A fly fisherman casts on the Green River above "The Narrows" in Sublette County. The Green River is a major tributary of the Colorado. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

It is no exaggeration to say that a mega-drought not seen in 500 years has descended on the seven Colorado River Basin states: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California. That’s what the science shows, and that’s what the region faces.

Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas and San Diego have already reduced per capita water use. Yet they continue to consume far more water than the river can supply. The river and its tributaries are still overdrawn by more than a million acre feet annually, an amount in consumption equaled by four cities the size of Los Angeles.

To close the deficit, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the states have been struggling to apportion the drastic cuts necessary.

So far, the parties have proceeded by adhering rigidly to historic doctrines: first users have absolute rights, though those rights were based on rosy projections of  the river’s annual flow.

For example, In  Arizona  the 6 million residents of Phoenix and Tucson will lose 50% of their share before California gives up a single drop.

Nevada, which has a 2% share, the smallest of any state, is called on to take more cuts ahead of California, which has the largest share, 29%.

Within California, water to 20 million residents in cities will be completely shut off before farming districts adjacent to and within the Imperial Valley take any cuts.

And in the upper basin, the states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico are faced with draconian reductions in their entitlements because they must deliver water to the lower basin states.

Brad Udall, a water scientist at Colorado State University, warns that something must give, that we cannot continue with a system that increasingly “violates the public’s sense of rightness.”

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There is a better, more equitable pathway for reducing the deficit without forcing arbitrary cuts. It involves 3 million acres of irrigated agriculture, mostly alfalfa and forage crops, which consume more than 80% of total water use in the basin.

By retiring less than 10% of this irrigated acreage from production, we could eliminate the existing million acre-foot overdraft on the Colorado River, while still maintaining the dominant role of agriculture. Pilot programs in both the upper and lower basins have demonstrated how agricultural retirement programs can work at the local level. What’s lacking is the vision and financing to bring these efforts to a Basin scale.

Fortunately, there’s a precedent administered by the Department of Agriculture; it’s the Conservation Reserve Program, established in 1985 by Congress. It authorizes the Farm Service Agency in the Department of Agriculture to contract with landowners to retire marginal and environmentally sensitive agricultural lands in exchange for rent.

Farmers who join the Conservation Reserve remain free to return the lands to production at the end of the renewable contract period, typically 10-30 years.

The national Conservation Reserve currently holds nearly 22 million acres under contracts with more than 300,000 farms. This legislation has strong support from the farming community and in Congress, which appropriates nearly $2 billion each year for the program.

With this precedent, it’s time to create an Irrigation Reserve Program. To work, it must be voluntary, and farmers who participate must be adequately paid for the use of their irrigation rights.

A new Irrigation Reserve on a basin scale will also require significant public funding. But the mechanism for financing an Irrigation Reserve is already available in existing federal law.

In 1973, faced with deteriorating water quality in the river, the basin states came together and persuaded Congress to enact a law known as the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Act.

To fund salinity control projects throughout the basin, the Congress allocated revenues from the sale of hydropower from Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon Dam and other federal dams throughout the basin.

Three hydropower accounts — the Lower Colorado River Basin Development Fund, the Upper Colorado River Basin Fund and the Hoover Powerplant Act — continue to capture and allocate revenues to basin projects. Congress should now add financing of an Irrigation Reserve to the list of eligible expenditures.

With these two precedents, the Conservation Reserve Program and the Salinity Control Act, we have the road map to establish a basin-wide irrigation reserve. I urge the seven basin states to make common cause and join together to obtain congressional legislation.

This piece was originally published by Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about Western issues, and reprinted here with permission.

Bruce Babbitt

Bruce Babbitt served as Secretary of the Interior from 1993-2001. He is a contributor to Writers on the Range.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively discussion about Western issues.

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  1. Riparian Law ( water rights ) dates back to the Roman Empire, and in 2,000 years of trying we still haven’t got it right. But there is one thing that would radically transform it to the good : quit appropriating water that really isn’t there.

    By which I mean water needs to be appropriated proportionally , rather than by absolute volume. No user no matter how senior their water rights should be allowed to claim their maximum use by X acre feet or Y cubic feet per second year after year. Convert allotments to percentages of available flow instead.

    The Colorado River Compact did a majorly stupid thing back in the 1920’s when it presumes there would always be 15 million acre feet of water to apportion every year, and thus gave the upper basin 7.5 million and the lower basin the other 7.5 million. Except in some recent years the total flow from PInedale Wyoming to the Sea of Cortez was under ten million a.f. of net water. NET Water. Yet the Greater Phoenix area was allowed to grab their alloted GROSS volume.

    Unless we beigin allocating water according to NET available water on the ground instead of GROSS water on paper, we cannot sustain usage for long. We need to rejig the math , up front, in addition to all the other conservation and allocation mitigations downstream.

    Anyone seriously concerned about he Colorado River system or even the water projects across the entire American West needs to have a well thumbed copy of Marc Reisner’s seminal 1986 book ” Cadillac Desert ” on their desk. The handwriting was on the wall for all to see way back then. It’s the bathtub ring on the sandstone walls above Lake Powell and Lake Mead. And the fact that the City of Los Angeles’ municipal water department bought up water rights around Pinedale Wyoming back before 1925 from ranchers stupid enough to sell them. Keep in m ind that the entire Greater Phoenix area was planned out for a population of 15 million people based on having all that Wyoming water for their golf courses. It never even got to 5 million before the rivers ran dry.

    It is beyond imperative that we reform the Colorado River Compact from Union Pass Wyoming all the way to the Pacific, and indeed all western water law blocs based on real world parameters . Otherwise the water will reform us , on its terms. The Zen of water is lack of water is also water management at work .

  2. Maybe it is time to ask how much land Mr. Babbitt has developed over the years. Every “environmental” thing he has done has resulted in more land sold to development, much of which in AZ is done by him. Follow the money right into his pockets.

  3. The one group that gets full access to their water rights are Native Americans regardless of cuts to other entities, cities, farms, recreation. Here in Phoenix the city has made agreements with the tribes over purchasing their water. For the tribes they can make more by selling their water, granted in tribal agreements, to Phoenix than they can make off farming.