On New Year’s Eve, the normally placid pumping station of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California at Lake Havasu felt tense. Armed security guards on the scene since 9/11 seemed grim, and tourists seeking bird-watching information were turned away.
those old black-and-white pictures from when Owens Valley farmers
blew up the original California Aqueduct and forced William
Mulholland’s men from Los Angeles to guard their plunder.
Though this was probably business as usual, it reminded me that
we’d just seen the collapse of the new Colorado River plan.
When the Imperial Valley Irrigation District voted down
the transfer of some of its water to San Diego County in December,
it disrupted an important cog in California’s economy, the
sixth largest in the world. Even a last-ditch attempt on Dec. 31 to
rectify the situation could not repair the damage.
Everyone can now see that the Colorado River Compact, the Law of
the River, or what I’ve long described as the "fiction of the
river," is obsolete. A decade-long process of recrafting the
agreement into a win-win situation for everyone seemed poised to
succeed -- until the agricultural district exercised its selfish
prerogative and told the state, "this water is ours."
parties agree that reallocation of Colorado River water must occur.
The Colorado River Compact dates from the legendary 1922 US Supreme
Court case, Wyoming v. California, when the court ruled the "first
in time, first in right" presumption of priority in Western water
use applied across state lines as well as within states.
Rebuffed by the court, upper river states like Wyoming and Colorado
tried to reserve water for future growth -- then imagined as
agriculture -- by letting California take most of the water south
of Lee’s Ferry, Ariz. They salvaged an equal amount for the
states on the upper river.
That deal had all kinds of
consequences, but the most important was the creation of an
agricultural oligarchy of federally subsidized water that persists
Water is power in the West, and it is badly
distributed. Three irrigation districts in California, including
the Imperial Valley, hold priority rights to 3.85 million acre-feet
of the state’s 4.4 million-acre foot allotment from the
Colorado River. That leaves 600,000 acre-feet for the entire Los
Angeles Basin’s more than 20 million people.
every Western state, 80 percent of the water goes to agriculture
and ranching. Yet in no state, even California, do those activities
generate 5 percent of the state economy. In short, every hour of
every day, water goes to Western agriculture because it always has
-- not because the crops its produces are necessary, or it creates
plentiful jobs, or taxes on its profits fill state coffers.
Subsidized agriculture also creates competition for farmers and
ranchers elsewhere in the country who are not so fortunate as to
receive federal subsidies.
Do we really need cotton from
Yuma, Ariz,, or alfalfa from the Walker River in northern Nevada?
Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton is the rivermaster,
and she has lately decided to hold states to the terms of the
compact. By her decision, excess river water will no longer flow to
California and Nevada. As a result, California will have to replace
almost 1 million acre-feet of water this year if no accommodation
Nevada will lose 30,000 acre feet. This is
necessary, though it seems punitive and misplaced, but because of
one rural vote, the cities that produce California’s greatest
wealth will feel pain while the agriculturalists who caused it will
continue to drown their fields with impunity.
as the secretary’s action was, stopping the excess flow
isn’t enough. Interior Secretary Norton should scrap the
Colorado River Compact and reallocate water to reflect the
realities of the New West. This is the time for a bold federal
A new compact could take into account urban use,
environmental law, new economic activity, fluctuation in water
quantity, water quality and countless other contingencies that
didn’t exist 80 years ago. It could create a Colorado River
for the needs of today and tomorrow, not one beholden to a flawed
past. Such a step requires the leadership to exercise federal
power, anathema to the Bush administration.
This is a
decision about the recovery of one of the world’s most
productive economies. Even as greater Los Angeles rebounds,
carrying the Bay Area and nearby states with it, there now looms
the threat of a water shortage that will hurt everyone.
The West deserves a better distribution of its most precious
resource. Step up, Secretary Norton, shake off that anti-federal
cloak your administration wears, and swing away.