September 1, 2008

Water Washes Away Dems United Front

By Hazlehurst, John

During an interview with the Pueblo Chieftain's Charles Ashby, Sen. John McCain said that he supported the "renegotiation" of the 1922 interstate compact, which governs the distribution of the waters of the Colorado River among the seven states that border the river.

McCain was clear about the reasons: population growth in the lower basin states, specifically Arizona, Nevada, and California.

Colorado politicians from both parties responded with rage.

Both U.S. senatorial candidates, Mark Udall and Bob Schaffer, declared opposition to renegotiation, and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar said that the compact was "sacred" and should never be reopened.

During that same week, Colorado water managers, lawyers and developers at the annual meeting of the Colorado Water Congress, signed a statement strongly condemning McCain's position.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee quickly backed away from his statement, saying that "renegotiate" was not what he really meant.

But whether it was a calculated statement, or an inadvertent slip of the tongue, McCain brought up an uncomfortable and, at least among non-politicians, an undisputed truth: Colorado has the water and the lower basin states have the people.

To the extent that there is available, unappropriated water in the Colorado River basin, it belongs to Colorado and the upper basin states.

Along with McCain's home state of Arizona, California and Nevada have struggled as booming populations and regional droughts have exacerbated the impact of stagnant or diminishing water resources. Renegotiation of the compact might substantially benefit Arizona and its neighbors, and might also damage the interests of the upper basin states.

But as Western Water Assessment Director Brad Udall said last year, Colorado and Arizona may be fighting over phantom water. The drought, Udall said, had resulted in the loss of 30 million acre feet from storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, meaning that any unappropriated water exists only on paper.

And while last year's wet winter has improved storage in both reservoirs, the underlying situation is unchanged.

During the Democratic National Convention in Denver this week, Colorado Rep. John Salazar and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano offered very different perspectives about the continuing regional water wars.

"Water is the lifeblood of Colorado," Salazar said. "That's a bipartisan coalition. Without water, we don't have an economy, there's no more room to develop. (Renegotiating the compact) would devastate this state."

Napolitano's position was more nuanced, and she cited the fact that the compact has already been revised.

"I don't think that Sen. McCain was aware of this, but we just redid the Colorado River compact in 2007," she said. "That was signed. The Colorado River is not the most important source (of Arizona's water). There are lots of pieces to the water puzzle other than the compact. There's recharge, growth management techniques, re- use -- just ways that we use water more efficiently."

However, "redoing" the compact is not the same as renegotiating it. The agreement to which the governor referred had been negotiated during a six-year period between the seven signatories to the compact and the federal government. It does not alter the original terms and conditions of the compact, but provides a mechanism for the equitable division of the river's flows during a declared drought.

The agreement was necessary because of flaws in the compact which threatened to ignite a multi-state water war.

Patricia Mulroy, the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, had predicted that the compact might dissolve in a welter of lawsuits unless the federal government intervened.

When the compact was created, water was divided among the upper basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) and the lower basin states (California, Arizona and Nevada) according to a simple formula.

The upper basin states were obliged to deliver no less than 7.5 million acre feet annually, based on a 10-year rolling average, to the lower basin states.

The actual flows are far lower. The first two decades of the 20th century were among the wettest in the river's history.

Overestimating river flow had few consequences until recently. Lake Mead and Lake Powell stored water from wet years and released water during dry years.

Yet despite massive storage, water wars raged throughout much of the 20th century. These wars pitted California against Arizona and Nevada, both of which feared California's political clout and endless appetite for water.

Arizona was the last state to ratify the compact, which it did 22 years after the other signatories. Subsequently, Arizona fought California in a protracted legal battle over water for the Central Arizona Project, which ended after 11 years with a resounding Arizona victory.

During much of the last century, California used far more water than its compact allotment. The upper basin states had neither users nor storage for the surplus, so it flowed downstream. Since California had the means to transport the water and put it to "beneficial use," mainly for agriculture, it became theirs.

The other compact signatories realized that California's overuse could threaten their interests. Nevada and Arizona, arid states that were virtually unpopulated when the compact was created, joined with their natural foes in the upper basin to support measures to curb California's consumption. Led by then-Secretary of the Interior (and former Colorado attorney general) Gail Norton, the federal government forced California to abide by the terms of the compact, and successfully brokered the drought protection agreement to which Napolitano referred.

But despite the efforts of Democrats in Denver to paper over the dispute, and present a united front, this year's campaign already has an unavoidable subtext.

Politicians and water managers throughout the West are well aware that the Bush administration has strongly supported upper basin states, particularly when their interests clashed with those of California.

Vice President Cheney is a Wyoming native and represented that state in congress. Norton was followed as secretary of the interior by Dirk Kempthorne, a former Idaho governor whose sympathies are naturally with the Mountain West.

Convention delegate and Greeley City Councilwoman Pam Shaddock summarized the dilemma faced by elected officials across the west.

"In desert communities, water is our life blood," she said. "We can't grow without it, and we've been the fastest-growing county in the country for three of the last five years. We have to have water for all the smaller communities in Weld County -- it's a subject that's always there. We're looking at storage projects, at water from the Green and the Yampa ..."

Reminded that the Green and the Yampa are tributary to the Colorado, and that there may not be developable water in the Colorado River basin, Shaddock nodded.

"I know," she said, "but we have to have the water, whether it's there or not."

Credit: John Hazlehurst

(Copyright 2008 Dolan Media Newswires)

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