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Dear Arizona: Blaming California Won’t Make It Rain

More than hot talk and small steps are needed to resolve chronic problems on the Colorado River.

Written by John Fleck Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Recent hyperbole in Arizona suggesting California is out to steal its water is a dangerous reminder that state politics stand in the way of solving regional water problems.

Arizona governor Doug Ducey floated the idea at a gathering of Phoenix-area civic leaders in June, saying Arizonans “must be vigilant” against the risk that the federal government might snatch away some of Arizona’s water to help California weather its current drought.

The suggestion is crazy.

But Arizona has always had an inferiority complex about its bigger, richer and more politically powerful neighbor to the west. In Arizona, fear that California is out to steal all the water is heritage.

The reality among the nine states that share the waters of the Colorado River (seven in the U.S. and two in Mexico) is that there is not enough for everyone to keep doing what they are doing with it today.

Nowhere is this problem more real and immediate than in Arizona and California, where the Colorado River marks the desert boundary between the two states and provides crucial water supplies to San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson, plus vast areas of farmland in both states. On the Colorado, real long-term fixes require everyone to give up some of their share. There is simply no reasonable way to make the Colorado River’s books balance in the long run without both California and Arizona using less of its water.

Spilling out of the Rocky Mountains of the interior west, the Colorado River runs 1,450 miles, carrying snowmelt to some 35 million residents in the U.S. and another three million in Mexico. Its water also irrigates an estimated 4.5 million acres of farmland in the United States and another 500,000 in Mexico.

The river is over-allocated. Planners dividing up the river in the first half of the 20th century allocated 15 million acre-feet of water to the seven U.S. states and another 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico, a total allocation of 16.5 million acre-feet. But for most of the 20th century, it has reliably provided less than 15 million acre-feet.

When you factor in reservoir evaporation and other water losses, plus the probability that climate change will further reduce the river’s flow, you have a problem. More specifically, Arizona and California – the two states with the biggest and most vulnerable allocations – have a problem.

Everyone in the network of river managers, representatives of all the states and the major water users within those states, knows this. But they all face domestic politics that clash with this reality. Back home, politicians view the allocations set down nearly a century ago as a God-given right. They also view any attempt to curtail them in deference to hydrologic reality as a water grab by “those other guys.” This makes great domestic politics. As the Arizona Daily Star’s Tony Davis wrote, “Any threat from giant California has always been a potent Arizona rallying cry.” Therein lies the risk.

Arizona has a long history of fighting with its neighbor. In 1934, Arizona governor Benjamin Moeur dispatched 100 National Guard soldiers to block construction of the eastern footings of Parker Dam, which California planned to use to pump water into its new Colorado River Aqueduct. Two ferry boats, the Julia B and the Nellie Bush, flew the Arizona flag in what a Los Angeles newspaper laughingly called “the Arizona Navy.” Arizona feared California’s designs on the river, whose water they were supposed to share, but the call to arms got it nowhere. No shots were fired and after a legal battle, the dam was built.

In addition to being hilarious, the “Arizona Navy” feeds a narrative that “water’s for fightin’ over.” But the fact that Arizona’s politicians are still adopting a fighting stance suggests that 80 years after it deputized a navy to guard against its neighbor, Arizona still hasn’t learned the basic lesson of Colorado River water management: The only way this is going to work is if we all cooperate.

The good news is that both states have a better water management and conservation track record than they’re usually given credit for. They will need it.

Arizona has been managing its groundwater pumping, and strategically banking surplus groundwater, to such an extent that aquifer levels in the heavily populated central part of the state have risen in recent decades, according to two analyses, one by the U.S. Geological Survey and the other by the Arizona Republic newspaper. These groundwater supplies were once threatened by overpumping. Arizona also is fallowing farm acreage this year, conserving water that will be left in Lake Mead, the giant storage reservoir that supplies both states.

California, where the bulk of Colorado River water is still devoted to desert agriculture, has pioneered agriculture-to-city water transfers. The deals allowed metropolitan Southern California to weather a previous cut in Colorado River supplies, back in 2003. In the decade since, the desert farmers of California’s Imperial Valley have continued to thrive, making more money with less water than they did a decade ago.

But these are small steps, and small steps on the Colorado River are not enough. Eventually some sort of grand bargain will be needed that reduces everyone’s allocation. The only way that can happen is if river managers find a way to neutralize the state-by-state politics that say, in essence, “We’re not giving up a drop of our water so those other guys can waste it.”

This is a delicate dance. Governor Ducey’s rhetoric of vigilance against an imaginary California threat does not help.

Top photo: Hoover Dam, Lake Mead bathtub ring, February 23, 2015. Elevation 1088.97. Photo by John Fleck.

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