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The Most Exciting Era on the Colorado River: Keynote Presentations from the 2015 CRWUA Annual Conference

At the 2015 Colorado River Water Users Association annual conference, 70 Years of Communications and Collaborations, the focus was on the achievements and progress made in management of the Colorado River over the last seven decades—with a keen eye toward the challenges that lay ahead, especially the continuing drought and the looming possibility of a shortage declaration. (For a discussion of the increasing chance of a shortage declaration and its implications, see “Obama Administration’s Objectives for the Colorado River Basin,” JOW December 2015).

On this septuagenarian anniversary, the keynote address, Basin Perspectives and Challenges, Past and Present, was given by a panel. As moderator, Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, introduced the speakers. Presentations were given by Robert Snow from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of the Solicitor; Ken Salazar, former Secretary of the Interior; and Jeff Kightlinger, General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

As the first speaker, Snow provided an overview of Colorado River management and discussed the uniqueness of the Basin. While he acknowledged that countless vantage points would provide their own set of unique characteristics, on Snow’s shortlist were the cultures, landscapes, urban and agricultural economies, and the world’s focus. What he found most distinctive was the framework for resolution that has been developed over the last quarter century, a period he referred to as the collaborative era. During that period, there has been seamless policy transition and completion of initiatives across administrations, regardless of party affiliation. It has been a period of inclusiveness leading to the development of an enduring network of interests, of an emphasis on addressing issues through consensus rather than litigation, and of working across state, basin and international boundaries. Snow concluded his remarks with a quote given by Justice Greg Hobbs the previous day, “This is the most exciting era on the Colorado River. Others before us wish they were here today.”

While a look back over the 25 years does show significant collaboration, communication was lacking at the start of the period. In 1991 California had been suffering a severe sustained drought and needed more water, while other basin states were adamant about reserving their allocations for their own needs and plans. But Colorado Governor Roy Romer took a different course. Under the direction of his advisors, Jim Lochhead and Ken Salazar, Governor Romer sent a letter to California Governor Pete Wilson offering to work with California that year. Lochhead said that letter “successfully pissed everybody off,” but it also led to the opening of discussions that eventually led to the surplus guidelines, the QSA and Minute 319.

After acknowledgements and a roll-call of attendees from the various basin states, tribes and NGOs—which he described as a visual presentation of the collaboration and progress that has been achieved—Salazar presented his first-hand account of the Romer letter. He saw the situation as something that would recur and knew that certain conditions needed to be included (such as provisions against profiteering, bringing California’s consumption down “over a reasonable period of time,” as well as a focus on other issues too, like the environment, operations, and the ability of the states to fully develop their compact allocations).

Despite being considered political heresy, the letter started a period of negotiations that have led to numerous achievements. Since then there has been no litigation between any of the basin states over Colorado River water, and there have been no attempts to go to Congress to try to rewrite the compact or other components of the Law of the River. It is also a managerial achievement, as characterized by a much wiser use of water across the basin, water sharing, experimental flows, Colorado River Delta pulse flows to help restore the delta, Minute 319, and addressing of endangered species issues.

Ultimately, Salazar said there is much progress to build on as Colorado River managers look forward to address new challenges and advocated making the Colorado River and CRWUA a global showcase for managing water as a finite resource.

Jeff Kightlinger wrapped up the panel with the California perspective focusing primarily on California’s achievements. The 1991 drought was a wake-up call that led to storage being built and new water supplies being developed. In addition, a number of programs have been put in place, including the fallowing program in Palo Verde Irrigation District, the Imperial Irrigation District transfer to San Diego County Water Authority, Metropolitan’s development of Intentionally Created Surplus in Lake Mead, and the recent water-sharing agreement with the Southern Nevada Water Authority. (For background on the water-sharing agreement, see “Agreement with SNWA, CRCN Increases Metropolitan’s Short-Term Water Supplies,” JOW October 2015). But California faces a new challenge—even though 2015 had the same amount of water in storage as 1977, only ¼ the volume was delivered to Metropolitan and the Central Valley because ¾ of the water in storage is now dedicated to environmental use. California must figure out how to work with this huge new water use.

Overall, as the panelists look ahead, they are seeking how to leverage past achievements and apply the lessons learned to address new challenges.


Written by Marta L. Weismann