Western Cities Hung Out to Dry

On New Year's Eve, the normally placid pumping station of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California at Lake Havasu felt like a military camp. Armed guards stood at the ready, looking grim and on the lookout for would-be terrorists. Would-be tourists seeking bird-watching information were turned away.

It was reminiscent of old black-and-white pictures taken after Owens Valley farmers blew up the original California Aqueduct and forced William Mulholland's men from L.A. to guard their plunder. Tension seems to go with water in Southern California. Today, it's heightened by the recent collapse of the Colorado River plan.

When the Imperial Valley Irrigation District voted down the transfer of some of its water to San Diego County in December, it disrupted an important cog in California's economy, the sixth-largest in the world. Even a last-ditch attempt Dec. 31 to rectify the situation could not repair the damage.

Everyone now can see that the Colorado River Compact, the "Law of the River" -- or what I've long described as the "fiction of the river" -- is obsolete. A decade-long process of recrafting the agreement into a winning situation for everyone seemed poised to succeed ... until the agricultural district exercised its selfish prerogative and told the state: "This water is ours."

All parties agree that reallocation of Colorado River water must occur. The Colorado River Compact dates from the legendary 1922 U.S. Supreme Court case Wyoming vs. California, when the court ruled that the "first in time, first in right" presumption of priority in Western water use applied across state lines as well as within states.

Rebuffed by the court, upper-river states like Wyoming and Colorado tried to reserve water for future growth -- then imagined to be agriculture -- by letting California take most of the water south of Lee's Ferry, Ariz. They salvaged an equal amount for states on the upper river. That deal had all kinds of consequences, but the most important was creation of an agricultural oligarchy of federally subsidized water that persists to this day.

Water is power in the West, and it is badly distributed. Three irrigation districts in California, including the Imperial Valley, hold priority rights to 3.85 million acre-feet of the state's annual 4.4 million-acre-foot allotment from the Colorado River. That leaves 600,000 acre-feet for the entire Los Angeles Basin's more than 20 million people. In every Western state, 80% of the water goes to agriculture and ranching. Yet in no state, even California, do those activities generate 5% of the state economy.

In short, every hour of every day, water goes to Western agriculture because it always has -- not because the crops it produces are necessary or because it creates plentiful jobs or because taxes on its profits fill state coffers. Subsidized agriculture also creates competition for farmers and ranchers elsewhere in the country who are not so fortunate as to receive federal subsidies.

Do we really need cotton from Yuma, Ariz., or alfalfa from the Walker River in northern Nevada?

Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton is the river master, and she has lately decided to hold states to the terms of the compact. By her decision, excess river water will no longer flow to California and Nevada. As a result, California will have to replace almost 1 million acre-feet of water this year if no accommodation is reached. Nevada will lose 30,000 acre-feet.

Because of one rural vote in the recent negotiations, the cities that produce California's greatest wealth will feel pain while the agriculturalists who caused it will continue to drown their fields with impunity.

Norton should scrap the Colorado River Compact and reallocate water to reflect the realities of the new West. This is the time for a bold federal role.

A new compact could take into account urban use, environmental law, new economic activity, fluctuations in water quantity and quality, and countless other contingencies that didn't exist 81 years ago. It could create a Colorado River for the needs of today and tomorrow, not one beholden to a flawed past.

Such a step requires leadership to exercise federal power, anathema to the Bush administration. Yet this is about the recovery of one of the world's most productive economies. Even as Greater Los Angeles rebounds, carrying the Bay Area and nearby states with it, there now looms the threat of a water shortage that will hurt everyone.

The West deserves a better distribution of its most precious resource. Step up, Secretary Norton, shake off that anti-federal cloak your administration wears and swing away.


Hal Rothman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo., and teaches history at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

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