Column: As Lake Mead dwindles, can an interstate water war be far behind?

Falling fast: Dwindling water levels last year exposed the white "bathtub ring" on Lake Mead and the water intakes for Hoover Dam's hydroelectric generators. The lake is lower now.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The last time two states went to war over water, it was 1934. The combatants were California and Arizona and the casus belli was the start of construction of Parker Dam, which would direct water from the Colorado River into California via the Colorado River Aqueduct.

The episode unfolded with a sort of Gilbert and Sullivan absurdity. Arizona’s governor, Benjamin Baker Moeur, dispatched a handful of National Guardsmen upriver in a ferryboat named the Julia B., which frontline correspondents dispatched to the river by The Times and other California newspapers happily dubbed the “Arizona Navy.” The “brave little Julia B.,” The Times reported, promptly ran into a sand bank and got worked free by bridge-building crews, after which a truce was dictated by the federal government.

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The next water war may involve the same combatants, but may not be so amusing. Lake Mead, the main reservoir holding Colorado River water for California, Arizona and Nevada, has reached its lowest point since it began filling behind Hoover Dam in 1935. As of midnight Sunday, the lake reached 1,074.37 feet above sea level. It’s expected to keep falling until mid-summer, reaching 1,070 feet before seasonal agricultural demand falls off and it begins to fill again. Last year, the reservoir reached a low point of about 1,075 feet, but not until late June.

If you ask Congress to solve your problems, you’re usually asking for trouble.

— MWD General Manager Jeff Kightlinger

The long-term prospects for Colorado River supply are dire. Demand for its water among the seven states of the river basin--chiefly California and Arizona--hopelessly outstrips the supply, and has been almost since the seven states in its basin worked out an allocation deal in 1922. That interstate compact, brokered by then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, was based on an estimate of river flows that was flagrantly inflated and never has been met. Since then, the recognition of claims from Mexico and Southwestern Indian tribes has only increased demand. Climate change and drought are making the crisis worse.

So water officials from California, Arizona and Nevada have been meeting to work out a solution. Arizona faces the most pressing deadline: Under existing agreements, if the current Lake Mead level persists to the end of this year, the Central Arizona Project, which supplies Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, will be required to give up roughly 13% of its allocation. Further cutbacks are mandated if the lake falls to 1,050 and 1,025 feet, at which point Arizona would lose 17% of its water. Each cutback would especially threaten the livelihood of farmers dependent on the Central Arizona project, who have the most junior rights to the water.

Nevada would also face cuts, though these would be relatively modest, since the state has the smallest allocation from the river.


The interstate talks are focused on maintaining the level of Lake Mead to avert a federal declaration of shortage triggering the Arizona and Nevada cutbacks. The idea on the table involves California’s taking a voluntary reduction of as much as 8% of its annual allocation of 4.4 million acre feet from the river if the level gets much lower. That would be an extraordinary concession, since existing interstate and federal agreements largely exempt California from any cutbacks as long as there’s water in Lake Mead to meet its allocation. The chief consequences for California of a continued decline in Lake Mead’s water level is that the date of a required renegotiation of water allocations, now set at 2026, would be accelerated by several years. (One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, enough to serve one or two average California households.)

But California officials know that working out an interstate deal to keep the reservoir level higher is the wiser option in the long run. “At the end of the day,” says Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, “once you get so low, California loses out.”

Among the risks is that federal officials could step in to impose a reallocation settlement among the three states. Arizona’s U.S. senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, already have hinted at trying to work a settlement agreement into federal legislation, a step that would probably provoke a donnybrook among the two states’ congressional delegations without resolving the underlying issues.

“If you ask Congress to solve your problems,” Kightlinger says, “you’re usually asking for trouble.”

Nor does anyone want the issue to land in court; the last major lawsuit over river water, the 1952-vintage Arizona vs. California, would last 11 years and go down in history as one of the longest, costliest and most complicated ever to come before the Supreme Court. Its outcome pleased neither party, for the justices ruled that federal officials, not the states, had the ultimate say on the river -- “the life-and-death power of dispensation of water rights long administered according to state law,” complained Justice William O. Douglas in a furious dissent.

All the parties are under pressure to reach an agreement by the end of this year, before the current administration leaves office and the process has to start anew with new federal overseers. But the interstate complexities may pale in comparison with the difficulty of working out agreements among water users within each state. California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which has the largest entitlement of Colorado River water, has balked at any agreement to preserve water levels in Lake Mead without a parallel agreement to preserve the Salton Sea. That huge inland pond has suffered as a result of earlier multi-billion-dollar deals by which the Imperial Irrigation District transferred water to San Diego, the MWD and other users.

The shrinkage of the sea already is an environmental and public health disaster. Withholding more water in Lake Mead without a rescue plan would be unacceptable, Imperial Irrigation District General Manager Kevin Kelley said recently. “The Salton Sea has always been the elephant in the room in these talks,” he told the Desert Sun newspaper.

The real elephant in the room, however, is the prospect of a lasting shortage in Colorado River water supply. Says Kightlinger, “It’s no longer a matter of if, but when.”


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