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Wondering what that great big sucking sound is that’s whistling through the desert and red rock canyons beyond Colorado’s western border? That’s California slurping up the Colorado River, life-giver to the American West, at a pace vastly beyond its legal allowance.

With one of the worst drought intervals in recorded history bearing down on communities throughout the West, the only question now is – what’s going to be done to make this glutton of the West’s water live within its means?

With Colorado and other states exploring new water storage options to mitigate the adverse affects of this and future droughts, this question must be answered forcefully, and sooner rather than later.



First a little background. The Colorado River is the fifth largest river in the United States and has played an instrumental role in the development and sustainability of the arid West. If not for the wise use and development of the Colorado’s natural bounty, the West would be a wholly different place. It is the life force of this region.

Western settlers recognized very early on the central role that the Colorado would play in the development of this region, a realization that triggered many a legal and political fight over how best to allocate the River’s resources. Relative to the demands that would be placed upon it, the Colorado’s water resources would always be scarce.



In 1922, the seven States in the Colorado River Basin attempted to put these legal and political conflicts to bed with the signing of the Colorado River Compact. The compact, and subsequent acts of Congress and court cases, resulted in a governance framework for the Colorado known as the “Law of the River.” While the “Law of the River” didn’t settle the legal and political maneuvering to the degree originally hoped, it did provide a coherent approach to allocating this scarce resource, including binding guidelines about how much water each of the River Basin’s states could tap.

Under this framework, California was allocated 4.4 million acre-feet a year from the Colorado River. One acre-foot of water amounts to nearly 326,000 gallons, or enough to serve two families of four in a year.

Unfortunately, California has a long history of fudging on that 4.4 million acre-foot allocation – big time. Of late, California has grown accustomed to annually using some 800,000 acre-feet of water over and beyond its entitlement. To put that in perspective, California’s 800,000 acre-feet of “surplus” usage amounts to approximately two-and-a-half times the legal share of the entire State of Nevada from the Colorado River. Varying estimates have put the value of California’s 800,000 acre-foot surplus between $150 million and $250 million a year.

With the threat of new lawsuits hanging over its head, California’s major water users signed off on a Department of Interior negotiated plan in the late 1990s that would wean California back to its authorized 4.4 level by the year 2015. Under the terms of the agreement, California water users would receive preferential access to surplus water to facilitate a “soft landing” during the transition, so long as the state met specific benchmarks en route to reducing its usage levels to the 4.4 requirement. If California failed to meet these benchmarks, the Secretary of Interior retained the authority to cut-off surplus water supplies.

California’s latest attempt to get back into compliance with the “Law of the River” hit a major stumbling block when California’s major water user walked away from an internally brokered plan that would have put the state on course to meet its target by 2015. In the aftermath of this upheaval, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton gave an unequivocal mandate to California: Get back on track to meet your 4.4 obligation by 2015 or the federal government will compel immediate compliance. In other words, there will be no soft landings.

The Secretary deserves credit for taking this tough stance. California hasn’t shown a propensity to meet its obligation through noncoercive means in the past, so it’s time to exact a little tough love. If the federal government has to tighten the spigot to get California’s attention, then that’s exactly what it should do. California has bilked the Colorado River Basin States long enough.


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