Is Transferring Colorado River Water Rights a Feasible Water Supply Solution?

Share
colorado-river-65521_640

It is widely recognized that the Colorado River is presently over-allocated and that its flow is diminishing over time.

In 2014, the Arizona Department of Water Resources concluded that a sustainable water supply to support projected growth in the Verde River watershed will require importation of water from outside this area within the next 25 to 100 years.

A potential long-term solution for sustainability suggested by ADWR involved exchanging Colorado River water for water derived via pipeline from a desalination plant either on the Pacific Ocean or the Sea of Cortez.

Earlier, a cooperative study by the Bureau of Reclamation and Yavapai County’s Water Advisory Committee estimated a water-supply shortfall between 45,000 and 80,000 acre-feet per year by 2050 for the Verde River watershed.

The BOR-WAC study suggested that water imported from the Colorado River might be a potential source of additional water. However, it is widely recognized that the Colorado River is presently over-allocated and that its flow is diminishing over time. A 2012 study of the Colorado River’s ability to support the increased future water demand of continued population growth was undertaken by the BOR in cooperation with the seven states within the Colorado River’s basin (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, California, and Arizona).

The study concluded that, “in the absence of timely action to ensure sustainability, there exists a strong potential for significant imbalances between water supply (from the river) and demand in coming decades.”

The Colorado River has been characterized as the most highly controlled and regulated river in the country. Managed by the BOR, its waters are controlled by federal law and have been divided by international treaty between the U.S. and Mexico.

Within the U.S. its water is further allotted between the upper basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) and the lower basin states (Nevada, California, and Arizona) by interstate compact, acts of Congress, and decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Arizona also receives a small amount of water from the upper basin allotment. The latter is presently used by the Navajo Power Generating plant in Page, and a significant amount of power generated by the plant is used by the Central Arizona Project (CAP).

Allotment of Colorado River water by the BOR is based upon the above laws and decrees and the concept of first in time, first in right. For all practical purposes, Arizona utilizes it full allotment of water: 2.8 million acre-feet per year from the allotment of the lower-basin states and 50,000 acre-feet per year from the allotment of the upper-basin states.

Arizona’s right to use CAP water, approximately 1.6 million acre-feet per year, from the lower-basin allotment, however, is not senior to the rights of Nevada and California. Consequently this water is subject to being reduced under low-flow conditions. Projections by the BOR presently predict that Arizona’s allocation may be reduced for the first time in 2016 or soon thereafter.

Given that Arizona is presently using its full allocation, the only way that those without present rights, such as Yavapai County, can receive water from the river is by reallocation and purchase of rights from an existing rights holder.

This approach has been the subject of much interest and speculation for some years now by many entities within the state that need water for growth, as well as by legal firms, and it is understood to be fraught with legal, political, engineering, and economic problems, to name a few.

Already there is competition among entities in the state that would like to have new or increased access to Colorado River water. This point is probably best illustrated in a paper printed in the Arizona Law Review (Vol. 49, 2007, paper No. 07-05) discussing the legal issues involved with transferring rights to Colorado River water.

It provides the following exchange between a psychiatrist and his patient wherein the patient states “They’re out to get me,” to which the psychiatrist replies, “You’re paranoid.”

“That may be true,” replies the patient, “but they are still after me.”

Clearly, not everyone is going to want to give up their rights.

The substantial challenges that must be overcome to obtain Colorado River water will require decades rather than years to accomplish if it can be accomplished at all. In the meantime, Yavapai County’s population is still expected to grow and with it will come a demand for additional water.

Given this situation, and the fact that Yavapai County is not actively looking for any outside source of water, it is imperative that the county immediately begins to look into ways that would allow us to live on a sustainable level within our existing means.


Article by Bill Meyer, Retired Hydrologist,
Board Member of the Verde River Basin Partnership
November 2015
Published in the Verde Independent as “Water Policy Must be Based on Sustainability”

×

Tell a Friend