“Cumulative Ballparks” and All That: the Colorado River Conflict This Month

Photograph Source: Grand Canyon National Park – CC BY 2.0

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, complained to the press last week, after the deadline had passed for a consensus agreement between the seven states that share Colorado River water along with Mexico and 30 Indian tribes

“They haven’t shared with us any cumulative ballpark … I believe it’s imperative we know the ballpark at least, and eventually the specific number, because it will be less of a gap to close on the necessary reductions.”

“They,” in Buscharzke’s complaint, is the federal Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), whose authority to dictate ballpark amounts of reductions to the states’ allotments of water from the water, may become one of the legal issues as this year – let us suggest a title, “The Year of the Shadowy Models” – wends uncertainly along like a river in the middle of its worst drought in 1,200 years.

California’s response to the deadline and the model proposed by the other six states was articulated ably by JB Hamby, a director of the Imperial Irrigation District and chair of the Colorado River Board of California (which negotiates with the federal government and the other states for California interests in Colorado River water):

“California remains focused on practical solutions that can be implemented now to protect volumes of water in storage without driving conflict and litigation,” he said in a statement on Monday.

So, at the moment it is a standoff between California, the six other states, and the federal government. And the feds aren’t talking, so – although rumors abound to great heights – it’s unknown how large a reduction in allotments the BOR will require. There are reports that the reservoirs on the river, Powell and Mead, if not rising are at least no longer falling at the moment. The snowfall has been great, which may be complicating the feds’ ballpark figure for reduction.

A few numbers will help us think about the political economic battle between states going on for Colorado River water.

First, a chart of the states’ allocations. These are not exact, but the percentages are probably still close, despite reductions due to drought and global warming already in place since the chart was posted.

Reported by Desert Sun, August 11, 2017, from Imperial Irrigation District data.

Next, consider the populations: California has 40.3 million people; the other six states, 22.75 million.

California has 53 members of Congress; the other six states have 41 members of Congress. In the 2020 Census, California lost a House seat and Colorado gained one.

In terms of population growth over the last decade, California grew by 8% while the other six states grew by 14.13%.

Another political factor is the speakership of the House. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, was from San Francisco, which gets its water from its own reservoir in the Sierra; Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, the new speaker, comes from Bakersfield and his district includes most of Kern County, all of Tulare County, and parts of Kings and eastern Fresno counties – some of the most productive agricultural counties in the nation and all with complex water crises. It’s worth noting that the longtime managing editor of the Bakersfield Californian, Lois Henry, quit her job several years ago to begin publishing an online newspaper devoted to San Joaquin Valley water issues: SJVWater. It’s always an education to read Ms. Henry.

McCarthy is a Californian, he knows water and represents big agribusiness and I don’t think it is wild surmise to assume he will be quite sympathetic to both Imperial Valley and the coastal metropolitan water districts that together receive California’s total allotment of Colorado River water. All members of Congress, but especially a speaker of the House, will have great influence on the Department of Interior. In this case, the speaker will be working with local California Democratic Party members of Congress, but probably in opposition to progressive Democrats like Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-AZ, former chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, with responsibility to oversee the Department of Interior.

Another factor behind the scenes – and given that the lights of this particular ballpark are out and perhaps not yet even wired – all we have is darkness, Wall Street investors, hedge funds and other institutional entities, are beginning to buy up farmland for the water rights. They are betting the water may be more valuable than the land or any crop on it as, in fact, some farmers in the Central California have known for years, selling water to various agricultural and residential water districts. The difference is that the farmers are by and large local residents with some, however hard-headed, care for their region. Hedge-fund managers have bought huge swaths of farmland, drilled deep wells, covered the pastures with almonds, dried up most of the wells in their vicinity – large chunks of capital and debt inflicted on the land without any respect, care, or affection for the character of the land or for the neighbors. Their only affection is for fast profit. And, failing to meet their neighbors, they will not listen, and not listening, they will fail to notice the crucial detail, for there are more variables in farming than are dreamed of in even the best schools of business.

 To complete the picture of the Modern AgroBeau on the Go, there is now a California Water futures market at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. It sells six-month contracts, cash only, no delivery of 10 acre-feet units.

To imagine that these new aquacapitalistes are not already applying the power of money to the halls of Congress is to become mesmerized with the sheer lack of information about this process.

We don’t have any numbers for either the six-state model or the California model or any idea of what the big shots at BOR are thinking, other than that global warming exists, we have a long, severe drought, and the states are expected to fall in line and reach a consensus, and spare us any mention of lawsuits, please. The only thing that is real about this process at the moment is the enmity everybody is denying, except California, which speaks as if it has the law on its side, which it does, at the moment.  Water districts in Coachella and Imperial valleys have offered to forego 400,000 acre-feet, but only if the federal government agrees to fix the Salton Sea. Considering the condition, some might doubt the sincerity of the number.

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation is seeking a US Supreme Court hearing on whether it can bring suit to gain access to Colorado River water. As many as 35-40% of its people lack running water and in recent years uranium has contaminated a number of wells on the reservation. Utes, Jicarilla Apaches, and Hopis also suffer from lack of running water. Last summer the Hopis couldn’t open their motel. And the attorney general of Colorado has threatened a lawsuit.

Drought and global warming is changing life on the Colorado Plateau and the rich farmland on desert delta of the river. California may not always have the law on its side and the federal government’s authority over the river is challenged (short of a lawsuit yet) by the Upper Basin states. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any agency speaking for the common good. In fact, what the common good is appears to be practically a seditious question. But, if the first appropriations system (first come-first serve) of water rights fails to distribute any justice at all along the river, it will eventually be challenged in federal courts and equity might prevail and realign water allotments. Perhaps along the way, in a minor cause of action, something could be done to  sharpen the definition of “beneficial use” of this highly subsidized, publicly owned water to exclude using 9-10 acre-feet of water to irrigate alfalfa for foreign export. This is not feeding America. It’s not even feeding American cows.

Why not consider replacing the Anglo-Saxon prior appropriation system of “Mine, Mine, All Mine” with the acequia system practiced in the Hispanic parts of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, built on Arab principles of collaboration of maintenance and repair and equable sharing? It might not be practical at the scale of seven states, but as long as the learned water experts are throwing out essentially secret models, why not try the model that is nearly as old in that region as the Native American irrigation systems? Perhaps, just considering a model not based solely on self-interest, something better might shake out.


Bill Hatch lives in the Central Valley in California. He is a member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade of San Francisco. He can be reached at: billhatch@hotmail.com.