Calif. may have squandered its water future

Filed under: News |

.titles {font-family: Myriad, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; font-style: normal; line-height: normal; font-weight: bold; color: #3399FF;}Los Angeles receives water through the Metropolitan Water District, which operates the 242-mile-long Colorado River Aqueduct and delivers water to 20 different municipalities in Southern California.
In 2001, California, which had long used more than its 4.4 million acre-feet allotment granted by the Colorado River Compact of 1922, agreed to end its overuse. As part of the deal, the MWD accepted lower priority rights to Colorado River water than those of agricultural users.
In return, the MWD received the right to divert an additional 180,000 acre-feet of “surplus” water from Lake Mead on an annual basis and the exclusive right to 5 million acre-feet of water in storage at Lake Mead.
At the time, this must have seemed like a reasonable tradeoff. But as the drought in the Colorado River Basin persists, it is possible that MWD might have traded priority rights to actual water for access to water that only exists on paper.

Cities of the River
Week 1 Colorado River
Week 2 Colorado River Compact
Week 3 Las Vegas
Week 4 Phoenix
This Week Los Angeles
Week 6 Colorado Springs
Next week:
Colorado Springs, alone among the Cities of the River, is seeking to secure its future water needs by breaking its reliance on the Colorado.

MWD’s storage right has yet to be implemented by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and it might never be. It’s not clear whether during a declaration of “severe drought” by the U.S. secretary of the interior it would be available. And if the present drought is, as many climatologists believe, the new normal, there will never again be “surplus” water in Lake Mead.
Accordingly, MWD has executed an agreement with farming interests in the Imperial Valley to fallow agricultural lands in the event of severe drought. Farmers would lease their irrigation water to MWD, which would compensate them for their lost income.
Executive intervention
California’s situation has become particularly acute this year. As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pointed out in Los Angeles on July 23, Southern California’s future is threatened by drought conditions throughout the region
This is the driest year in the history of Los Angeles, which has only received three inches of rainfall. This situation is exacerbated by drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin and by reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which was at its lowest level in 20 years this spring.
Schwarzenegger is promoting a $5.9 billion bond issue, which allocates $4.5 billion for new storage projects, $1 billion for a new pipeline from the Sacramento Delta in northern California and $450 million for “conservation and restoration.”
But even if the proposed bond issue passes, it might not be enough to reverse trends. Schwarzenegger believes that additional storage will allow the state to capture floodwater which is now lost and that more sophisticated water management techniques on the delta will enable the city to pump indefinitely at today’s rates.
Both conclusions are arguable, as is Schwarzenegger’s assertion that his plan will provide enough water for 1 million new homes in Los Angeles County by 2050.
And even if the governor is correct, and additional storage enables California to capture more storm water runoff and snow melt, the plan also assumes that MWD can rely upon its existing water supplies from the Colorado River indefinitely.
That seems highly improbable.
Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken and NOAA scientist Klaus Wolter predict average flows of less than 6 million acre-feet between 2030 and 2050. Instead of 8.25 million acre-feet, the Lower Basin states and Mexico would have just 3 million acre-feet to satisfy their needs.
Who loses?
Who would bear the brunt of such a shortfall? Agricultural users? The cities? Mexico? If all the river’s users shared equally in the reductions, each would have to reduce its use by 65 percent.
The maneuvering for future allocations has already begun. In mid-August, the United States and Mexico announced that they will begin discussions about the drought in the Colorado River Basin.
Mexico is expected to assert senior rights to its allocation of 1.5 million acre-feet of the river’s flow under a 1944 U.S.-Mexico treaty.
But the seven U.S. states that rely on the river want Mexico to be included in any drought plan that would spread shortages among all users. Unless Mexico agrees to cooperate, losses by the states will be even more severe.
Such changes might be years in the future, but Southern California, which relies upon imported water for more than 60 percent of its drinking and agricultural supplies, is uniquely vulnerable to a decline. Without substantial, reliable new sources of water, the region’s future will be very different from it past.
The Imperial Valley, threatened both by the needs of municipalities and the drought in the Colorado River Basin, might no longer be able to support irrigation-intensive agriculture. And throughout Southern California, the lush, water-intensive suburban lifestyle that has drawn so many to the region will disappear.
These interlocking crises threaten the prosperity, and even the sustainability, of one of America’s greatest cities.
The growth and prosperity of Los Angeles could end in less than a generation, as snowfalls diminish on distant mountain ranges and water that once flowed down the Colorado River to nourish orange groves, lettuce fields and the manicured lawns of movie stars is no more — vanished in the heat, gone with the wind.
John Hazlehurst@csbj.com