Colorado to California: Hands off our water

Colorado is moving to keep tighter control over its own water supply, rankling drought-stricken western states like California.

In the process, Colorado is learning a valuable lesson in interstate diplomacy.

James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, initially gave some tough remarks in explaining his state’s intentions in an interview with The Associated Press. “If anybody thought we were going to roll over and say, 'OK, California, you're in a really bad drought, you get to use the water that we were going to use,' they're mistaken," he said.

Some of Eklund’s fellow water authorities were taken aback. Eklund is in charge of the state's water policy and planning and as senior deputy legal counsel to Gov. John Hickenlooper, his word carries a lot of weight.

"There was a lot of surprise with that remark," said Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River Program manager at the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles, which serves 19 million people.

Eklund later tried to downplay his comments. "Unfortunately my comment, the quote that was attributed to me, suggested that we were flexing our muscle," he said. "And that's just not the case."

But Colorado is still moving forward on its new water plan.

To understand what’s at stake here, a brief overview of the critical nature of the Colorado River and those who depend on it is in order:

The river provides water to 40 million people in the states of Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, California and Colorado. These seven states also make up one of the driest regions in the nation, dependent on a water flow that is miniscule in comparison to rivers in other parts of the United States.

Making matters worse, recent droughts throughout the region have reduced the Colorado's already limited flow and left massive reservoirs like Lake Mead, which sits in Nevada and just over the Arizona border, at record lows.

Every state gets a predetermined share of the resource, a quantity divided up in 1922 under a federal compact. And while the 1922 Colorado River Compact governs the system, scientists now know the 93-year-old agreement was reached at a time when the region was going through an unusually wet period. States get their allowance regardless of whether they need more or less.

"There's a long-term deficit beyond just a short-term drought that we have to come to grips with," Hasencamp said. "There's just not enough water in the Colorado River to meet the demands that were designed in the 1922 Compact."

Unlike California, Colorado has had more than it needs. In years past, Colorado has allowed Southern California to dip into its surplus, to help stretch its supply. That is about to change.

Under Eklund, Colorado is drawing up a water plan for the state. The draft, which has been presented to Hickenlooper, calls for Colorado to save for the future. It would keep its legal share of the 1922 Compact allotment, rather than spread the wealth.

"States depend on water that originates here," Eklund said. "And as a result, everybody watches us. If we twitch on water, everybody notices."

Douglas Kenney, a western water expert at the University of Colorado Law School, said it's never been a secret upstream states like Colorado are going to consume more water. "I mean, that's predictable," he said. "And states like California have certainly known this is coming. What can they do? Well, they can look to the other sources of supply, they can conserve water, they can look for creative deals ... it's not something that sneaks up on anyone."

In fact, Southern California has been making plans. According to Hasencamp, it’s invested more than $1 billion over the last decade to reduce its dependence on the Colorado.

Kenney said the issue is bigger than the region itself. "Once you broaden a little further it is a problem with national economic implications, and of course that translates to the global economies."

More than 16 million people in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Southern California, Utah and Wyoming are employed as a result of working directly or indirectly with this water.Researchers at Arizona State University estimate the total economic impact of the Colorado River is $1.4 trillion.

"The seven states have to work together," Hasencamp said.

Eklund said he was not trying to send a tough message to other states. "The state of Colorado is working ... to make sure that we have collaborative approaches to the situation on the Colorado River, which is in the midst of the worst 15 years of drought that we've ever measured."

In his State of the State address, Hickenlooper pointed out, "Even when our snow pack is substantial and the state has what looks like a water surplus, a drought always looms. Water in Colorado is always in finite supply."

Hickenlooper went on to say the new water plan “goes a long way to ensure we strategically allocate this precious resource to maximize our entire state's ability to grow and flourish."

Hasencamp said downstream states are making hard choices and doing what they can to lessen demand on the scarce resource. "We know that we can't have one state fight against another," Hasencamp said. "We all have to work together."