Nevada: Officials estimate that the state's demand will push past supply as early as 2007
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States wrangle for Colo. River share
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 14, 2005 12:00 AM
Drought conditions on the Colorado River were nearing their worst in 2001 when the federal government adopted rules about how to deal with a surplus of water. So it makes sense in an odd way that as the seven river states meet starting today to talk about what to do in a shortage, snow levels in parts of Colorado's high country are as much as twice their December average.
But the stakes are higher this time. Instead of squabbling over how to divvy up extra water, no easy task in the arid West, the states are confronting the real possibility that in not too many years, there won't be enough water to go around.
That's why officials from the seven states are talking about seeding clouds, desalting water, lining canals and clearing out nasty weeds, all attempts to wring a little more from a wrung-out river. But more important and much more contentious are negotiations about how to manage whatever water the river produces.
These are discussions only a true water wonk could endure, filled with terms like conjunctive management and storage algorithms and steeped in often-indecipherable water law. But the bottom line is whether the states can agree on a way to share a shorter supply without crippling economies or spending the next decade in court.
"It's not a question of 'if' there's a shortage anymore, it's 'when,' " said Sid Wilson, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which delivers Colorado River water to Phoenix, Tucson and Pinal County. "We're struggling, but I have optimism that we'll reach a compromise. We have to."
Wilson and other representatives from the seven states - Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California - meet today in Las Vegas at the start of the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference. No one expects a solution before the end of the three-day gathering, but a deadline looms to submit proposals to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who has threatened to impose her own plan if the states don't agree on one.
Norton, who is scheduled to speak during the closing session of the conference on Friday, started the process of developing a set of federal shortage criteria earlier this year, making the states players in her game as a not-so-subtle reminder of her threat. Still, she would likely accept a seven-states package in full if the states could produce one.
Framework of a plan
So far, the states have succeeded in producing a framework for a plan but can't agree on many specific issues. Arizona lit a new fuse late last month with a letter that suggested some of the existing rules may be biased in favor of states on the upper river. That letter angered Colorado and its upper-basin neighbors and even drew some criticism from Arizona's lower-river allies, including Nevada, a state known for its own firebombs.
"We're not trying to rub their face in it, but Colorado's the one that fired the first shots," said Herb Guenther, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and author of the letter. "This is a two-way street."
Colorado had challenged Arizona and Nevada on its Colorado River tributaries, most of which aren't counted against the states' total river allocations. Colorado also led the fight to reduce the amount of water released to lower-basin states earlier this year, a fight Colorado lost when Norton stepped in.
The central question before the river's water users now is how best to manage water storage. Even in years when runoff from snow is average, the Colorado barely produces enough water to meet demands, and in dry years, needs are met only because the system can store so much water in reservoirs.
Five consecutive dry years weakened the system, exposing not only hundreds of miles of dry lake shorelines but also the risks of an even longer drought. By late 2004, for example, federal officials warned that power plants at Glen Canyon Dam could be just two years from shutting down because Lake Powell was shrinking so quickly.
Arizona faces the greatest risk in case of a shortage because of an agreement made more than 30 years ago to ensure construction of the CAP Canal. That's why state officials are pushing a long menu of proposals and why they are seeking changes to some of the most obscure rules.
But other states bring their own specific issues to the table:
� Colorado wants to develop more of its allocation. But with limited storage on the upper stretches of the river, achieving that goal means guarding the water in Lake Powell. Colorado argues that the lower-river states should be more flexible about how much water is released from the lake, especially in good runoff years.
� Utah is looking for ways to move water from Powell to growing communities in the state's southwestern corner. That puts Utah in Colorado's corner on protecting Lake Powell. But Utah would also like to explore ways to take some of its share from the Virgin River, which empties into Lake Mead, a lower-basin reservoir. That gives the state common ground with Arizona and Nevada.
� Southern Nevada has all but exhausted its Colorado River allocation, the smallest share among the seven states. Officials estimate that the state's demand will push past supply as early as 2007, even with some of the West's most stringent water rationing rules. Nevada also must protect storage levels at Lake Mead, which is where it draws its water from the river.
� California, which triggered creation of the surplus guidelines, is fighting more battles from within right now than among the river states. But California is eager to explore proposals that would conserve water or that would help transfer more water from farmers in the Imperial Valley to growing coastal cities.
What complicates the picture further is the way the river is managed between upper and lower basins. The upper-river states are required by law to deliver a set amount of water to the lower-river states. Lake Powell was built to make sure that was possible in dry years, but the law allows the lower-basin states to demand a full allocation, even if the upper-basin states have to give up their own supplies.
Hoping to avoid court
Before agreeing to any changes to the guidelines, the upper-river states want promises that the lower-river states won't demand a full allocation that would cut into the upper-river states' supply, that they won't issue a "compact call," a formal demand for full shares of the river.
"Instead of fighting each other over shortages, we ought to cooperatively be trying to address shortages by creating new supply," said Scott Balcomb, a Colorado lawyer and member of the Upper Colorado River Commission.
In talks earlier this year about Nevada's plan to tap a Colorado River tributary, Balcomb hinted that the upper-river states are prepared to fight such issues in court but said they would prefer not to risk putting such decisions in the hands of a judge.
"Water professionals should be able to do a better job than the courts," he said.
That's something all the states agree on, mostly because a court case could drag on for years. With growth creating new demands for water, no one wants to risk freezing the supply with a lawsuit. Still, state officials say they're prepared to defend their positions.
"Arizona did not initiate any of this," the CAP's Wilson said. "We took some prudent actions to prepare ourselves for what might happen. We do want to solve this through some mutual resolution. If we don't, it's going to be litigated, and if it does there will be losers."
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