What will a new Secretary of the Interior under President Obama need to do to manage the collision between burgeoning population in the US West and a water supply shrinking from a combination of prolonged drought, reduced water flows, and higher temperatures causing faster evaporation rates? 

Post by Anne Polansky

Tension over water is rising among the seven states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah) and 30 million people now served by the 1450 mile-long Colorado River—- despite a comprehensive agreement among these states and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, signed in December 2007.  The 20-year plan lays out rules for how the states will work together to conserve and share the increasingly scarce water from the river, which drains over 240,000 square miles. 

Brad Udall, director of the Western Water Assessment, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying: “Clearly, we’re on a collision course between supply and demand” following a conference held last week sponsored by the Glen Canyon Institute in Utah, Adjusting to Less Water:  Climate Change and the Colorado River.

Dave Wegner, science director for the Glen Canyon Institute, was also quoted following the conference at the University of Utah, saying that it’s time to consider a “new normal” for dealing with shrinking water supplies in the Colorado River basin that will entail a comprehensive re-evaluation of allocations, use, conservation, dams and legal obligations.

Adding pressure to the cauldron, possible negotiated settlements with the Navajo Nation following a 2003 lawsuit filed against the Interior Department honoring tribal rights to water established in 1850 but have never been honored could further tax water supplies; the Navajos are entitled to up to 800,000 acre-feet.  The long, complex history of western water law is sketched out in a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune:

The commission that created the 1922 Colorado River Compact knew that Mexico, the Navajo and other tribes had rights to the river, but when it divvied up the presumed 15 million acre-feet annual flow, it didn’t define the claims.

In 1944, the United States and Mexico agreed that Mexico would get 1.5 million acre-feet per year, resetting the assumed baseline river flow at 16.5 million acre-feet. Four years later, the commission set the Upper Basin states’ shares on a percentage basis rather than an absolute allocation.

Still no mention of Indian tribes, even though an 1850 treaty with the Navajo Nation, reinforced by a 1908 Supreme Court ruling, guaranteed water rights necessary for a permanent homeland.

In 2003, the Navajo Nation sued the Interior Department, seeking to force the U.S. government to, at last, quantify the tribe’s rights.

Some Navajos say a strict interpretation of the treaty and the 1908 ruling in Winters v. United States shows the tribe’s rights trump all others because they were affirmed before the 1922 Colorado Compact.

Navajo leaders, however, are pursuing negotiations rather than going back to the Supreme Court. That’s because they realize the justices could wipe out the earlier Winters ruling.

While tree-ring studies and other analyses reveal much natural variability in Colorado River streamflows, it is now evident that global climate disruption is a significant factor in the dwindling supplies.  Dealing with the western water problem will need to take place alongside a growing list of priorities under the category of climate change adaptation that the Obama administration will need to address, sooner or later. 

A couple of studies that may be useful to policymakers going forward include:

Climate Change in Colorado:  A Synthesis to Support Water Resources Management and Adaptation, prepared by the Western Water Assessment, a cooperative program of NOAA and the University of Colorado at Boulder —Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences—and one of 9 Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessment centers funded by the Climate Program Office at NOAA.  WWA claims the report “gives water resource managers a synthesis of the best scientific knowledge of what is expected for Colorado’s climate over the next few decades to help them plan now for drought and adaptation to climate change.”

Another, a 2007 report by the National Research Council, Colorado River Basin Water Management:  Evaluating and Adjusting to Hydroclimatic Variability provides a useful overview of the historical patterns affecting the Colorado River and a discussion of federal, state, and local programs addressing the problem.  The report warns:

Steadily rising population and urban water demands in the Colorado River region will inevitably result in increasingly costly, controversial, and unavoidable trade-off choices to be made by water managers, politicians, and their constituents. These increasing demands are also impeding the region’s ability to cope with droughts and water shortages. 

… and calls for a much higher level of communication between the scientific community and policymakers than we have witnessed under the Bush administration:

(emphasis added)

A commitment to two-way communication between scientists and water managers is important and necessary in improving overall preparedness and planning for drought and other water shortages. Active communication among people in these communities should become a permanent fixture within the basin, irrespective of water conditions at any given time. Such dialogue should help scientists frame their investigations toward questions and topics of importance to water managers, and should help water managers keep abreast of recent scientific developments and findings.

This sort of permanent communication network is precisely what was initiated, then abruptly terminated by the Bush administration when they canceled and suppressed the US National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Change.  CSW has covered this extensively, referring to it as the central climate science scandal of the Bush administration (see posts here, here, and here).  Two collaborative processes—one organized around the water sector and one around western states—may have been problem-solving all along if they had been allowed to continue.  “Were it not so” is a question we and others may be asking for some time to come; though, it is time now to focus on the future, given the critical nature of the problem. 

The NRC report also recommends what sort of analysis is needed to be better prepared for the “new normal” water availability:

A comprehensive, action-oriented study of Colorado River region urban water practices and changing patterns of demand should be conducted, as such a study could provide a more systematic basis for water resources planning across the region. At a minimum, the study should address and analyze the following issues:

  *  historical adjustments to droughts and water shortages,
  *  demographic projections,
  *  local and regional water demand forecasting,
  *  experiences in drought and contingency planning,
  *  impacts of increasing urban demands on riparian ecology,
  *  long-term impacts associated with agriculture-urban transfers, and
  *  contemporary urban water polices and practices (e.g., conservation, landscaping, water use efficiency technologies).

The study could be conducted by the Colorado River basin states, a U.S. federal agency or agencies, a group of universities from across the region, or some combination thereof. The basin states and the U.S. Congress should collaborate on a strategy for commissioning and funding this study. These groups should be prepared to take action based on this study’s findings in order to improve the region’s preparedness for future inevitable droughts and water shortages.

Some elements of this work are already being taken on by a relatively new entity operating under NOAA called the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), first envisioned by the Western Governors’ Association, and established by law in 2006.  NIDIS is in the process of developing “the leadership and networks to implement an integrated drought monitoring and forecasting system at federal, state, and local levels” according to the website; plans to create an early warning system for drought to provide accurate, timely, and integrated information; and raise public awareness about drought.

Other ongoing studies and activities may be partially meeting this need; a new Interior Department leadership will need to examine closely what is needed going forward.  The US Global Change Research Program (renamed the Climate Change Science Program under Bush) may or may not be the right entity to organize the collaborative effort needed going forward.  It seems that additional action is needed soon, especially in the area of demand reduction and water conservation, before tensions rise so high that human conflict creates even more problems.  Should President Obama appoint a “climate czar” in the White House and institute a National Climate Change Preparedness Initiative at the federal level, this challenge could be taken on as a top priority.