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Environment Report: Tribes Want a Say in the Colorado River's Future

The San Diego County Water Authority offers to end a long-running legal battle, President Trump and the mayor of San Francisco agree on something and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.

The Colorado River as it divides Arizona from California / Photo by Ry Rivard

There are several ticking time bombs in western water.

The first is obvious. How much less water will fall from the sky because of climate change?

Another big one is barely talked about and will take decades if not a century to end. How will bureaucrats, lawmakers and the courts deal with the rights of Native American tribes that have claims to water from the Colorado River?

The Colorado is already suffering because states that rely on it — largely California and Arizona — are taking more out of the river than snow and rain put back in. After two decades of drought, this “structural deficit” is close to becoming a crisis for millions of Americans and Mexicans who depend on the river’s water.

Lingering in the background are unresolved claims that tribes have to the river’s water.

Gary Pitzer, a writer for the Water Education Foundation, takes a long look at this brewing conflict, which is something I’ve also been learning about over the past year and a half, thanks in part to a pair of fellowships from the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

These tribes’ claims, on paper, amount to roughly 3 million-acre feet of water. That’s a fifth of the Colorado River’s entire flow. That’s enough water for roughly 24 million people. That’s more water than the whole state of Arizona takes from the river in a year.

And here’s the kicker: The tribes’ rights predate almost everybody else’s, making their rights some of the most “senior.” That means if the tribes wanted to exercise their water rights, nearly everyone else is a “junior” user and has to step aside and go dry.

Tribes want a seat at the table. During an interview last year, Darryl Vigil, chairman of the Colorado River Ten Tribes Partnership, said for tribes not to be part of ongoing discussion about the future of the river “seemed insane to us.”

For now, they’re waiting on a federal Tribal Water Study that is supposed to come up with options for meeting future water demands.

The report itself has been repeatedly delayed. The first time I heard about it, last summer, it was supposed to be finished last fall. It’s now expected to be finished by the end of this year.

In any case, tribes can’t use those rights or get that water without a pipeline. Water rights are funny that way — they are “use it or lose it” rights. Right now, the tribes can’t afford to use all their water. For perspective: A project to access less than 2 percent of the water the tribes have rights to took decades to develop and will end up costing over $1 billion.

Without such projects to tap into the river’s water, the water passes to junior users. That includes water that eventually ends up in Los Angeles and San Diego — water we rely on.

Tribes would obviously like to build more projects, because their people need it. Water is fundamental for economic development and, of course, life itself.

Right now, more than 300,000 people live in the Navajo Nation, a reservation that spans Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. A third of the people on that land don’t have running water.

But the need for pipelines is butting up against a federal government that isn’t spending much on infrastructure. Perhaps the even bigger problem: There already isn’t enough water to go around.

If tribes ever got the money to grow their economy and use more water, who would lose water? Los Angeles? Phoenix? Powerful farming interests across the West?

Tribes seem to be exploring another option, which is to sell off some of their rights or to reach settlements to get some but not all their water.

One possibility is that tribes will credibly threaten to take water being used by others and then force those people to pay the tribes not to do so.

A group known as the Colorado River Indian Tribes have been interested in such an arrangement. The CRIT, as they are known, have talked about farming for a few years, then fallowing the land and selling off the water they had been using to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Officials from Metropolitan have repeatedly said they are not interested in such a deal, even if it means less water for its 19 million customers in Southern California, including San Diego.

But across the West, tribes have been looking for ways to either get their water or flip their rights for a profit, which would essentially allow water to remain in the same hands, but at a cost.

About the Water War Peace Talks …

A week and a half ago, Jim Madaffer, the new chairman of the San Diego County Water Authority, offered to end the agency’s long-running legal battle with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, under certain conditions.

Madaffer, a local lobbyist and former city councilman who became the agency’s chairman on Oct. 1, told KPBS he hoped to settle a decade of litigation within the next four to six weeks.

The lawsuits — there are several of them now — revolve around how much the Water Authority pays Metropolitan to deliver some water to San Diego from the Colorado River.

At first glance, the settlement terms look favorable to Metropolitan. The Water Authority, for instance, said it would knock a few million off the legal fees Metropolitan owes San Diego.

That pales in comparison, though, to other things in the letter. The Water Authority asked Metropolitan to guarantee millions of dollars in annual subsidies to help pay for the Carlsbad desalination plant and a water recycling project in San Diego, among others. The total amount of those subsidies could be hundreds of millions of dollars. The Water Authority has sued for the subsidies but also sued to defund them, a confusing legal strategy that prompted an internal rebellion last year.

The settlement Madaffer proposed would also seem to spare San Diego the costs of paying some expenses related to the twin tunnels, a project to bring water south from Northern California. The Water Authority has long been skeptical of the tunnels but now supports the project, so long as it doesn’t have to pay too much for it.

So far, the reaction from Metropolitan officials has been tepid, but negotiations between the two agencies is ongoing.

Trump and San Francisco’s Mayor Agree on Something

San Francisco Mayor London Breed came out against new state environmental regulations that could have reduced the amount of water available for her city. She “vetoed a resolution passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors earlier this week that offered the city’s blessing for the little-known, but far-reaching state initiative,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported last week.

The opposition puts San Francisco’s mayor and the Trump administration in the same corner — opposed to policies that would help the environment but reduce water available for cities and farmers.

The Washington Post has a good look at how President Donald Trump has been using water politics to help a Republican congressman from the Central Valley. Trump has moved to loosen water restrictions faced by farmers, an important group of supporters.

Perhaps Breed’s alliance is not so unexpected, though. While San Francisco is now considered among the most environmentally conscious cities in the country, its water legacy is more complicated and destructive. Most of the city’s water comes from the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which San Francisco officials flooded and destroyed a century ago when they dammed the Tuolumne River. The Hetch Hetchy Valley was considered comparable to Yosemite.

Hetch Hetchy Valley in the early 1900s, pictured from the southwestern end, showing the Tuolumne River. / Image via Wikimedia Commons

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