Good intentions gone awry on the Colorado River

 

Lake Mead in December 2012. Photo/Allen Best

Lake Mead in December 2012. Photo/Allen Best

Good intentions, bad information & the declining waters of Lake Mead

by Allen Best

For Brad Udall, family history and public policy in the Colorado River mingle. His father was Morris K. Udall, a congressman from Arizona who pushed hard for the Central Arizona Project, which was approved by Congress in 1968. His uncle Stewart Udall, a former Arizona congressman, was secretary of Interior when CAP was approved.

Interior is the primary federal agency overseeing water affairs in the Southwest and the parent agency for the Bureau of Reclamation, which has built and administered this hydraulic infrastructure.

Looking back now, he can conclude that both his late father and late uncle as well as many other well-intentioned politicians and policy makers erred in pushing the massive diversion of water from the Colorado River, helping lead to the existing “structural problem” in the basin.

The problem is most evident at Lake Mead, the giant reservoir near Las Vegas created by construction of Hoover Dam  in the 1930s. The reservoir would be losing 12 feet a year if only the so-called “normal” releases upstream from Lake Powell had occurred. Powell, in fact, has been releasing more.

Because of upper basin drought more years than not since 2000, Powell is facing challenges of its own, leading to a still-small probability that there will be too little water in the next 10 to 20 years to drive the giant turbines in Glen Canyon Dam. That electricity yields $120 million in revenues for the federal government, paying for everything from transmission lines to the endangered fish recovery program in several of the basin’s rivers.

At Lake Mead, the emergency arrives more rapidly. It now appears the reservoir will be   unable to provide water for all existing commitments to the lower-basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, said Udall at the recent Colorado River Water Conservation District’s annual seminar.

In his talk, Truth and Consequences of the 1968 CAP Act,” Udall was most focused on 1968, the year that Congress finally approved the CAP along with a variety of other smaller projects in Colorado and other states.

main-map-large-2The CAP is a huge project, even now requiring 400 megawatts, such as would be produced by a good-sized coal-fired plant, simply to move the water from the Colorado River uphill to Phoenix and Tucson. With it, Arizona has grown in population from 1.8 million in 1970, about the time construction of the CAP began, to 6.5 million today.

Udall’s talk was fast, rich in history and dense with information alluding to both the complex water history and intricate  “plumbing” of the Southwest. You can study his PowerPoint here.

He draws on not only family history, but his own extensive engagement with water issues. He was a guide in the Grand Canyon and a hydraulic engineer in Boulder, Colo., before becoming director of the Western Water Assessment. He recently affiliated with the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University.

In 1968, he said, it was clear that waters of the Colorado River Basin were being developed beyond the assured capacity of the river to provide. Politicians and policy-makers nonetheless were working without complete knowledge.

“I’m actually humbled about how little we knew in 1968,” he said.

It wasn’t that Udall’s family and others in Colorado, Arizona, and other states of the Southwest set out to make bad decisions. “These were actually well-meaning people,” he said.

The structural deficit exhibited by the inexorable draw-down of Lake Mead will only be exacerbated by the drying effect predicted by most computer climate-change models. Climate change, he said, makes the structure deficit apparent sooner and “it probably makes it greater.”

Udall then quoted the late Norris Hundley Jr., who wrote a magisterial history of water projects in the Colorado River Basin and updated it in 2008. “A limited supply of water in a vast, arid … region is hardly a recipe for tranquility,” Hundley wrote. “The drafters of the Central Arizona Project were mesmerized by their desire for haste, their personal and political goals.”

“Without authoritative data, they had an opportunity to pick and choose information that best suited their interests and uncertainties, and that’s what they did,” Hundley wrote.

And the lesson for today?

“I think it’s possible we could be making mistakes based on incomplete knowledge,” said Udall.

To watch a video of the presentation, go to: https://www.youtube.com/v/bVDm9OBm3cI&list=UUralr1BDQPMIaShXZeIL7AQ

Postscript:

After this story was first posted, Brad Udall responded to the questions I should have asked him in the Q&A in Grand Junction:

“Yes, the (Colorado River) Compact is going to have to be revised. This is as clear as can be,” he said in an e-mail.

Two key elements of the compact are both under Article III:

(a) There is hereby apportioned from the Colorado River System in perpetuity to the Upper Basin and to the Lower Basin, respectively, the exclusive beneficial consumptive use of 7,500,000 acre-feet of water per annum, which shall include all water necessary for the supply of any rights which may now exist.

(d) The States of the Upper Division will not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted below an aggregate of 75,000,000 acre-feet for any period of ten consecutive years reckoned in continuing progressive series beginning with the first day of October next succeeding the ratification of this compact.

Udall explains that he has studied minutes of the meetings held in Santa Fe, N.M., in 1922, when the compact was drawn up. In his inspection of the meeting minutes, he finds that Colorado representative Delph Carpenter, known as the father of the compact, “was really clear that he wanted a number in III d that would never be operational. And yet that is where we find ourselves, which tells you that something has seriously gone wrong with the allocation.”

As for what mistakes we’re making today, “I would say that the jury is out, but any agreement over fixing the CAP legislation needs to be looked at very carefully,” he says.

“I am worried that any fixes will put states’ preferences first, at the potential expense of the nation. This basin now needs to think about allocations in the context of a healthy regional social/economic/environmental system, not solely just seven states vying for their share of the pie.  Everyone who uses this system is guilty of creating the situation we are in now, and everyone is going to have to contribute to a solution.”

Udall’s latter statements about collaboration are similar to those made many times in recent years by Pat Mulroy, the long-time general manager of Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Expect to see something written by Udall in the relatively near future.

 

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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