It’s time for a new law of the river

  • Hal Rothman


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.

It recalled 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 the city’s 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see that the Colorado River Compact, the Law of the River, or what I’ve long described as the “fiction of the river,” is obsolete.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.” All parties agree that reallocation of Colorado River water must occur. The Colorado River Compact dates from the legendary 1922 U.S. 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 until today.

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.

In 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 it produces necessary crops, or creates plentiful jobs, or fills state coffers with the taxes on its profits. Do we really need cotton from Yuma, Ariz., or alfalfa from the Walker River in northern Nevada?

Subsidized agriculture also creates competition for farmers and ranchers elsewhere in the country who are not so fortunate as to receive federal subsidies.

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 is reached, and Nevada will lose 30,000 acre feet. Because of Imperial Valley’s 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 direct 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 role.

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.

Hal Rothman teaches history at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and is the author of numerous books about the West.

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