California’s cities need water. Its farmers have it. Could leasing rights to it solve the crisis responsibly?
Last fall, farmers working the flat land along the Colorado River outside Blythe, California, harvested a lucrative crop of oranges, lettuce and alfalfa from fields irrigated with river water. But that wasn’t their only source of income. They made almost as much per acre from the seemingly dead squares of dry earth abutting those orchards and row crops, fields left barren for the season.
The money crop that the fallowed land produced was one of the West’s most precious commodities: water. Under an experimental trading scheme set up by the Palo Verde Irrigation District in Blythe and the Metropolitan Water District — which supplies municipal water to the Los Angeles area, Orange and San Diego counties, and much of the Inland Empire — the farmers essentially leased millions of gallons of their Colorado River water to California’s coastal cities.
It’s a prototype of a trade that may soon become much more common, and the kind of win-win scenario that could help solve the West’s water crisis.
The Colorado River basin — which provides water to California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — is entering its 16th year of drought. The nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, is nearly two thirds empty, in large part because even in wet years those seven states take more water from the river than the Colorado, on average over the last century, has provided.
This overuse — coupled with arcane laws discouraging conservation, subsidies encouraging profligate water management and political gamesmanship — has helped make the West’s water desperately scarce and left its governments unprepared for a changing climate. ProPublica has reported extensively on these failures in its five-part series “Killing the Colorado
But, as experts such as former Arizona Governor and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt point out, there is, in fact, a great deal of water available in the Colorado River basin. There is just a gross imbalance — institutionalized through law and policy and tradition — in who has access to it.
At the core lies a fundamental tension between agriculture, which uses about 80% of Colorado River water, and the watershed’s growing cities, which desperately want to use more of it. Both present convincing claims: Colorado River-irrigated agriculture — including lands in Southern California — provides about 15% of the nation’s food supply; meanwhile, cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix and L.A. want to continue to grow in order to remain vibrant and serve their millions of residents, who drive the region’s other economies.
This standoff has long shadowed development in the West. It stirs up divisive politics, a fight generally couched in terms of which water user is more important, more deserving and more responsible in its stewardship of a scarce natural resource — agrarian food growers or the urban pioneers of new economies.
But debating whether farms or cities are “more deserving” ignores a simple fact embedded in the foundation of law governing the West and its water: Though most water is technically a public asset, the right to use it was long ago promised to individuals and is virtually irreversible, so long as the water is put to good use. Those rights are viewed by many as inviolable private property rights.
Farms — many of which were granted their water rights 100 years ago — believe they earned them, through more than a century of pioneering and risk they shouldered to settle and build the growing regions that now covet their water. And in most cases, the courts and state governments of the Colorado River basin back them up. Yet very few deny that in a rapidly urbanizing region, shifting more water to the cities is an existential necessity. The real question is how best to do it.
State leaders could boldly try to redesign — to modernize — the legal architecture that assigned all that water to farmers on a first-come-first-served basis. But policymakers seem unwilling to take on such a daunting task, in part because it could bring hefty political consequences and would inevitably draw legal challenges. Protecting claims to water, for instance, is written into Colorado’s Constitution. Many view the taking of water rights — or redistributing them — as a form of…Continue Reading…