Bob Pinzler

On Local Government: More on California Water Wars

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

It seems like the simplest thing in the world.

Open your tap and pure…well, sort of…water comes out. As end users, we don’t give it much thought. But, two actions taken this week by the Bureau of Reclamation in the Southwestern US may have tremendous long term repercussions.

In the Sacramento area, the flow of the American River, which empties into Folsom Dam and then on to the Bay Delta after meeting up with the Sacramento River, will have its flow dramatically reduced from the dam by more than 50 percent. The Bureau, which manages the system, needs to preserve the water for human consumption, given the depth of the drought California is experiencing.

The likelihood is that a substantial portion of the annual Chinook salmon run will be disturbed. The choice was humans over fish.

Meanwhile, on the Colorado River, a much more severe problem is developing. Anyone who has visited Lake Mead can see the problem immediately. All along the lake is a white “bathtub ring” which indicates the severity of the drought that has been happening for 14 years in the Colorado’s watershed.

Levels in Lake Mead are at less than half of capacity. But, because the problem is taking place all the way up the river, the releases from the next dam up the chain, Glen Canyon, behind which sits Lake Powell, will be reduced. Unless something changes, by 2015, rationing could be put in place for the seven states, and especially for Las Vegas and Los Angeles, which use Colorado River water. For the 40 million people who depend on this water, life is about to change.

The projection is that water flows from the Rocky Mountains and other Colorado tributaries will be down by as much as 35 percent from past “flush” years for the foreseeable future. Primarily, scientists believe this is due to climate change.

But, as with all things water, a fight is brewing. The agreement to divide Colorado River water was first made in the 1920’s. At that time, states like Nevada, Arizona and Utah were more sparsely populated than they are now and water requirements were minimal. In addition, the agreement was made following many years of high volumes of rainfall, which distorted the base line numbers.

In the interim, additional agreements were arrived at, but with caveats. For example, in the 1960s, Arizona gave California “first dibs” on Colorado River water as part of agreement to build the Central Arizona Project, which has enabled the growth of cities in the Phoenix area. So, Arizona has to give up nearly 50 percent of its water first before California has to suffer.

My guess is that a lot of lawyers are going to get very rich.

Efforts at conservation, which have been successful in reducing demand, have difficulty keeping up with increasing populations. More draconian measures are probably awaiting us.

We need to be aware and prepared to take part in making the water levels we have work. Otherwise, that tap may be turned on and nothing will come out.