Monday, March 24, 2014

Bringing the Colorado River Delta Back to Life

from NASA the Colorado Delta in 2004
Yesterday, March 23rd , the Morelos Dam along the US–Mexico border near Yuma, Arizona, opened their gates and began releasing 34,000,000,000 gallons of water downstream that will make up an eight-week long pulse of water intended to mimic a spring flood. Since 1960, when Glen Canyon Dam was finished, the Colorado River has rarely flowed to the sea, and the river’s delta a once alive estuary started to fade and dry out. Now, scientists, environmentalists and politicians are trying to bring the Colorado River Delta back to life.

The water that will make up this pulse was slowly collected from releases from the Hoover, Davis and Parker dams removing some water from the parched west during this extended drought. The water has collect behind the most southerly dam on the river, the Morelos, which sits on the Mexico-US border and normally diverts the last of the Colorado toward agricultural lands in Mexico. The demand for the water of the Colorado has increased and yet the flow (except in the years of the El Niño rains) has not met the demand. Part of the problem has been lack of adequate water management and conservation, but that is only part of the problem.

Control of the water and flow of the Colorado River is part of a 1944 Treaty between the United States and Mexico. The United States and Mexico have spent years negotiating a new Colorado River agreement between the two nations changing the allocation of water. The agreement, called Minute 319, requires the US to provide $21 million to help improve water-saving measures in Mexico (for example lining irrigation canals) and the United States to forego some of its water rights this year to free up water for the pulse and to guarantee a minimum flow to the delta for environmental purposes.

The Minute 319 agreement changes the framework of water law that has always been “First in time, first in rights.” Now the U.S. and Mexico will share the surplus when and if water is plentiful and share shortage when water is scarce. The agreement also commits the two nations to work together on water conservation and restoration of the long dried out delta estuary by guaranteeing a small continuous flow, totaling an additional 16,000,000,000 gallons to the delta to sustain it over the next three years. It's a small but continuous trickle that researchers expect will bring a portion of the delta back to life in the weeks after the pulse.

The Colorado River delta like all estuaries is an incredibly complex ecosystem that we are only beginning to understand. Estuaries are productive ecosystems and habitats. The type of habitat is determined by geology, salinity and climate. Estuaries are fragile ecosystems that are very susceptible to disturbances both natural and those created by man. By diverting the flow of the Colorado River fresh water flow for irrigation and drinking water supplies changes flow, quantity of fresh water if any entering the estuary, and impacts the balance within the ecology. As the ecosystem of estuaries declines, species die out, coastlines experience excessive erosion by wind and tidal action. It is going to take knowledge, effort and resources (wealth in all forms but especially water rights) to restore the delta.

Here in the Chesapeake bay watershed we have reached the point in population density and development that during times of drought, natural flows on the Potomac are not always sufficient to allow water withdrawals by the utilities (including power generation which takes an awesome amount of water) while still maintaining a minimum flow in the river for sustaining aquatic resources. For more than two centuries the waters of the Potomac seemed unlimited so that our region is not hampered and tied by water allocation agreements created almost a century ago that bind the waters of the Colorado River to fixed and rigid allocations. Instead, the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, ICPRB, allocates and manages water resources of the river to improve reliability of the water supply and ensured maintenance of in-stream flows to meet minimum aquatic habitat requirements.

It is unknown if this can be accomplished for the Colorado River whose management is complicated by interstate boarders, water rights that have a basis in law and are truly a form of wealth, but cannot be fairly monetized, sold, or transferred without addressing water and groundwater law in the west. In the third year of drought in California when Governor Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency and stopped all the water allocations from the State Water Project, which delivers water from Northern California through the California Delta to Central valley Farmers the Imperial Valley, east of Los Angeles, still has plenty of water.

The farmers there are unaffected by the drought. The Imperial Valley is not connected to the State Water Project; its water comes directly from the Colorado River, which has continued allocations despite the need for the water for the Minute 319 agreement. The Imperial Valley’s share of water is assured by the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact and subsequent agreements among the seven states that depend on the Colorado River water for life. The Imperial Valley farmers were the first to tap the Colorado for irrigation water and in in water law in the western states, one rule is supreme: "First in time, first in right."

The framework of the Minute 319 agreement to water management changes that absolute. While it creates benefits for water users on both sides of the border, demonstrating that with a broad approach to river and water management, there is room to negotiate and serve multiple interests. It is also a model that would take water and what is truly wealth from the Imperial Valley farmers if applied elsewhere in the Colorado River basin. Water, water rights, environmental needs are complicated in the west and not only impact the wealth of the farmers, but the cost of food. Cheap water and fuel mean cheap food. A century ago food accounted for about a fifth of the household budget of the typical U. S. citizen, now it is about 3%, though only a few years ago it was under 2%.

As part of the changes that are coming in the allocations of the Colorado River waters, water rights must be fairly monetized so that they can be bought and sold to allow future agreements elsewhere on the Colorado to be a win for all stakeholders not just those parties who advocate the restoration of the delta’s environment and the Colorado River itself, but to include the holders of the water rights and the U.S. consumer.

No comments:

Post a Comment