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An Interview with Colorado's Lead Negotiator for Colorado River Issues — Greg Walcher

By Karla Brown

CFWE: Could you describe your role as Colorado's lead negotiator for Colorado River issues over the last five years?

GW: Let me just start by saying it has been one of the most interesting and exciting, and I think in the long-term, important things that I have worked on in my life; certainly in this job.

As you know, this is a more than 10-year long battle with California. So it has transcended now through different administrations, both in Colorado and in Washington. It began when Jim Lochhead was in my position, and Bruce Babbitt was in the Secretary [of Interior's] office in Washington.

As one of the seven basin states, Colorado sends a representative appointed by the Governor, so I have been serving in that capacity. But we have approached it more on a team basis over the last five years. Partly because there is all sort of expertise all over Colorado that we ought to take advantage of, and because there is an institutional memory on this issue that's needed. So rather than be the only negotiator on the deal, I've been part of a delegation.

I view my job throughout the process as a two-fold thing: first to absolutely insist on protecting Colorado's position on the issues, and second to develop to the maximum extent possible, good relationships with all the other people involved so that we can not only prevail on Colorado's position on the issues, but help facilitate progress.

CFWE: What have been some of the milestones you encountered in the negotiation process?

GW: The very first milestone was to quantify California's water rights.

It's a difficult thing to explain to a lot of people in Colorado, because it's so counter to our culture that you can have a water right without it being quantified. Here, you can't get a(n) [unquantified] decree like that, but in California where you only have four or five water rights on the river, you get a decree that literally says, ‘such water as they may in their judgment need to irrigate x number of acres.’

So having to quantify the water rights of Palo Verde, Imperial and Coachella, that was the pre-requisite to getting anything done. The principles for the Quantitative Settlement Agreement by which they would even agree to meet together and talk about it were published on October 15, 1999. It was a huge step on California's part. And it felt good to us at the time, because Colorado had helped create the political necessity for California to do that.

All my life people have said, ‘Once they get that water, you'll never get it back from them.’ And that's been kind of the conventional wisdom in Colorado for a long time. But we had a hook here that we never had before.

After the Central Arizona Project was built and with the growth of Nevada into its full allotment of the river, for the first time in the history of the compact, there was no extra lower basin water left. So they needed a definition of ‘surplus’ [from the upper river basin] for the very first time in history. But the upper basin states said, ‘Nothing doing, not until you show us a 4.4 Plan.’ So California had this legal obligation that they just couldn't get out from under.

That led up to another milestone on May 11, 2000, which was the publication of the California 4.4 Plan. And that was a victory of historic proportions for Colorado and the other upper basins states. It helped, I think, prove once and for all, that the interstate compact is the law on the river, and it will be enforced.

A series of things followed after that. In August 2000, the Interim Surplus Guidelines were published. And December 2002 was set as the deadline for the QSA.


For me, probably the ultimate milestone in this process, was when the Imperial Irrigation District voted to kill the QSA that December. They did so, I believe, with an assumption that the Interior Department wouldn't really shut down their headgates. But they learned right away, that the Interior Department wasn't bluffing.

This [shutdown to the 4.4 level] lead to the California Legislature passing a law that required them by October of 2003 to adopt a QSA. That was a very important part of the process. Then, in July of 2003 the Interior Department came out with the Part 417 Guidelines, which stated that that IID was wasting water — which they're not allowed to do. This brought IID back to the negotiating table.

After that, Imperial continued to put out drafts of a QSA they thought would work. But what they wanted were assurances that none of the rest of us on the Colorado River get — assurances that they would never in the future ever be held liable if some future endangered species is found, for example. We would all love to have that kind of guarantee, but unless we get it [ourselves], we're not giving it to IID.

So at the end of August, MWD finally rejected the last IID proposal, and that really created the showdown at Bishop's Lodge, in Santa Fe, New Mexico this September. IID's tactic was: we'll sign the QSA, we'll make this deal, but if MWD doesn't live up to their obligation, our headgate will still stay open.

And I had to take a stand that was uncomfortable to me, because I'm sympathetic to the plight of farmers. But I had to say, ‘It's not about that, it's about Colorado's share of the river that you folks are using. If California doesn't meet these milestones, we'll have to insist that the law be followed.

And it doesn't matter to us, who in California breaks the deal.’

The result was that a few days later, IID finally agreed to the QSA. And I believe from now on, California's ability to meet all of their milestones is fairly well decided.

CFWE: So for you personally or professionally, what were some of the most challenging moments in the negotiations?

GW: Actually, the biggest challenge was one I already mentioned, which was the need to separate our concern for the plight of farmers, from doing what is best for the river and to enforce the compact.

This deal results in the biggest transfer of agricultural water to municipal use in the history of America. And I'm not comfortable with that. Most people who care about agriculture are not comfortable with that. The Imperial Valley is in many ways the fruit and vegetable basket of the world. So they have a very strong point to make about the plight of people who are looking at drying up maybe as much as 75,000 acres or more.

The second really difficult challenge has been Nevada, and separating out Nevada from California in this context. Nevada is a very different situation. It has also overused its share of the river, but in a proportion that is nothing compared to California. Their share is only 300,000 acre-feet compared to 4.4 million for California, and they have overused it by 30,000 acre-feet, compared to California's overuse of 800,000 acre-feet.

It has been very difficult to have to say to our friends in Nevada, ‘We don't have the ability to say 'yes' to you, while we say 'no' to California.’ So when the QSA failed, and they shut the headgates down, Nevada tried to have their headgates re-opened but leave California's shut. But we just simply couldn't agree to that.

CFWE: So from the state's perspective, what are the implications of the signing of the QSA for Colorado?

GW: To put it succinctly, it is the most important victory in water for Colorado since the signing of the interstate compact in 1922. It is absolutely of historical proportions to be able to say, no matter how many years California has overused the river, that it's Colorado's water and we will be able to develop it at Colorado's pace, and under Colorado's terms whenever we or our grand-children get ready to do that.

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