Norton Intervenes in Western Water Feud

Published March 1, 2003

Interior Secretary Gale Norton cut back California’s Colorado River water supply, making good on a promise to intervene in a regional water dispute if California could not reach a water-use agreement with six other Colorado River states.

The Secretary’s action, taken January 1, is not expected to pose any immediate strain on the state’s water supply. It could, however, cause long-term regional supply issues if the state does not reach an agreement with the other Colorado River states or pursue other means of supplying water to Southern California residents.

More than 70 years ago, California signed an agreement to draw no more than 4.4 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River each year. Other states also agreed to limit the amount of water withdrawn from the river. Arizona, for example, limited itself to 2.8 million acre-feet per year, and Nevada limited itself to 300,000 acre-feet.

Since the agreement was signed, however, California frequently has withdrawn more than its allotment of water. Other states did not protest because they did not utilize or need all of their allotted water. However, as regional population has grown and neighboring states are beginning to draw their full allotment of Colorado River water, California’s practice of exceeding its allotment has strained the system.

Pressed by the Clinton administration to curtail its water use, California agreed to reduce its dependence on the Colorado River by 2015. However, facing a December 31, 2002 deadline to submit specific plans to reduce the state’s dependence on the river, various California water districts could not reach agreement on how to do so. Without an explicit agreement in place, Norton followed through on her promise to cut the state’s water supply.

A major obstacle to reaching a water-use agreement is the existence of a large lake created in 1905 after the Colorado River burst through a farm dike and poured water for more than a year into arid surrounding land. By the time the dike was fixed, the river water had created California’s Salton Sea, a 380-square-mile lake that is 227 feet below sea level and 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

The lake has been described as one of the most productive fisheries in the nation, home to corvina, croaker, and tilapia. It serves as an annual rest stop for millions of migratory birds. Despite its disconnection from its Colorado River water source, the lake has survived due to runoff from irrigation projects in California’s Imperial Valley.

The Imperial Valley is one of the nation’s leading sources of winter fruits and vegetables. It also is one of the chief beneficiaries of California’s practice of exceeding its water allotment from the Colorado River. A return by California to its 4.4 million acre-feet water allotment will result in less irrigation water for the Imperial Valley and less resultant runoff into the Salton Sea. Without the irrigation runoff, scientists expect the Sea to steadily contract and become too salty for plant and animal life.

“If you don’t have farmers, you don’t have a Salton Sea,” said Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority.

California’s regional neighbors are opposed to seeing their Colorado River allotments shrink in order to support a man-made lake. California, in turn, has a dual interest in supporting its farmers and preserving the life-sustaining sea, regardless of the circumstances of its creation. The state has yet to seriously consider sustaining the Imperial Valley’s water supply through alternative sources, such as the purchase of more water from Northern California or surrounding states.

“I truly believe there’s such a strong force saying ‘Let it die, let it die,'” said retiree Ted Deckers, who lives on the shore of the lake.

The Imperial Irrigation District filed a lawsuit on January 10 asking a federal judge to block Secretary Norton’s action.

“Simply stated,” Southern California Metropolitan Water District Board President Lloyd Allen wrote to Norton, “the action of your department is misguided, unjustified, unsupported by the law or the facts, and is an example of heavy-handed and unwarranted federal interference with intrastate water allocation matters.”

“Our forefathers worked too hard to create the most productive farm region in the world,” the letter added. “While [the Imperial Irrigation District] would prefer to have consensual agreements, we will not retreat from litigation to protect the lifeblood of our community.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.