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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

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Water Education Colorado

California's New Colorado River Diet

By Jim Lochhead

Legal requirements to reduce California's use of the Colorado River put pressure on urban and rural water agencies to come up with a solution. Quantifying the amount of water consumed by their main water agencies such as the Imperial Irrigation District (right) and the Coachella Valley Water District (which serves the Palm Springs area above) was one of California's first steps in figuring out how to stay within their Colorado River allotment.Their recent agreement represents the largest transfer of water from agricultural to municipal use in U.S. history, and denotes a new era for the Colorado River.

What does it mean for Colorado?

On October 16, 2003 at a midday signing ceremony at Hoover Dam, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and a host of water managers from around the West made it official: California is on a Colorado River diet.

California's water diet is spelled out in a long-awaited series of agreements called the ‘Quantification Settlement Agreement’ or QSA. These agreements require California to stick to the allocations established by Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court permitting the Golden State to withdraw no more than 4.4 million acre-feet of water annually from the Colorado River.

Signing the QSA marked an historic event, signifying the first time in more than 70 years that the four major water agencies in Southern California — the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA), and Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) — were able to agree on how to allocate the precious waters of the Colorado River.

A History of Negotiation
Often referred to as the cornerstone of the ‘law of the river,’ the Colorado River Compact divides use of the river at Lee Ferry, Arizona between two huge basins: upper and lower. The lower basin consists of Arizona, Nevada, California, and parts of New Mexico and Utah. The upper basin includes Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, and a small portion of Arizona.

Initial refinements to the 1922 compact began during the first half of the century when agreements were negotiated to further share the river within the upper and lower basins. The 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act determined how the Colorado River was to be divided within the lower basin. Similarly, the Upper Colorado River Compact of 1948 distributed the use of Colorado River water amongst the upper basin states.

According to the Boulder Canyon Project Act, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior plays the important role of lower basin ‘water master’ responsible for distributing all Colorado River water below Hoover Dam. The act required all water users in the lower basin to contract with the Secretary for the delivery of water from the River on an annual basis. However, before the Secretary of the Interior was able to enter into such contracts in California, the major California water users needed to agree on how to allocate the state's 4.4 million acre-foot allotment.

This brought about the California Seven Party Agreement of 1931. This agreement divided up California's apportionment between the agricultural irrigation districts in the Yuma, Palo Verde, Imperial and Coachella valleys, and the cities on the coastal plain — MWD, San Diego and Los Angeles. The irrigation districts got the right to the first 3.85 million acre-feet of water. But they could not agree on just how much water each area was entitled to receive. The result was an unadministrable set of ‘cascading’ priorities, whereby the most senior district could use as much water as it wanted before passing the leftovers on to the next priority. It was a problem the California agencies could not solve until the QSA.

From the perspective of the other states on the river, the most troubling aspect of the Seven Party Agreement was the fact that after the 3.85 million acre-feet of agricultural water use was satisfied, only 550,000 acre-feet of California's 4.4 million acre-foot allocation was available for municipal use. MWD's Colorado River Aqueduct, with a capacity of over 1.2 million acre-feet per year, provides domestic and commercial water to nearly 18 million people in the metropolitan area from Ventura to San Diego. Without the surplus river water not used by the other states, the Colorado River Aqueduct would be less than half full.

For years, California's need for surplus water was satisfied by the unused water belonging to the other lower basin states — Arizona and Nevada. This brought California's total Colorado River water consumption up to some 5.3 million acre-feet annually. Yet as population growth in those two states increased water usage during the 1980s, the lower basin surplus started to disappear. MWD was fast becoming dependent on surplus water flowing down from the upper basin.

Stealin' Our Water?

Coloradans were becoming alarmed that California's dependence on upper basin surplus water might someday threaten the state's water rights under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. This concern arose despite one of the most important tenets of the compact — lower basin water deliveries are fixed at 75 million acre-feet delivered on a 10-year rolling average. The rest of the water the Colorado River produces may be used by the upper basin states as they are able — that water is not abandoned if not used currently. However, the lower basin may legally consume surplus water not used by Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah.

The original architects of the compact understood that the lower basin would grow and develop its water faster than the upper basin. Fixed water deliveries provided a solution so that water development along the river did not dissolve, as Colorado's compact negotiator Delph Carpenter put it, ‘into a mere contest of speed whereby an unfortunate unnatural growth would be forced upon one basin in order to keep pace with what might be a natural development in another basin.’

Still, by 1991 Colorado felt increasing concern that California's reliance on upper basin water surpluses might threaten the underpinnings of the 1922 compact. California's surplus water dependence also created pressure to allow water marketing from the upper to the lower basin — something that Colorado has always opposed as a threat to our water rights and as inconsistent with the compact.

These concerns led Colorado Governor Romer to write to Governor Wilson of California, offering a deal. Colorado would agree not to object to California's use of surplus upper basin water, but only for a limited time. In exchange, California would agree to develop an enforceable program to transfer water from senior agricultural water rights to the junior municipal rights held by the MWD. Governor Wilson accepted this concept, and the seven basin states and the Department of the Interior launched into a series of negotiations that did not resolve until 2003.

A major step in the negotiations occurred in 2001 when former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt approved a 15-year operating plan for water deliveries from Lake Mead, called the Interim Surplus Guidelines. These guidelines gave California the right to use specific quantities of Colorado River surpluses until 2016, but only if California met benchmarks to reduce the amount of water consumed by agriculture and transfer the saved water to metropolitan areas.

To initiate the transfers, MWD and San Diego agreed to pay IID and its farmers to implement irrigation efficiency and land fallowing programs. The hope was that increases in irrigation efficiency would reduce the agricultural districts' needs to fully consume their 3.85 million acre-foot senior priority. Water gained through increased efficiency could then be transferred over to the metropolitan areas of Southern California, and the state as a whole could be on its way to living within its 4.4 MAF Colorado River allotment.
However, the Interim Surplus Guidelines stipulated that the Secretary of the Interior would suspend the guidelines if the California water agencies missed any benchmarks. Suspension of the guidelines meant California would lose access to the surplus water the guidelines guaranteed, and the metropolitan areas so badly needed.

The first benchmark, set for December 31, 2002, required the California water agencies to enter into a Quantification Settlement Agreement. The QSA would quantify how much water each of the southern California agricultural irrigation districts was entitled to use. This quantification would then be the measuring stick against which water efficiency savings could be measured. The QSA would also set up the administrative arrangements for how the water saved through efficiency improvements would be transferred to MWD and San Diego.
Unfortunately, the California agencies failed to agree on the terms of a QSA, and the end-of-year deadline slipped by. The deal was killed by a vote of the Board of Directors of IID on the last day of the year.

California law requires the parties to a water transfer to mitigate the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the transfers. The IID Board felt the QSA failed to assure that IID would not be liable for millions of dollars in mitigation related to potential impacts to endangered species or reduced inflows of water to the Salton Sea. The IID Board also insisted that the QSA did not adequately address socio-economic impacts resulting from transfers of water out of the Imperial Valley — an area whose economy is wholly centered around irrigated agriculture.

As a result, Interior Secretary Gale Norton suspended the Interim Surplus Guidelines, cutting MWD off cold turkey from its surplus water fix. At the same time, she reduced the water order of the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest user of water within the 3.85 million acre-foot agricultural water right priority. This prompted IID to sue the Secretary. In response to the lawsuit, the Secretary started a federal investigation to determine whether IID was wasting water.

In July 2003, the Secretary determined that IID was in fact wasting some 300,000 acre-feet of water annually. (For comparison, this amount of water is about equal to what Denver Water normally supplies to its customers each year.) A basic principle of western water law is beneficial use without waste. The Secretary determined that water wasted by IID should be available to the other California Colorado River contractors. This meant IID was facing the loss of 300,000 acre-feet of water it would have transferred to the cities under the QSA, yet without the millions of dollars in compensation included in that deal. This risk of loss brought IID back to the negotiating table.

Finally, after intense and sometimes acrimonious negotiations, in October 2003 the four main California water agencies came to terms on a QSA. With this agreement, the Interior Secretary agreed to allow California to continue to use Colorado River surpluses until 2016, as originally agreed in the Interim Surplus Guidelines.

In reaching agreement, California water users overcame 70 years of historic rivalry over the Colorado River. Their agreement also set into motion the largest agricultural-to-urban water transfer ever undertaken. The finalization of the negotiations first initiated by Colorado in 1991 represents a milestone in the storied history of the development of the Colorado River, and important precedent for water management in the West.

The agreement — involving seven states, the federal government, and numerous local agencies — represents a triumph of public agency negotiation and compromise over litigation and divisiveness. It puts in place a management regime developed by public entities interested in sharing and managing a public resource for the benefit of the greatest number of people. It illustrates the trend of growing metropolitan areas looking to buy out farms and ranches for their water. Finally, it foreshadows an era in which a growing tension will exist between agricultural water efficiency and environmental values.

What does this agreement mean for Colorado? Whether or not the QSA is successfully implemented, the precedent has been established that the Secretary of the Interior will enforce the Colorado River water allocations set under the law of the river. California's water use will be limited one way or the other — through the hammer of law, or by cooperative agreement.

From an interstate compact point of view, Colorado has achieved all of the goals it aspired to since the compact was first negotiated in 1922 — specifically protection of our undeveloped Colorado River Basin water for use by future generations as need and feasibility warrant. By forcing California to live within its means, the QSA provides reassurance that our ability to develop water in the Colorado River Basin is for the time being, secure.

This security provides Colorado with the continued opportunity to manage its water in a deliberate and thoughtful manner — taking into consideration all sides, and basing our decisions on economic feasibility, societal need, and environmental responsibility. And that security is worth a lot.

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