Posted on | January 18, 2010 | 7 Comments
Next Monday, the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Water and Power will be holding a local hearing at the Los Angeles offices of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The subject?
“California drought solutions.”
If that seems an odd thing to be contemplating during a deluge, it’s not. Most of our water does not come from local rainfall, but from other places, which, if not in a drought, are definitely in a jam. Last week, that jam became orders of magnitude worse as Sacramento judge Roland Candee struck down something called the Quantification Settlement Agreement.
This 2003 wad of contracts profoundly affects how California may legally divide and manage its share of the Colorado River, which is along with Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in Northern California one of the three main sources of fresh water for Southern California.
Candee’s voiding of the QSA last week is scary for at least two reasons. First, Southern Californian cities could lose vast amounts of water secured in trades under the agreement. Second, and, most nerve-wracking for this writer, the geniuses behind the QSA are in many cases the same brains behind the much-vaunted package of bills that we’re told will “fix” the ailing Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. These bills are due to come before California voters in November in the form of an $11bn ballot measure.
This is the point where the enviably young and even more enviably oblivious may benefit from crib notes. During the 1990s and well into the noughties, Southern California managed to explode into one contiguous suburb, in part because of the relatively low demands on the Colorado River by other states further up the system. Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico remained fairly empty places while Arizona, Nevada and California filled up with sun-seekers.
As northern states grew fractious about how and if Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Diego and Los Angeles could ever be unhooked from river flow once they became dependent on it, Clinton interior secretary Bruce Babbitt entered the scene. California was the thirstiest state for what was then “surplus” Colorado River water, at the golden state’s most gluttonous drawing more than 800,000 acre feet in a year, or enough for 1.6 million homes.
To the delight of the rest of the states on the river, Babbitt began the push to bring California within its legal allocation.
In spite of its huge overdraft, this should not have been onerous. While California has the shortest frontage on the Colorado River, it claims far and away the most water, more than a fifth of the entire flow. But in the 1990s, as Southern Californian suburbs steadily devoured chaparral, most of that huge river allocation didn’t go to the region’s fresh carpeting of lawn and asphalt.
Instead, it went to farming interests in the California Desert, the big daddy of which is the Imperial Irrigation District.
One must get to a history book or Google page to understand why farmers growing lettuce in an inferno have priority water rights dating back to the Gold Rush. Suffice it here to say that they do, and that those rights are inviolable under the present laws governing the river and west.
So, as Babbitt, followed by George W. Bush’s interior secretary Gale Norton, kept pushing to wean California from surpluses, the problem facing cities from Los Angeles to San Diego became: How to wrest ag water from Imperial for suburbs to make up the difference?
A daring (if politically suicidal) thing would have been for Clinton and Babbitt to revisit the laws and compact that endow Imperial. What emerged instead throughout the late 1990s and early noughties was the Quantification Settlement / Joint Powers Authority Agreement.
Under this, trades of agricultural water to cities such as San Diego were allowed in return for, among other things, an open-ended commitment by Californian taxpayers to deal with environmental remediation of the Salton Sea, a lake formed by an overflow of the Colorado River into the California Desert in 1905 and now highly polluted by agricultural run-off — from the Imperial Irrigation District.
This is where the Candee decision last week makes particularly frightening reading. (This excerpt has been edited to remove footnotes and spell out acronyms. For the full decision, click here.) As the decision shows, getting the deal through the US Congress and the California legislature took extraordinary maneuvering, which left California taxpayers holding an indefinite and open-ended bill for remediation of the Salton Sea.
Why is this frightening? Pick your poison. Two presidents and two interior secretaries, seven states and the California legislature all became embroiled in a deal that did nothing to address the underlying causes of the crisis, while the agreement that they did reach was fatally flawed.
It did little to curb growth. A year before the QSA was signed, there was a record low year on the Colorado River, sharpening the belief that its flow had been overestimated and what is now called a “drought” might become the new normal.
Smarter states might have curbed development, but growth galloped on throughout the 1,400-odd-mile-long river system in ever more mind-boggling ways. Only recession in 2009 slowed the drive, by which time Las Vegas had invented the mega casino replete with pina colada-scented volcanoes while demanding the right to drive a 300-mile pipeline to the foot of Nevada’s only national park and pump the Great Basin dry. Utah’s big idea became a pipeline from Lake Powell so it can create a slot-free resort in its southern desert. Denver is torn between tunneling through the Rockies to find new water, or running a 500-plus-mile-long pipeline to Wyoming.
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone in any of these places that development might be best done near viable water supplies or that the dry west has natural limits for development. Suggest that the region needs to revisit the compact and laws that allocate the water of the Colorado River, including the mind-boggling Imperial endowment, and water managers will laugh in your face.
Even on the water-rich side of the Sierra rain shadow, California can’t manage plenty. Just as the QSA has been revealed as a sham, and Imperial’s gluttony is validated by archaic Western water law, we are going to the polls in November on a series of water bills designed to fix our other main water supply, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Laugh, cry, move to somewhere wetter, but believe it: Among the architects of the plan to save the Delta are many of the same brains behind the QSA.
Some more history for the young and fragrant: Just as the QSA was being completed, California woke up grumpy and decided to can Governor Gray Davis. It took his successor, the self-styled “reformer” Arnold Schwarzenegger, less than two years to hire Davis’s former cabinet member, utilities player Susan Kennedy, as his chief of staff. Kennedy is widely seen as the Karl Rove to the Austrian body builder’s Bush as it pertains to the new water bills.
These new bills bring with them a sickening echo of the QSA. While the QSA was sold as a boon for the Colorado River, this new Kennedy-Schwarzenegger package of bills was put to California’s legislature last fall in the most dramatic terms. They were the only way to secure the fragile and clearly sinking Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta from earthquakes. The fresh water supply of 24 million people was at stake.
That, pass the cyanide, happens to be true, but once the bills were passed, the resulting documents didn’t first fund Delta restoration, but devoted the initial $4bn or so to new dams favored by the governor and his intimates in the cigar tent.
No one should be surprised that the chief of Denver water announced last week that he is moving to Hawaii to grow nuts. The pressing question is: Can he take 17 million south-westerners with him?
The person bringing the House committee hearing west next Monday to discuss our “drought” is local 38th District Congresswoman Grace Napolitano. I have no doubt that Rep. Napolitano is sincere. In fact, I unreservedly applaud her public spiritedness, which in itself is remarkable and refreshing. This is in no way to equate her or her efforts with the above-described corruption.
This is merely a long way of saying that we created this “drought” and any solution to it cannot take an ever-longer road around the cause.
This post has been updated. Note: this post has elicited an interesting comment string from smart people. I urge visitors to read it. I have been rightly and smartly challenged to enumerate the cross-over minds between the QSA and recent legislation, and have offered entire agencies, the biggest of which are Reclamation, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the San Diego County Water Authority. One might as well add the California water bar, but that would take some time.