“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