forming.  Then, in 1922, the Navajo saw the U.S. government divide the Colorado River Basin into an upper and lower basin.  Pollack explained that, once again, the United States subjected the Navajo to boundaries they had no say in forming, but must abide.  Pollack noted that with each boundary line came new political constraints on the Navajo.  The boundaries told the Navajo where they could and could not live and what they could and could not do on the land.  These restrictions imposed limits on what the Navajo could do with their water, and that, Pollack said, is what he wanted to discuss.

Pollack quoted the language of Article VII of the Colorado River Compact: “nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligation of the United States to the Indian tribes.”  He said that by this language, the rules and boundaries on the map should not apply to the tribes.  However, in reality, this is not the case.  The Navajo finds themselves almost entirely in the Colorado River Basin—upper and lower—and within the three states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.  The geography of the Navajo Nation, Pollack said, makes it difficult to protect the water rights of the Navajo because there are so many entities at play, each with its own rules, regulations, and characteristics.

Pollack then rhetorically asked why, if the language of the compact really meant what it said, is providing water to the Navajo such a problem.  He answered this by saying that, as an attorney for the NNDOJ, he can litigate and litigate, but at the end of the day, only Congress has the power to authorize a water development plan for the tribes.  Therefore, Congress will use that power as it sees fit, and, ultimately, litigation is a “hollow exercise.”  Litigation yields merely paper water rights, and the people Pollack represents cannot drink water from the paper he might obtain in litigation.  Consequently, when the Navajo want to develop their water, they must go to Congress and request the funding necessary for that project.  In doing so, they have to make sure that what they want to do fits within the political systems in place.  Pollack explained that the Colorado River Basin is not just about where the watersheds are on a map or the water within the system, but rather the areas that can receive water because of the Colorado River System.

Pollack next discussed how the upper basin is composed of the parts of the upper-basin-states Lee Ferry serves.  Lee Ferry is the dividing point between the upper and lower basins.  The lower basin is composed of those parts of the states without the drainage of the Colorado River system.  This means any part of a state, whether in the upper or lower basin, is really part of the upper basin if water from the upper basin can serve it.

The only parts of New Mexico considered part of the Colorado River Basin are in the lower basin, Pollack said.  He then displayed a map and pointed out the Navajo Nation, the San Juan River Basin, and the New Mexico Water Rights Settlement.  The centerpiece of the New Mexico settlement, Pollack said, is the Supply Project.  He explained that there are two pipelines coming from the San Juan River that serve communities in the upper basin and lower basin in New Mexico, the Rio Grande area, and Arizona.  Pollack noted that this creates four different communities needing water delivery.  Delivering water from the San Juan River to communities in the upper basin of New Mexico requires little transportation because the communities use water from the upper basin.  Pollack further explained that the geographical location of the upper basin makes sending water to the Rio Grande very simple, but sending water to the lower basin more difficult because the lower basin has the drainage of the Colorado River System.

It is as odd paradox, Pollack continued, that the rules essentially encourage an out-of-basin use of water by sending water to the Rio Grande where there is no return flow to the Colorado River.  While, at the same time, the rules are set up against using water in the lower basin where there is the drainage of the Colorado River System because the waters below Lee Ferry can serve the lower basin.  However, in 2003, Pollack went to the Upper Colorado River Commission and persuaded the body to allow the Supply Project to deliver water from the upper basin to the lower basin, provided that the Supply Project consider the water use as an upper basin use.  What is important about this, Pollack said, is that the states can work together to find solutions to interstate problems even though the laws of the river on their face do not allow for such actions.

Pollack concluded his speech by introducing a pipeline project that he said is still “a pipe dream.”  The project, called the Western Navajo Pipeline, would deliver water to the Western portion of the Navajo Nation.  Pollack explained that the Western portion of the Navajo Nation is an area to which it is particularly difficult to get water because there are no sources of ground or surface water apart from the Colorado River.  This forces most Navajo to haul their water.  Pollack asserted that because it is so hard to get water from the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, the Navajo should get water from Lake Powell.  Therefore, he proposed to pump water from Lake Powell above the basin, and then pump it down into the Western Navajo area.  Pollack thinks that the precedent set from the New Mexico settlement, as well as the Upper Basin Resolution from 2003, should allow this pipeline pipe dream to become a reality.

Tucker Allen


“CONFLICTS AND COOPERATION: THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF INTERSTATE WATER COMPACTS”

Denver, Colorado                          April 8, 2016

THE COLORADO RIVER SYSTEM:  PERSPECTIVES FROM THE LOWER BASIN

Ted Kowalski, Chief of the Interstate, Federal & Water Information Section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, moderated a panel at the University of Denver Water Law Review Annual Symposium featuring three speakers addressing different perspectives from the Lower Basin.

The first speaker was Bill Hasencamp, Manager of Colorado River Resources, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (“MWD”).  Hasencamp represented the municipal provider perspective on the panel.  MWD covers a one trillion dollar economy, 5,200 square mile service area, and—as one of the largest water providers in the country— approximately nineteen million residents.  Hasencamp explained how the drought in the 1990s forced Southern California to rethink the way it rationed water.  In response to the drought, Southern California devised an integrated resource plan for meeting reliability needs of the region.  The plan focused on agricultural to urban transfers and augmenting the dry year water supply with storage.  According to Hasencamp, the plan was effective, but maintaining the water supply has been a challenge for several reasons.

One challenge has been the geography of the delta between Northern and Southern California.  According to Hasencamp, the state water project receives water from the Sacramento River that comes into the delta from the North.  The pumps for both the state water and central valley project are both in the South.  Therefore, in order for the water to move between Northern and Southern California, it must move through the delta.  Unfortunately, fish swim too close to the pump and, in order to protect them, state and federal environmental regulations have forced Southern California to reduce pumping with increasing frequency.  Hasencamp explained that this year alone, during the worst drought in California’s history, California lost nearly a million acre-feet of water because fish were swimming too close to the intake.  In addition to fisheries, other long-term risks on the delta include seismic concerns with the bay area fault, as well as rising seal levels.  Hasencamp warned that if catastrophe hit, the delta could become an inland sea, and that this might prohibit the pumping of water for years.

Hasencamp then asserted that the focus needs to be on getting the delta functioning again in a way that will protect the environment and meet the water needs of the state.  Hasencamp explained that MWD believes the way to do that is through tunnels under the delta.  With tunnels, if a catastrophe occurred and the delta failed, Southern California would not lose pumping as the state could still receive water from the river upstream.  Tunnels would also ensure that Southern California could obtain water in a way that protects fish from pumps.  The plan is currently up for approval and Hasencamp is hopeful that it will pass.

Another challenge for California has been the apportionment on the Colorado River.  Hasencamp explained that a series of compacts and agreements give each state a certain allocation of the Colorado River.  After fifty years, California saw a dramatic reduction in its apportionments under the Colorado River Compact.  As a result, the state had to develop a plan to limit water intake in order to live within the reduced allocation.  In response, California developed a plan with other states to keep the Colorado River Aqueduct full until the year 2016.  Through the combination of special surplus water and agricultural to urban transfers, the aqueduct would theoretically have stayed full until 2016.  However, Hasencamp described a catch in the plan: Lake Mead had to remain at least two-thirds full.  Unfortunately, as he explained, MWD did not anticipate the worst drought in the history of the Colorado Basin.  As a result, Southern California did not receive the anticipated water from the river and instead had to shift its focus locally toward developing recycling, desalination, groundwater recovery, and conservation plans.  Hasencamp briefly discussed some of these plans including implementing agricultural conservation measures with Imperial Irrigation District (“IID”) to grow the same crops with less water; lining the American and Coachella canals; developing programs to incentivize farmers not to grow crops; entering a water sharing agreement with Nevada; and developing the Lake Mead Storage Program.  Hasencamp explained that even as the drought in California continues, extra water does exist.  Unfortunately, California cannot pump the water so they are still receiving drought allocations.  In conclusion, he suggested that fixing the delta would help to alleviate this tension.

The second speaker was Chuck Cullom, Manager of Colorado River Programs, Central Arizona Project (“CAP”).  He represented an agricultural and urban perspective.  To begin, Cullom gave a brief overview of the Colorado River System describing it as “the engine of the west.”  While not even in the top twenty largest rivers in North America, the Colorado has four times the annual run-off in storage capacity.  CAP delivers water to four million people in Arizona, provides water for cities and irrigation, and has the most diverse customer classes in the Colorado River system, serving eleven tribes, ten irrigation districts, and ten cities.

Like Hasencamp, Cullom emphasized the steady decline in Lake Mead and the implications it had for CAP.  Currently, the Lower Basin runs at a deficit of about 1.2 million acre-feet every year.  In accordance with the compact, MWD and California have invested billions to reduce their water use from 5.1 to 4.4 million acre-feet, and, still, Lake Mead is declining.  The decline undermines the effectiveness of these cooperative agreements.  Cullom explained that from CAP’s perspective, it must bear the burden of this shortage from what, it believes, is a shared obligation.  The Colorado River system is a linked system of seven states in the Lower Basin.  As the reservoir declines, the reductions grow.  When Lake Mead evaporates, apportionments do not factor in that reduction.  But through cooperative agreements, states have been able to define what shortages will look like in the Lower Basin.

During the first anticipated shortage, Cullom clarified that CAP’s underground water storage will diminish and agriculture customers could be cut by more than half.  In light of the persistent long term risk of shortage, CAP has developed several responses.  First, it has invested millions into storing water underground to protect users from shortages.  Second, like MWD and IID partners in California, CAP has begun storing water in Lake Mead to prop the reservoir up in order to avoid immediate shortage issues and reduce the risk of long-term shortage issues.  CAP has reduced annual diversion by between 140,000-180,000 acre-feet.  By the end of this year, CAP will have stored 345,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead.

Cullom concluded by emphasizing that the structural deficit creates a long-term risk to all Lower Basin Colorado River users and undermines the ability to become cooperative and collaborative partners.  CAP is attempting to follow the lead of California in developing proactive steps to reduce its use, but also is looking to collaborate and cooperate with Lower Basin partners to assist and share in those additional reductions.

The final speaker was Kevin Kelly, General Manager of IID.  He represented the irrigation perspective in a district with the largest number of agricultural to urban transfers in the nation.  According to Kelly, because California has been exceeding its 4.4 million acre-foot entitlement to the Colorado River, IID entered into transfer agreements to bring California “back in line.”  As Kelly explained though, “the only dangling question mark is the Salton Sea.”

According to Kelly, Imperial Valley is an economically-challenged community with 450,000 acres in active cultivation.  Because of the vast farmland and economic nature of the community, the recession of the Salton Sea will have devastating impact on the Imperial Valley.  When the Salton Sea issue first arose, the state of California took responsibility for handling it, focusing primarily on restoration.  However, as Kelly explained, California failed to fulfill its responsibility.  In 2014, in order to bring this issue to the forefront, IID filed a petition with its own state water board.  It informed California of its failure to meet the task of tackling the Salton Sea problem and requested the state board resolve the Salton Seat question as a condition of the transfers.

By the year 2047, 74,000 acres of lakebed will lay exposed, and the water elevation will be negative 249,090 feet.  To address the issue, IID suggests filling up the lakebed with habitat and renewable energy projects.  Kelly argued that renewable energy projects would be especially effective because the same exposed lakebed in the Salton Sea happens to correspond with this hemisphere’s largest untapped geothermal resource.  Kelly asserted that this resource could replace the lost generation at the San Onofre nuclear plant.  Yet, unlike the plant, the Salton Sea would have virtually no emissions.

Kelly noted that California has the most aggressive renewable portfolio standard in the nation as well as the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction bills.  But in the last four years since San Onofre went down, air in California has become markedly more polluted.  According to Kelly, geothermal energy should be an integral part of the solution to filling up the exposed lakebed.  Kelly argued that IID could not enter another quantification settlement agreement when it is struggling to implement the first one.  At the end of his speech, he posed a rhetorical question: When you pit agriculture against all the other uses in California, who decides whose economic project is more important?  Kelly answered: “In a diversified economy in the southwest, agriculture needs to count for something.”

Neillie Fields