In a First, U.S. Puts Limits on California's Thirst
With the pumps switched off since 8 a.m. New Year's Day, less water is churning down the 242-mile aqueduct toward coastal Southern California, where 17 million people rely on snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains for washing dishes, flushing toilets and watering lawns.
For the first time since it was given the authority four decades ago, the United States Department of the Interior has said no to California's dipping into the Colorado River for more than its allotted share.
Nudged on by six other states that draw from the river, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton described the enforcement last month as "a turning point in the history of the Colorado River."
The circumstances that led to the crackdown involved a failed deal to move water from farms to cities in Southern California, a requirement of a federally brokered armistice along the Colorado two years ago. Though the farms-to-city provision was overshadowed by the consequences for California, it reflected an epic shift in the jostling for water that some water experts say could someday eclipse the rivalries among states.
Already as cities across the West look to agriculture to help meet growing water needs, demarcation lines are more likely to have swimming pools on one side and irrigation ditches on the other. Competing statehouses and cross-border agencies figure less into the calculation.
"Water has to move to the cities, and the only real issue now is under what terms," said Thomas J. Graff, regional director of the advocacy group Environmental Defense in Oakland, Calif., and a former member of the Colorado River Board of California.
The population in the West swelled by nearly one-fifth in the 1990's. California alone added 4.1 million people. The city of Phoenix grew by 350,000. At 66 percent, Nevada posted the fastest growth rate of any state.
Desperate to get water from a river whose every drop is spoken for, the booming urban centers that ring the Colorado River are looking inside their own states to entice farmers to break their century-old grip on irrigated water. While no one suggests agriculture will disappear, many farmers are likely to switch to crops that yield higher profits with less water. To make it happen, the rich urban areas are offering big sums of money and, when necessary, are exerting heavy political pressure.
That was demonstrated in striking fashion this week in the crackdown on California's water use, which was not limited to the idling of pumps here at Lake Havasu. The Interior Department, in another historic first, punished the most water-rich agricultural district in the West for not selling some water to San Diego County, where nearly three million people live with virtually no local water supplies.
Farmers in the district, the Imperial Irrigation District, pay $15.50 in delivery fees for each acre-foot of water they use. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to fill an acre to a depth of one foot.) San Diego offered to buy up to 200,000 acre-feet a year — about 7 percent of Imperial's supplies — for $250 per acre-foot. Though in the end the district's board approved the sale, it loaded the deal down with conditions the Interior Department and other water districts would not accept.
With no deal, Ms. Norton ordered that the Imperial Irrigation District
lose about the same amount of water from its annual Colorado River
allotment, in this case without compensation. Separately, she directed
cutbacks on surplus water to the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water
District of Southern California. It complied by turning off the pumps
near here on Wednesday morning.
Even if the water cuts are restored, as the Interior Department has pledged they will be if a belated deal on the San Diego sale is struck, water experts from across the West predicted "a new era of limits" for the Colorado River basin.
"This is a historic moment," Professor Sax said. "California must live within its allotment. In particular, cutting back agricultural users by this administration will be remembered as quite an extraordinary thing."
The tilt toward cities, though still resisted by many water interests, has been acknowledged even in places like the Imperial Valley, where farmers have siphoned water from the Colorado for a century and where people speak openly of their disdain for coastal California.
The Imperial Irrigation District has transferred more than 100,000 acre-feet of water each year over the last decade to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the biggest urban water district in the West. The water came from savings realized from conservation measures in the farm district that the urban district paid for.
This week, in voting in favor of the failed plan to sell 200,000 acre-feet a year to San Diego County, one of the Imperial district's directors said he felt the hand of history at his back. The director, Bruce Kuhn, said giving up the water had been the hardest decision of his life.
"History will be our judge," Mr. Kuhn said. "This decision will be talked about for at least 100 years."
Stella Mendoza, the board's president, voiced the fears of the farmers who turned up to oppose the sale. "I don't trust that San Diego will not come back for more," she said. "Once you take out the first pickle from the jar, the rest come easy."
Professor Sax said the consternation in the Imperial Valley was understandable, but was unlikely to change the eventual outcome in a material way.
"This is probably one of the more painful and more pathological versions of what is going to happen," he said. "But water has to move from agricultural to municipal use. There is no significant doubt about that."
The trick in the coming years will be striking a balance so that agriculture, which retains control of the vast majority of the water from the Colorado and is the biggest industry even in California, considers the transfers something farmers want to do.
Dennis B. Underwood, a former commissioner at the Bureau of Reclamation who is now a vice president of the Metropolitan Water District, said deals between farms and urban water districts were being fashioned so that the best farmland is preserved and farmers profit without forfeiting the future.
The Metropolitan district and the Palo Verde Irrigation District have agreed to a plan that would leave up to 29 percent of the district's farmland fallow in certain years to free water for Metropolitan's urban customers. "You take lands out for a year or two, they become more productive and then you bring them back into production," Mr. Underwood said. "It shores up the urban economy with water and also helps agriculture."
The greatest resistance, however, is likely to come when pressure grows for farmers in some districts to give up on water-guzzling crops like alfalfa and cotton.
"There is still going to be a lot of agriculture, but it is going to get by with less water used more efficiently and probably on higher value crops," Mr. Graff of Environmental Defense said. "Just throwing water on fields to grow grass or to grow cotton is increasingly inefficient and uneconomic."In California, the urban sharing of farm water has become particularly urgent because of the enforcement of the Colorado River limit of 4.4 million acre-feet. More than three-quarters of that water is allotted to farms like those in the Imperial Valley and Palo Verde. With no new big reclamation projects like the Hoover Dam on the horizon — more dams are being destroyed than built — California has been compelled to find ways to redistribute its finite supply.
"It has been a source of frustration of many on the environmental and agricultural sides that the U.S. government has not been strictly enforcing the conservation requirements in the urban sector," said Hal Candee, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Environmentalists also say they must be vigilant in ensuring that some of the water directed away from farms also goes to environmental projects, like restoring wetlands and water flows in depleted rivers.
In the past, California was able to sidestep its chronic water problems by dipping deeper into Lake Havasu, which gets its water from releases upstream at the Hoover Dam. Some years, the state took as much as 5.2 million acre-feet, an action that irritated the other six Colorado River basin states but that was of no great consequence because those states did not need the water.
But by the late 1990's, that had changed. Two neighboring states on the river's lower basin, Arizona and Nevada, were experiencing phenomenal growth and a greater thirst for the water California was monopolizing. And the basin that feeds the Colorado River was undergoing the worst drought on record.
That combination led to stepped-up demands by the six states — which also include New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah — for the Interior Department to force California to live within the allotment dictated in a Supreme Court ruling in 1963. In a complex set of negotiations, the states, along with the Department of the Interior, agreed to give California until 2016 to break its habit. But when the Southern California water agencies missed the deadline for the San Diego sale, the cutoff became immediate.
Though California's neighbors played tough, some water officials inside and outside California said that finally bringing the simmering issue to a head helped to cool tempers among the seven basin states. Kay Brothers, the assistant general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said a decade of increased cooperation among the states on things like storing water underground across state boundaries had also helped.
"I think we are at a pivotal moment in the West, and with cooperation so much better over the past 10 years, no one wants to lose the momentum," Ms. Brothers said. "It is a mind-set change that has developed among the states."
In one indication of possibly changed times, Mr. Underwood said he started calling colleagues in the six other states when it became apparent on Dec. 31 that the San Diego deal had fallen apart. He said there were no angry shouts, just offers of assistance.
"We all realize they have to enforce the law of the river," Mr. Underwood said. "But if you tear at the fabric, at the common thread, then everything unravels and you end up in the 1920's. That would be in nobody's best interest."
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