Drought could dry up Law of the River – First in time first in right

August 29, 2013

Aug. 29, 2013                                                 Brad Udall

It’s called the “Law of the River,” an 80-year-old arrangement that seven states use to share water from the Colorado River Basin. The law is based on a simple 19th Century premise - whoever used the water first has senior water rights. But it’s a premise that CU-Boulder water resources expert Brad Udall says is grossly inadequate for the needs of the 21s t Century.

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Drought could dry up Law of the River – First in time first in right

Aug. 29, 2013                                                               Brad Udall

It’s called the “Law of the River,” an 80-year-old arrangement that seven states use to share water from the Colorado River Basin. The law is based on a simple 19th Century premise - whoever used the water first has senior water rights. But it’s a premise that CU-Boulder water resources expert Brad Udall says is grossly inadequate for the needs of the 21s t Century.

CUT 1 “Fundamental water management principles in the west - which comes from miners and agricultural interests that first got here, their solution when you didn't have enough water was a really simple one - if you were here first you got it first. If you're here last you got it last. (:15) And if you had a few agricultural interests or a few miners and not a very connected economy well it kind of makes sense. It's a simple rule; it's easy to follow.” (:24)

But Udall says that idea doesn’t work today because the situation is much more complex than it was 130 years ago. Now more than 40 million people compete for Colorado River water and studies show the region is getting drier. And he says a recent decision by the Department of the Interior to reduce the amount of water released from Lake Powell due to an unprecedented 14-year drought and low reservoir inflows will force water managers to rethink how Colorado River water is distributed.

CUT 2 “What most people are focusing on is not this release but the cascade of effects that we think will happen as a result and that cascade involves either in 2015 or 2016 the first ever shortage to water users in Arizona and Nevada- (:18) That would be the first time in 80 years since all the infrastructure has been put into place on the Colorado River that water deliveries have not been made.” (:28)

Based on the current arrangement if water levels in Lake Mead fall below a certain level then Las Vegas could lose up to 90 percent of its allotment and if water levels drop even lower than Phoenix, Tucson and other communities in Arizona stand to lose water. But Udall doesn’t think that will happen. Instead he believes a new concept will be adopted - one of shared sacrifice where each state shares in the harm of less water.

CUT 3  “In the 21st Century we need three basic premises. One; water needs to be allocated with some idea of equity. You can't concentrate harm. That in general is not equity. You have got to diffuse harm. The second principle is we really got to consider modern economies and how they are interconnected and if you dry up Las Vegas that hurts Los Angeles, that hurts Phoenix, it hurts the whole nation. It makes no sense to concentrate harm. The third item here is the environment. We have got to allocate the water we have in an environmentally sane way.” (:30)

Udall believes that water managers in the Colorado Basin region share his thoughts and are looking at a new way to do business. But in the meantime his worry is if the basin experiences a few wet winters people might put the Colorado River water crises on the back burner.

CUT 4 “My worry is that in a year or two we have a big winter and the pain goes away and you still have this lurking cancer in our water management that everybody decides to ignore but will resurface sometime in the 21st Century. (:15) And we expect more droughts. We have seen declines in flows and my guess is that we are going to have problems here. We have a great opportunity so let’s go solve it now.” (:24)

Brad Udall is the Director of the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School.  He has studied the law, policy and science of the Colorado River for 30 years.

 

-CU-

 

 

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