Quenching the big thirst

Will a plan to curb California's use of the Colorado River hold water?

  • copyright 2001, Greg Siple
  • THE BIG STRAW: The Colorado River Aqueduct

    photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California
  • Tom Graff, Environmental Defense

  • UNQUENCHABLE AG: Fields flooded with Colorado River water

    photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California
  • STRAIGHT AND NARROW: A dry wash is channelized over the All-American Canal north of Yuma, Arizona

    Michael Collier
  • Tom Levy, Coachella Valley Water District

  • Map of the Metropolitan Water District

    Diane Sylvain
  • Map of the Colorado River System

    Diane Sylvain

When Bruce Babbitt took over as secretary of the Department of Interior in 1993, he immediately found himself in a face-off with the West's traditional powers.

His early high-profile battles with ranchers and miners over new fees for their use of the public lands gave him instant "whipping boy" status among the region's conservative leaders. And over the next eight years they found plenty of fodder for their claim that Babbitt, in cahoots with environmentalists, was waging a "war against the West" (HCN, 2/12/01: Mr. Babbitt's wild ride).

Yet late in his tenure, in December of 2000, Babbitt stood at a podium in Las Vegas' Caesar's Palace Hotel before some of the most conservative and powerful people in the West - and was treated like a hero.

The occasion was the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association, which brings together the men and women who run the Colorado River - the "water buffaloes" who wring every drop they can out of the river for agriculture and for urban growth.

In his speech that day, Babbitt announced that the seven states that use the river - Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California - had signed a peace treaty in the ongoing war over its water. The conflict centered on the West's reigning water heavyweight, California, and its use of the river that is the liquid heart of the West, starting high in the Colorado Rockies and flowing through the deserts of the Southwest on its way to the Gulf of California in Mexico.

"The Golden State" has long used more water than the 4.4 million acre-feet it is allocated under the Colorado River Compact. But until relatively recently, it didn't matter, because the other states were not using their full allocations. The other states, growing larger and thirstier with each passing year, worried that they would never get to use their full apportionments of the Colorado if California's use became institutionalized.

That was not going to happen now, Babbitt said. California had agreed to go on a water diet over the next 15 years, in exchange for being allowed to temporarily continue taking more than its annual share of Colorado River water.

"Within the last decade of the 20th century ... we have moved from pouring concrete to building the institutions and partnerships necessary to efficiently manage this great river system," Babbitt intoned.

At the end of his speech, the mainly Republican crowd got to its feet and gave the outgoing Democratic secretary a long ovation. "You might have thought it was the Treaty of Versailles. You'd have thought peace had broken out all over the world," recalls University of Colorado law professor David Getches.

But Getches, for one, was far from convinced that the so-called "4.4 plan" Babbitt laid out that day was a triumph at all.

"I think 15 years will pass and we won't see anything close to California using 4.4 million acre-feet under any conditions," Getches says. "This is like most multiparty, multifaceted deals. It's produced like a quilt. Everybody puts their pieces into it. It has coherence only in that everyone agrees it's finished."

Whether the 4.4 plan is more than a weakly stitched patchwork remains to be seen. To turn Babbitt's conceptual approach into something real and wet, institutions that traditionally battle each other must sit down at the table and hammer out conservation agreements.

The party's over

The Colorado River water squeeze has been developing for a long time, but for years "surplus" water in the system has allowed everyone to ignore it. Until the 1990s, California had used 800,000 acre-feet of "surplus" that belongs to its Lower Basin neighbors, Arizona and Nevada. Some 550,000 acre-feet of that water flowed to the Metropolitan Water District (hereafter referred to as the Met), which supplies water to 5,200 square miles and 16 million people living in the Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas. The rest went to the large agricultural irrigation districts, including the Imperial and Coachella in the southwest California desert.

When growth in Arizona and Nevada in the 1990s pinched that surplus off, California started using 800,000 acre-feet that belongs to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico - the Upper Basin states. But the Upper Basin is also growing, and that water won't be available forever.

California continues to grow, too. Not only has the Golden State's need for residential and urban water increased, but its legendary agricultural thirst - farmers use 80 percent of all waters in the state - has not slacked off a bit.

California has turned to the Colorado River because it lacks alternatives. Southern California has long reached for the abundant waters of the northern half of the state that flow into the San Francisco Bay and its large surrounding delta. In 1933, the federal government built the great Central Valley Project to shunt northern waters down to the San Joaquin Valley and further south. Then, in the 1960s, the state built the California Water Project, which provided even more water for farmers and urban communities in Southern California.

But in recent decades, Northern California has held off attempts by the Met to augment the flow with more water - both out of general anti-Southern California sentiment and out of environmental concerns. Forty percent of the rivers of the state come through the delta, east of San Francisco Bay. But the huge working system of saltwater and freshwater confluence that is referred to as the Bay-Delta is now a sick ecosystem, scientists say. It has been deprived of the freshwater flows that make its marshes and tidewaters so ecologically productive.

In 1982, California voters defeated the "Peripheral Canal" which would have sent more water destined for the Bay-Delta to Southern California. For several decades now, environmentalists have fought off a multi-decade effort to construct the Auburn Dam on the American River, which flows out of the Sierra Nevada mountains above Sacramento, and which would have sent more Bay-Delta water south. They triumphed at Mono Lake in 1994, forcing the city of Los Angeles to reduce its diversions from the streams feeding the delicate, saline lake on the east side of the Sierra Nevada (HCN, 12/8/97: Mono Lake: Victory over Los Angeles turns into local controversy). And in the 1990s, Los Angeles agreed to put some water back in dusty Owens Valley, which the city had dewatered earlier in the century (HCN, 4/24/00: Dust settles in Owens Valley).

"After the defeat of the Peripheral Canal and the Mono Lake environmental victory, the (Southern California) water establishment decided they had to shore up their Colorado River water," says Tom Graff, an attorney with Environmental Defense who specializes in California water issues. "Mono Lake didn't involve much water - only about 30,000 acre-feet per year - but it showed the public's values."

Without access to Northern California waters, the Metropolitan Water District has upped its Colorado River consumption. The sacred Law of the Colorado River has been bent and twisted to enable the Met to use 1.2 million acre-feet, instead of the 550,000 acre-feet it is entitled to.

Theoretically, in a dry year, a secretary of Interior could cut California off from this extra water by simply failing to declare the river to be in surplus. But over the past decade, no one - from Babbitt, the Water Master of the Colorado River, to the Upper Basin states whose water California is using - has wanted to see what would happen if the 16 million people the Met supplies with water were suddenly put on short rations.

Environmentalists feared that their gains of the past 20 years at Mono Lake and elsewhere could be lost if Californians decided that they wanted lush green lawns more than they wanted Mono Lake or a healthy San Francisco Bay-Delta. And everyone feared that a political war would break out in Washington, D.C., as California's huge congressional delegation attempted to change Western water rules to save the state's economy.

A new plan

Because it seemed impossible to simply shut down California's use of the extra water, the six states that share the Colorado River with California began nagging Babbitt, early in his tenure, to do something. So he, along with deputy secretary and chief Interior negotiator David Hayes, began to hold discussions with the Colorado River water establishment.

Babbitt brought the biggest stick available, says Dennis Underwood, the former head of California's Colorado River Board and the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation under former President George Bush. "Babbitt said, 'You have to develop a plan to demonstrate how you're going to live within your normal apportionment. Otherwise, I'm not going to approve surplus water,' " Underwood says.

The threat got California moving: What emerged after six years was the California Colorado River Water Use Plan, in which California and its major water users promise to cut use by 800,000 acre-feet by 2016. The plan describes 459,000 acre-feet of initial reductions, and pledges that the additional reductions will be developed over time. The initial reductions will come from still-to-be-negotiated contracts that will line canals, store water in exhausted underground aquifers, force feuding entities to share a major aqueduct, and leave some fields fallow in drought years.

In return, Babbitt signed the key federal promise: the Interim Surplus Criteria allows California to draw down "surplus waters" from Lake Mead over the next 15 years. It's a tit-for-tat arrangement: Water off the tops of Lake Mead and Lake Powell (by law, the two reservoirs have to be drawn down in lockstep) is to be used to give California 15 years to figure out how to save 800,000 acre-feet a year.

Taking a chance

The decision to allow the drawdown of Lake Mead is not without risk. Under the agreement, the BuRec could potentially lower the 28 million-acre-foot reservoir to within 4 million acre-feet of the point at which electricity generation begins to falter, and to within 6 million acre-feet of the point at which Las Vegas would no longer be able to withdraw drinking water.

Years before these problems would develop, the marinas on lakes Mead and Powell would be stranded a long way from the water and the boat ramps would be useful for little except skateboarding. Drinking even treated water from Lake Mead would be problematic, because pollutants would become concentrated in the shrinking reservoir.

These scenarios were unthinkable in the past. Until Babbitt signed the new policy, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had operated the Mead and Powell reservoirs cautiously. At the end of a heavy winter, the Bureau would be forced to send some water downstream to make room in the reservoirs for spring's mountain runoff. Both reservoirs were always kept filled to the brim, protection against a possible series of drought years. And "filled to the brim" means a lot of water: Together, Mead and Powell hold almost 60 million acre-feet - four years of normal flow on the Colorado River.

Southern California water agencies hated that policy. They saw it as deliberately wasting water that California could be using. If the reservoirs were routinely kept at lower levels, then floodwaters could be captured, and wasteful springtime releases would no longer occur.

"Wasteful" releases, though, can have value. During the 1990s, BuRec's flood-control releases in late winter made it past the massive California and Mexican irrigation and urban water intakes, and began to restore life to the desiccated Colorado River Delta - the dying, salt-ridden mouth of what writer Philip Fradkin called "a river no more."

Thanks to these releases, about 5 percent of the delta has come back to life (HCN, 7/3/00: A river resurrected: The Colorado River Delta gets a second chance). Now, because of the new reservoir-management policy Babbitt put into effect on January 16, 2001, that 5 percent is likely to die back again, and controlled floods out of Lake Powell through Glen Canyon Dam, intended to rebuild beaches in the Grand Canyon, will take place less often.

Babbitt, then, traded away a cautious drought-protection policy and the possibility of wet-year releases to a reviving Colorado River Delta in order to get the California water establishment to skinny down.

Whither the environment?

By rights, environmentalists at Babbitt's Las Vegas speech should have been applauding even louder than the water buffaloes. They back reducing California's use to 4.4 million acre-feet. And groups such as Environmental Defense have pushed for years to pry water loose from the old, constricting Law-of-the-River rules, so that water could be moved from places of low economic value, such as alfalfa and cotton fields, to places of high value. Once the old "first in time, first in right" water-allocation structure broke down, environmentalists expected government regulation to ensure that some of the freed water would remain in streams to nurture wildlife and marshes.

But it didn't work out that way when Babbitt, a card-carrying environmentalist, brought change to the Colorado River.

Jennifer Pitt, who works for Environmental Defense in Boulder, Colo., says, "The goal of 4.4 is laudable. (But) the way it's set up means less water in the lower part of the Colorado River. Less water to be used by riparian vegetation."

The environmentalists worked hard to keep water flowing to the Colorado Delta. About a dozen groups, led by Pacific Institute in Oakland, submitted an alternative to the Bureau of Reclamation that would have sent the delta 32,000 acre-feet a year out of the surplus, with occasional spring floods to spread seeds over the delta. The Bureau had invited the environmentalists' alternative. But when the seven basin states screamed in reaction to it - Colorado, for example, seemed more worried about giving a small amount of water to Mexico than giving a large amount to California - the Bureau and Babbitt backed far away from the alternative.

Instead, the Bureau adopted the consensus proposal submitted at the last minute by the seven basin states, and Babbitt honored his promise to adopt a consensus proposal - even though the consensus didn't include the environmentalists or Mexico.

Nevertheless, Eric Kuhn, a progressive water buffalo who runs the Colorado River Water Conservation District in western Colorado, says, "The environmentalists have won the battle for the (Colorado River) delta. Most in the water community accept that they have to deal with the delta." He says that the environmentalists didn't get what they wanted in this round because they "wanted too big a deal too soon." But even so, "They've won. It's not if. It's how much, and when."

Michael Cohen of the Pacific Institute is more ambivalent. He says the 4.4 plan "makes shortages more likely on the system," which could further damage the delta. But he is pleased by a December 2000 agreement, called Treaty Minute 306, between Mexico and the U.S., in which both countries pledge to work toward restoring the delta. "It's a huge step forward," Cohen says.

Promises, promises

More basic than the question of whether the 4.4. plan hurts or helps the environment is whether California can really reduce its consumption. Conceptually, the idea of saving water on farms and sending the saved water to cities is simple. But critics say the 4.4 plan lacks teeth: "The Upper Basin states have grudgingly gone along with this on the basis that it's better to have a promise from California. But it's virtually unenforceable," says the University of Colorado's David Getches.

"For some reason, the other six Colorado River states prefer the appearance that California is going to do it, rather than to actually require California to do it," echoes Environmental Defense's Tom Graff. "There's no real sanctions if California flubs its commitments."

Graff says some of the promised steps outlined in the plan - including the commitment to save water by lining the All-American canal on the Mexican border, and the plan to store water underground at Cadiz - have already hit snags (see stories pages 11 and 13).

Indeed, with Babbitt offstage and with no new leader in sight, the hard work is now up to California's water establishment. A look at the past is not encouraging. The only time recently when California's irrigation districts and coastal cities were not on the verge of war was when they were at war. And it was never a simple city-vs.-country lineup: San Diego and the Met fight far more viciously against each other than against the farmers, and the Coachella and Imperial irrigation districts have been suing each other for decades.

Even the state can be flaky. In 1998, the California Legislature appropriated $235 million to line the All-American Canal and send the water that would be saved to the cities. That appropriation showed a statewide commitment to the goal of 4.4. Then, in early 2001, before construction could begin, Gov. Gray Davis spent that money to buy a week's worth of electricity; it was only restored recently.

And then there is the 65-year-long battle between the Imperial and Coachella districts. Four irrigation districts share 3.85 million acre-feet of water out of the Colorado. That's more than one-quarter of the river's average annual flow. Amazingly enough, this huge collective right has never been divided or quantified. Coachella has long felt that Imperial, which has the right to drink first, has taken too much river water, leaving Coachella overly dependent on overdrawn groundwater.

At the moment, Imperial and Coachella appear close to signing a Quantification Settlement Agreement. If nothing happens to derail the signing, Coachella Valley Water District manager Tom Levy says 38 other nuts-and-bolts agreements, describing how water will be saved and who will get that water, will go forward.

The Indian tribes on the Colorado provide an additional complication. Many tribes have claims to Colorado River water that are small, but senior to all agricultural and urban claims. Any comprehensive settlement will have to guarantee relatively small amounts of water - a few thousand acre-feet here and a few hundred there - to satisfy the Indian claims. Babbitt, who oversaw the Bureau of Indian Affairs, made that need clear in his annual speeches to the Colorado River Water Users Association.

So it is a mess: A mess rooted in the establishment of farms and cities in a desert dependent on a river whose Rocky Mountain headwaters are far away. The present set of deals are so many and so complex that no one knows whether they can come together to reduce California's water use to 4.4 million acre-feet per year.

Still, Coachella's Tom Levy is optimistic. He thinks Southern California has changed in fundamental ways: It no longer believes it has a right to most of the Colorado River or to drink Northern California dry.

Although the state has only laid out enough savings in the state-sanctioned plan to "get down to 4.7 or 4.8, we've said in the plan that in 15 years, if we have a normal year, we're at 4.4," says Levy. "I think we'll find the added savings. We've agreed to be at 4.4."

Eric Kuhn lines up with Levy. "I largely think it's a political, feel-good deal. But I also think there will be real progress. I see California getting down to 4.7 or 4.8. It's progress. It's about a broad direction.

"I have seen a shift in California attitudes over the last five or six years. That's what you can give Babbitt the most credit for. He was a peer - they couldn't buffalo him."

When the rains don't come

Even if California's squabbling water institutions manage to deliver on the 4.4 plan's promise, two potential obstacles remain. The first is drought: A series of dry winters could leave the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dams and reservoirs on the Colorado, with the ugly choice of cutting off either Las Vegas or California from its primary water supply.

The other obstacle is the public. Although the creation of the 4.4 plan was an open process, with an environmental impact statement and public hearings and excellent news stories, the public paid literally no attention. Four regional meetings last August attracted no spoken testimony from the general public. Only six citizens submitted written comments, apart from the 7,000 nearly identical e-mails generated by an Environmental Defense Web site. The six written comments are less than many grazing allotment studies attract.

So the public is likely to be shocked if a few dry years require that "Lakes" Powell and Mead be drawn sharply down. "How did that happen?" fishermen and houseboat owners will ask. "Why weren't we consulted?"

Water consultant Mike Clinton, the former executive director of the Imperial Irrigation District, argues that the system worked the way it was supposed to, despite citizens' seeming apathy. The public wasn't paying attention "because the public doesn't get involved if there is no crisis. A lot of the things being debated are 15 to 20 years away from now.

"Even though there was a lot of press, it went into people's background noise. They didn't hear it. So it's left to the appointed and elected officials, whose responsibility it is to husband these resources."

There's a different way to see the lack of public involvement. It can be argued that the public had already done its part, and made the big decisions: when the Peripheral Canal went to a vote; when Mono Lake was close to death due to LA's thirst; when the dust storms blowing across the Owens Valley called out for the dry lake bed to be watered; and when Northern Californians demanded that something be done about the Bay-Delta.

The public, directly in a referendum, or through the courts, or by putting pressure on elected officials, spoke each time. And each decision prevented the water establishment from building dams or canals or continuing to withdraw quite as much water from a river or river delta.

So the public was involved, and did make a decision about the direction it wanted to go. Now it is up to the water establishment to work out the details.

Bullet-proof plan

There is one more aspect to the 4.4 plan: It is probably bulletproof, in the sense that no one will want to be held responsible for toppling it. Environmentalists are unlikely to launch a major lawsuit, even though the plan did not give them what they wanted at the Colorado River Delta. And even though the agreements protect major environmental gains at Mono Lake, the Owens Valley and the Bay-Delta, the Bush administration will probably leave them alone.

This is something new in the West. The sustained policy-making that Babbitt, Interior solicitor and now Berkeley Law Professor Joseph Sax, and chief Interior negotiator David Hayes brought to Western water is unusual, except when it comes to building dams. John Wesley Powell tried to make policy in the 19th century, when he warned that the region didn't have enough water to settle all the land in traditional ways. He was run over, hard, by would-be settlers, speculators and Western legislators and governors.

Babbitt has been both luckier and better situated. He shaped his new policy during a wet decade, when there was no immediate crisis. And he had more clout than Powell, because as Interior secretary, he oversaw the agencies that hold the keys to the river's water. As boss of the Bureau of Reclamation, Babbitt was the Water Master - the person who could turn on and off the dams. As boss of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he could help those who wanted to change water uses do so without running up too high a bill to mitigate endangered species problems. As boss of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he had the power to bring water rights lawsuits on behalf of the Indians against those who weren't cooperative.

He also had the credentials to be a water buffalo. He was governor of Arizona when that state passed a law restricting groundwater pumping. As a water attorney, he represented some rural Nevadans in their fight against Las Vegas' attempt to drain northern Nevada dry.

And finally, he had the luxury of an eight-year run at Interior.

Will the Bush administration show the same kind of leadership? It will take time for Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her appointees to get involved. Babbitt became secretary in early 1993, but he didn't make his first speech to the Colorado River Water Users until late in 1995.

Moreover, the new federal rules are already in place. They were produced by a seven-state consensus. The feds will continue to play an important role. Many of the agreements to implement the California 4.4 plan will require federal permits, endangered species permissions from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and even federal money.

But the big federal decision - allowing California to keep using more than its share of Colorado River water for the next 15 years - has been made; it may be that the leadership now has to emerge from the water buffaloes themselves. In the past, this has always been a man's game. But at the moment, the most prominent member of the group is Patricia Mulroy of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. She speaks loudly, she carries a big stick, and she knows how to implement an agenda (HCN, 4/9/01: The water empress of Vegas).

Back when California was trying to convince the basin states to draw Lake Mead down much farther than Babbitt finally specified, Mulroy said, "This is just not acceptable. Where does the need stop and the greed begin? Using surplus is an integral part of our water-resource picture, but we have to do it in a fashion where we don't destroy our own environment."

At Babbitt's last speech, where the Colorado River Delta was slighted, Mulroy told the utility managers, federal officials, tribal representatives and others that it was time to get to work.

"We are going to have to tackle the issue of the Mexican delta," she was quoted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

That led environmentalist David Hogan of the Tucson-based, very tough Center for Biological Diversity to call her statement remarkable for a Western water manager, but not unprecedented for Mulroy.

It may be that new basinwide leadership will emerge from within the water buffaloes. It may even be that it's time to retire the term.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Living off a leaky canal

- Will the Met wring the desert dry?

One of the best sources of information about the evolution of water policy in the Lower Basin of the Colorado River is the series of six speeches given by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to the annual gathering of the Colorado River Water Users Association. You can read them www.hcn.org/2001/babbitt_speeches/ on our Web site.


  • Environmental Defense, 510/658-8008;
  • Bureau of Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region, 702/293-8421 or www.lc.usbr.gov;
  • Water Education Foundation, 916/444-6240 or www.watereducation.org;
  • Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, 213/217-6000;
  • Pacific Institute, 510/251-1600.
High Country News Classifieds
    The Executive Director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance (BCA) builds and leads a premiere North Dakota advocacy group that serves to protect the ecology of...
    Application deadline: Monday, March 6th, 2023, at 5 p.m. MST. Anticipated start date: May 15, 2023 About the position Are you ready to craft an...
    Application deadline: Monday, March 27, 2023, at 5 p.m. MST Anticipated start date: May 22 or May 30, 2023 About the position Do you want...
    About the Organization Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) is a joint Canada-U.S. not-for-profit organization with a mission to connect and protect wildlife habitat from...
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a Virginia Spencer Davis fellow. The...
    The Grants Manager is a passionate information manager, fundraiser, and communicator versed in government and foundation grant and cooperative agreement writing and management, specifically to...
    The Communications Director is a passionate communications professional versed in conservation and regenerative agriculture, as well as nonprofit communications and data management across several program...
    The Education and Outreach Director is a people-oriented facilitator, communications wizard, and team leader who has experience designing, managing, and fundraising for land based educational...
    Restored traditional adobe home in No. New Mexico on 1+ acre site, irrigation water, separate large shop/studio. Please email for photos/full description.
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
    hat We Can Achieve Together: If you are a detailed individual that takes pride in your accuracy, this position may be the perfect opportunity for...
    Are you ready to take the reins at Lemhi County Humane Society and make a difference in the lives of countless animals? We are seeking...
    We characterize contaminated sites, identify buried drums, tanks, debris and also locate groundwater.
    The Clark Fork Coalition (CFC) seeks an enthusiastic Development Director to lead all fundraising activities in support of our mission to protect and restore the...
    The Matador Ranch Manager directs operations, communication, and maintenance for TNC Montana's Matador Ranch preserve with a focus on ecological management and restoration, grazing management,...
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...