Monday, May 20, 2013

Future Conflicts on the Colorado River - a new angle on an old story

For those of us who closely follow media coverage and commentary on the Colorado River, a new angle on an old story is always appreciated. In this case, the old story is that the Colorado River Supply and Demand Study released last year is hailed as a “call to action”.  As discussed in a previous agua-zona post entitled A Call to Action – but to do what? (agua-zona’s most popular post, ever!)  there are lots of different opinions on the appropriate course of action. 

However, among the hundred-plus options for bridging the supply-demand gap, legal changes to the structure of the Law of the River were deliberately excluded from the report’s final analysis.  A well-done article published by Bloomberg earlier this year included interviews of several study participants who agreed that taking on legal and policy questions related to water allocations were “beyond the scope of the study." According to the article,

"When asked if members of the sub-team were reluctant to analyze legal and policy ideas because they respect the Law of the River, fear changing it, or view changing it as too difficult, sub-team member Don Gross told BNA, “All of the above.” "
So now here is another call to action for the Colorado River. The study authors are no doubt aware of the opinion held by Douglas S. Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program in the University of Colorado School of Law in Boulder, and others, who think there was a missed opportunity when the study did not analyze policy changes to river allocations. Kenney is quoted as saying,
"Shortages mean there is an inevitability of institutional change needed for the river, and I don't know how you avoid it...States have been ignoring the underlying legal issues, but they can't go on doing that forever."

A new angle on an old story AND a new Colorado River graphic! Image from Stratfor.
Another recent analysis concludes that the Upper and Lower Basin States will eventually need to align their total allocation with the annual discharge of the river (perhaps about 15 percent less). Published by contributor Statfor, at Forbes online, their conclusion is more of a prediction than a rallying call (it comes from authors who don’t have any immediately obvious agenda for the Colorado River.)  Through a lens of analyzing global events in a “geopolitical framework”, they claim that the Colorado River has a relatively small role in Mexico’s economy where its water is used mostly for agriculture and contributes only about 3 percent of the gross domestic product of the Baja Norte province. For this reason, they predict that future conflicts on the river are most likely to be domestic, not international: 

“ …there may come a time when regional growth [in the US] overtakes conservation efforts. It is then that renegotiation of the treaty* with a more realistic view of the river’s volume will become necessary. Any renegotiation will be filled with conflict, but most of that likely will be contained in the United States.”

 *It seems “treaty” is used here in a general sense, referring to the various interstate compacts and court cases that together comprise the legally binding formula for allocating water between the states - in other words, the Law of the River.

Bottom line for Arizona: Given the economic importance of the CR in the US, future conflicts on the Colorado River are more likely to be inter-state, and not international, and therefore the states should continue to nurture their positive relationships.  However, this should not be at the expense of good relations with Mexico - a status that was hard-earned as exemplified by the recent success of Minute 319 (see this  agua-zona post).  Also, Mexico plays a disproportionately important role in any US plans involving desalination/exchange, as it has the only ocean-front property in the basin.

1 comment:

  1. The easiest way to solve interstate conflict is by taking control over water AWAY from states and allowing users (=property rights holders) to trade water among themselves, up or down the river (as is done in Australia's Murray-Darling Basin). Politicians have nothing to gain from trade b/c they lose control over water, so take them out of the loop if you want to end conflict, reduce inefficiency and (maybe even!) improve environmental flows.