By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In the Imperial Valley, the transfers are accompanied by “water efficiency” measures, such as lining canals from which seepage supplies water for farming communities and a series of wetlands just south in Mexico. A new dam to hold more water in the U.S. when it rains in the desert will further cut Mexico’s water supply. When the projects are finished, Mexico will lose water around which it has historically organized its economy and society, dashing the economic hopes and spirit of more than a million people in the Mexicali Valley and fueling a bitter lawsuit and international tensions.
“It’s sort of a xenophobia,” says Malissa Hathaway-McKeith at the law firm of Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard, & Smith LLP, who is one of the lead attorneys pressing the case on behalf of a Mexicali business group against the United States government, which is behind the lining of the canal. “There’s no way we would do this to Canada.”
All along the river, the habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife is near collapse. In the fast-flowing streams President Eisenhower once fished high in the Rockies of Grand County, Colorado, water flows are too low and warm to support large trout populations. Delicate wetlands in the desert and the Salton Sea will soon be pushed over the edge by massive transfers of water to Southern California. They will cause billions of dollars of unfunded state taxpayer liabilities for mitigation as they dry out the inland sea and spew a cloud of salty, pesticide-tainted dust in the air over the Imperial and Coachella valleys.
Moved by stories of profligacy, undue land-developer influence, farmland going fallow, and greed and gross injustice creating economic desperation, I decided to follow the pipeline to the source that supplies the interconnected plumbing of Los Angeles and Southern California with much of its water. I wanted to see what water managers had bragged to me was the “most regulated river in the world.” So I began a series of journeys and inquiries to various points along the great Colorado River — from the river’s delta to Colorado — under a cloudless sky. My first stop was Boulder City, Nevada, next to Hoover Dam.
As I roll north on U.S. Highway 95 from the drab casino town of Laughlin, Nevada, the rising sun reveals a landscape carved by the ancient Colorado River. Joshua trees sprout from the desert where the river cuts its way through the land, slicing canyons in some places and leaving flat plains in others as it meanders south toward the sea.
At the beginning of the 20th century, farmers devastated by floods and cities seeking water called on the federal government to control the river, which could rage like a giant in wet years and run low when it was dry. They wanted help evening out their water supplies to make life more predictable.
So Congress approved a series of projects after 1922, when Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover negotiated a division of the Colorado’s water — known as the law of the river. The projects included a Metropolitan Water District aqueduct from the Colorado River into the Los Angeles area, and a series of dams along the lower river, called the Boulder Canyon project, beginning with Hoover Dam. The projects spawned an extensive system of irrigation canals in the farmlands to the south and set the stage for the dramatic growth of cities in the American Southwest.
Based on what was thought to be an average water flow of 17 million acre-feet a year, the 1922 law of the river allotted 7.5 million acre-feet of the Colorado’s water to the lower-basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada, and an equal amount to the upper-basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. In 1944, the U.S. entered a treaty with Mexico granting 1.5 million acre-feet a year to its southern neighbor. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1964 split the lower-state share of 7.5 million acre-feet a year, entitling California to 4.4 million acre-feet; Arizona, 2.8 million acre-feet; and Nevada, 300,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot supplies about two Southern California households for a year.
Through the ensuing decades, the people of the Southwest built their cities and operated their farms on the basis of these water shares. Though they continually squabbled, the river always supplied enough water to meet these basic quotas because of the large reservoirs the federal government built, including Lake Mead, formed by the completion of Hoover Dam in 1935, and upstream Lake Powell, created by the Glen Canyon Dam, finished in 1963.
In retrospect, however, the expectation that the river would provide 17 million acre-feet of water a year turned out to be based on what were exceptionally wet years at the time the law of the river was negotiated, according to Michael Cohen, a senior research associate with the Pacific Institute.
Historical data on the river’s flow over the last 100 years show that an average of only 15 million acre-feet a year of water flows down the river. Based on studies of tree rings that go back hundreds of years, the long-term average flow is closer to 13.5 million acre-feet, according to Melinda Kassen, an attorney with the Colorado office of Trout Unlimited.