Ex-Interior secretary urges revamping of Colorado River pact

One hundred years after a landmark agreement divided the waters of the Colorado River among the Western states, the pact is now showing its age as hotter and drier climates have decimated the river. narrow.

Colorado’s runoff has dropped by nearly 20% since 2000. Reservoirs have fallen to record lows. And despite a flurry of agreements between states to temporarily remove water from the river, shortages continue to worsen.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who oversaw management of the river under President Clinton, said it was clear that the 1922 Colorado River Treaty should be improved to accommodate the reduced amount of water available due to the lack of water. Global warming combined with the last 22 years of super fire. source head.

Babbitt said that a few years ago he thought seven states could pass without changing the deal. However, the Colorado River basin has dried up so quickly due to rising temperatures, he said the pact should be updated to allow states to reduce water use proportionately to cope with what’s going on. Scientifically described as the aridity of the West.

“While I used to think that these arid scenarios were abstract and there was no way out into the future,” Babbitt said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It’s really urgent that we start thinking now, while there’s still time, about how we’re going to adjust the reductions, the regulations, the necessary cuts, the most prudent way to limit damage, which can really be extreme.”

The water levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s largest reservoirs, have dropped to their lowest levels since they were filled.

Representatives from California, Arizona and Nevada signed an agreement in December to draw less water from the river over the next two years. But the latest projections from the federal government suggest that larger cuts will go into effect next year as Lake Mead continues to decline.

The continued decline in reservoir levels indicates that the entire region, from the Rocky Mountains to the U.S.-Mexico border, will need to take bigger steps to reduce it, water agency managers said. use water. But many of those who manage the water supply have expressed reluctance to rewrite the Colorado River Treaty, which laid out the foundational framework that has become the law of the river.

“The basic question is how do you manage a river to balance flow with flow, what do you come up with? It’s a simple balanced equation,” says Babbitt. “We have to achieve a water balance, cut the diversion down to a level that, on average over the short term, is water coming in. You have to balance water coming in, water coming out.”

Babbitt said issues in the Colorado River Compact include how it is written, based on assumptions about much larger flows, and how some provisions are not possible under such arid conditions.

The 1922 Agreement divided the water between four states in the Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico) and three states in the Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada, and California), with the dividing line between Two basins are drawn at Lees Ferry, just upstream from the Grand Canyon. Separately, a 1944 treaty stipulates how much water Mexico will receive.

The way that currents bisect the river, which separates 15 million acres between the states of the Upper and Lower Basin, is now colliding with the fact that the river’s average annual discharge since 2000 has been approximately 12.3 million acres.

“With the onslaught of drought and aridity caused by climate change, those numbers don’t work,” Babbitt said.

One big reason it’s no longer operating, Babbitt said, is that the centuries-old agreement includes a provision that requires the Upper Basin states to provide 7.5 million acres a year to the Lower Basin, the largest portion of it. that number belongs to California. Babbitt said the states in the Upper Basin face future situations in which they will have to reduce their water use greatly and disproportionately.

“That will have to be dealt with. And that means the contract itself will have to be renegotiated to be a bit more balanced in terms of who bears the brunt of the downflow,” said Babbitt.

Water from the Colorado River is used by about 40 million people, flowing to cities, farmland, and tribal states from the Rocky Mountains to Southern California. The river has long been overused. The water is so diverted that the river delta in Mexico has largely dried up decades ago.

In response to the river’s decline, officials representing seven states have sought to work through consensus-building, avoiding conflict by negotiating interim arrangements to share the reduced water. while maintaining a centuries-old water distribution system. They are addressing the shortfall under interim rules passed in 2007, as well as a short-term agreement called the Drought Contingency Plan that was signed in 2019. They will need to negotiate the terms. new rules to handle shortages in 2026, when the current rules expire.

“We can no longer just be a mess. We really have to think big, because we’re going to have to create a new regulatory framework. And it doesn’t mean we have to start from scratch,” said Babbitt. “The Colorado River Compact has been in business for 100 years. But now there is a future scenario in which fixed delivery obligations – from the Upper Basin states at Lees Ferry to California, Arizona and Nevada – simply do not work. ”

Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir on the river, has fallen to just 25% of its full capacity. The federal government, which is trying to minimize the risk of the lake reaching an extreme low at Glen Canyon Dam, has announced that it will withhold additional water in the lake this year.

“The contract will have to be adjusted to say that, at some point, the additional depletion of rivers due to drought must be shared fairly across both basins on a commensurate basis,” Babbitt said. . “We are not going to rewrite the whole thing. We will not be advocating a great revolution or some other methodology for running the river. “

“Everybody has to admit that at some point we will all share the shortfall up and down the basin everywhere, in an equitable way. We’re all going to have a decent shot,” he said.

Babbitt was governor of Arizona from 1978 to 1987 and Secretary of the Interior from 1993 to 2001. Now 83 years old, Babbitt is still involved in issues like conserving water supplies, protecting wilderness and climate change action.

Babbitt has seen a dramatic shift in the Colorado River over the past four decades. In 1983, when he was governor of Arizona, the flooded river filled Lake Powell and overflowed the Glen Canyon Dam within inches.

As Home Secretary in the 1990s, Babbitt worked to develop rules for dealing with “excess” water that was flowing into rivers. After the rules for dealing with those excess water were completed, the Colorado River basin fell into drought in the early 2000s.

Scientists studying ancient records on tree rims have discovered that the current super-drought in western North America, from Montana to California to northern Mexico, has become the driest period in history. 22 years of the region for at least 1,200 years and is increasing as the accumulation of greenhouse gases pushes temperatures higher .

In another study, scientists studied how much rivers can contract as temperatures rise, predicting that for every 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer, the flow average likely to decrease by about 9%.

In a study published last month, scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory predicted that climate change would cause massive losses of ice and snow in the Rocky Mountains, where most of the runoff occurs. of the river begins when the snow melts and it rains. The researchers found that areas in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming could experience significant water loss in the future, and that conditions in the Upper Basin could become more like the arid Southwest.

“We really see this as a much more water-constrained future,” said Katrina Bennett, a hydrologist and co-author of the study. “We are losing our snow and ice. It is becoming more arid. And we could see that signal continue. But as long as we can understand it, then we can plan for this and work through it together.”

Babbitt said adapting the 1922 Colorado River Compact to update it would help cope with the situation and allow the seven states to better address “structural deficits,” an imbalance between water supply and demand. caused reservoirs to drop to new lows.

He said the latest plan by Arizona, California and Nevada to take less water from Lake Mead, facilitated in part by paying certain entities to reduce water use, is just “postponing the crisis panic.” The interim agreement aims to keep an additional 1 million acres of water in the lake by 2022 and 2023.

Meanwhile, Lake Mead continued to decline.

“The reality is that too much water is being diverted,” Babbitt said. “You have to balance the amount of water you take out with the amount of water the river brings in.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-05-19/former-interior-secretary-calls-for-revamping-colorado-river-compact Ex-Interior secretary urges revamping of Colorado River pact

Edmund DeMarche

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