Dispatches from the Water Detente

I beat up on the “water wars” trope a lot. Like, a lot. Water is so essential to every aspect of life in the American West that it sometimes seems inevitable that great conflict will arise over its potential uses, and sometimes it does. But we see the opposite transpire all the time: the looming threat of disaster motivates compromise, reconciliation, and shared solutions. Maybe we just see conciliation as less than good copy, but I disagree. Stories of innovation can be impressive and inspiring.

The Green Lagoons

Recently, we received two pieces of very good news from two very different places linked by that nation-binding thread, the Colorado River. The first is the fulfillment of a long-held promise, a water release to sustain and revitalize the Colorado River Delta.

The United States and Mexico plan to collaborate this month on a pilot project aimed at restoring wetlands in the Colorado River delta in Baja California through a one-time high-volume delivery of river water, a move hailed as historic by environmental groups on both sides of the border.

A one-time delivery scheduled over an eight-week period, the pulse flows “are high enough to rise out of the river banks onto the area where the trees grow … and ensure that any seedlings continue to grow,” said Jennifer Pitt, director of the Colorado River Project of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The Delta has been greatly deprived of water for decades due to upstream development of water supplies, both in the Unites States and Mexico. For years there seemed to be no advocate for the Delta, and certainly there was little progress on restoring an area Aldo Leopold called “the green lagoons” back in 1922, before the dams went up. This month’s marks the first time in history that the health of the Delta has been explicitly included in water resource management- at least on a permanent basis. The release planned for this month is a product of an agreement called “Minute 319,” which committed both national governments to the appropriation of water to the wetlands (click here for my friend and colleague Karen Schlatter’s account of the long history of bi-national agreements on the Colorado).

Interestingly, Minute 319 came about not from litigation under Mexican environmental laws but through careful and complex negotiation among water interests traditionally considered opposite sides of the table. The “war” over the Colorado did not enter the courtroom as it has in the past. Instead, their shared reliance on the resource, and their shared desire to find a solution beneficial to all sides, persuaded many of the region’s actors to start talking. The water now guaranteed to the Delta was purchased from farmers in Mexico who are retiring or improving their irrigation efficiency. In the agreement’s final form, American farmers and cities do not have to sacrifice any water, Mexican farmers receive cash in exchange for some of theirs, and the Delta receives a base flow and periodic pulse flows- not anything close to its historic, pre-development flows, but perhaps enough to energize a good portion of those delightful green lagoons.

A flourishing, relatively wet segment of the Colorado River Delta. Image courtesy Karen Schlatter.

A flourishing, relatively wet segment of the Colorado River Delta. Image courtesy Karen Schlatter.

High Alpine Handshake

Another landmark agreement was signed just this week, seemingly resolving a conflict on which I’ve written twice before. It’s the Moffat Firming Project, the most high-visibility water transfer currently being pursued in the state of Colorado. Denver Water, which first proposed the project ten long years ago, wants to divert more water out of the Fraser River for storage and use on the Front Range. On Tuesday Denver, Trout Unlimited, and Grand County finally agreed on a package of protections for the health of the river.

“The Fraser is a river beloved by generations of anglers, boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts — it’s the lifeblood of our community,” said Kirk Klancke, president of TU’s Colorado River Headwaters chapter in Fraser and a longtime advocate for the river. “As an angler and Fraser Valley resident, I’m gratified that this agreement keeps our home waters healthy and flowing.”

The package includes environmental enhancements and protections to ensure the Fraser River will be better off with the Moffat Project than without it, said Denver Water. The Moffat Project will improve the reliability of Denver Water’s system, which serves 1.3 million people in the Denver-metro area.

Certain flows contributed by the Fraser River will be guaranteed under Tuesday's agreement. Image courtesy Bureau of Land Management.

Certain flows contributed by the Fraser River will be guaranteed under Tuesday’s agreement. Image courtesy Bureau of Land Management.

Generations of Western Slope ranchers and Denver water czars have fought tooth and nail over rivers like the Fraser. If “water wars” was ever true somewhere in Colorado, this was the place. Tuesday’s agreement concerning the Moffat Project, along with the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement and the initial mitigation plan agreed upon by Denver, the Colorado River District, and other partners, represents the end of those wars.The new management plan should be included in the Final Environmental Impact Statement produced by the US Army Corps of Engineers in April.

Like the entities transferring water for the benefit of the Delta, Denver and its partners deserve commendation for seeking a mutually beneficial outcome. We think of water as a game of winners and losers, but there are at least some cases where that doesn’t have to be true. The Moffat Project will guarantee water to the Fraser River trout habitat and to Grand County water users in dry years, while increasing the reliability of Denver’s water supply in wet years. No doubt cities, farmers and environmentalists can work toward a similarly effective project wherever their needs have historically been in conflict.

Detente across the Continental Divide needn’t continue, of course; in December, the Colorado River Basin Roundtable resolved to oppose any future transbasin diversion of water to satisfy a shortage on the Front Range.

“Don’t goddamn come here any more,” was the way Lurline Curran, county manager of Grand County, summed up the roundtable’s position.

Obviously, mutual concession is not universal. But if Denver Water, the most hated entity in West Slope water politics for decades, can learn to negotiate in good faith and come to an agreement on the Fraser River rather than go to court to protect its plans, if the water users of Southern California can take the painful step of reducing their reliance on the Colorado River, and if the power of the market and voluntary agreements can put water in the Colorado River Delta for the first time in even longer, then perhaps the prospect of water shortage, the expense of litigation and the recognition that all water users suffer at the same time can encourage negotiated solutions to our future water problems. Maybe bloggers in forty years will discuss the remarkable period of “water peace” that emerged in the 2010s despite the doom-and-gloom predictions of managers and the public alike. Maybe not, but there certainly is enough evidence to disabuse us of the notion that conflict is inevitable in the world of Western water.

Bonus good news: Chipotle says guacamole supply is secure despite California’s drought


2 thoughts on “Dispatches from the Water Detente

  1. Well that is all good news, including the Chipotle item. Now maybe they can take down the signs in the Fraser Valley.

    Again, well done.


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