Seven states know that they need to stabilize the Colorado River system.
However, consuming less water will require gargantuan tradeoffs and unimaginable complexities.
Colorado River Problems
The users of water from the Colorado River Basin include seven states, parts of Mexico, and 40 or so million people. Legal promises range from usage agreements and traditions to bond issues. Dating as far back as the 19th century and as recently as last year, contractual obligations involve large cities, small towns, Indian Reservations, crop irrigation, and generating electricity. The problems range from quarter full reservoirs to the entire river having less flow.
Recognizing what they are dealing with, the U.S. Department of the Interior asked the states to submit proposals that detail how they want to solve the Colorado River problems. At the low end, including more from California than they are willing to sacrifice, six of the states’ cuts could be 2 million acre feet of water (one acre foot is a whopping 326,000 gallons). In a separate proposal, California calls for a 400,000 acre foot reduction that would increase as water levels dropped. Meanwhile, the federal government is figuring out what it legally can mandate.
Complicating the negotiations further, tradition dictates a priority system that favors the farmers that already get 80 percent of the water. As a result, parts of Los Angeles lose water before the Imperial Valley’s growers. Similarly, Phoenix residents come after Yuma’s vegetable farms. And, as you might expect, farmers have said to expect a battle before they would give up any of their water.
For a taste of what we are talking about, you can see one water district that depends on the River:
Furthermore, National Geographic reminded us that the River Basin was wonderfully alive with “rattling kingfishers, circling mallards, probing cattle egrets, mischievous ravens, prowling ospreys, and snakelike cormorants diving for fish.” And, we should add that the Sierra Nevada snowpack and California reservoir levels increased this year.
Our Bottom Line: The Tragedy of the Commons
We have a tragedy of the commons when a public resource is overused or abused. Because the land and water have no private owner to oversee their care, individuals harm it. The result is polluted air and a depleted river.
Political scientist Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) won the economics Nobel Prize for her approach to the tragedy of the commons. Calling it the problem of the commons, she said communities do voluntarily get together when they share the same goals. Her examples ranged from not overgrazing a pasture in Switzerland to maintaining a neat refrigerator at work.
Dr. Ostrom was a wise, “no-nonsense” scholar. I wonder how she would have perceived the Colorado River connundrum.
My sources and more: For starters, The Washington Post, here and here, ideally conveyed why the states cannot agree how to deal with Colorado River problems. But for more than the facts, you might also want to look at National Geographic to see the wildlife connectioin and a bond issue document from the Metropolitan water disrict of Southern California for the financial side.
From National Geographic, our featured image shows the Colorado River “snaking through” the Grand Canyon.