How good are Arizona's legal rights to the Colorado River "if Lake Mead is at dead pool!!!!" asks Patricia Mulroy, the former water boss for the Las Vegas area who has wielded enormous influence over the years over management of the Colorado River and over Las Vegas' growth, water use and conservation.
In that vein, this blog is presenting her recent emails to the Star attacking Arizona leaders who have said the state needs to be ready to fight if necessary to keep California from grabbing our Colorado River supply. She and numerous other water experts also weighed in on the Arizona v. California question in a story in Sunday's Star.
Such rhetoric has the potential to inflame California officials with whom we're supposed to be negotiating to solve the river's deeper structural problems, Mulroy said. She also said it's "ludicrous" to think that one state, no matter how powerful, could persuade Congress to modify the 1922 Colorado River Compact. It divided up the river among the seven basin states and would likely have to be amended for California to get some of this state's river water.
Talking like that is "a pathway to mutual destruction," Mulroy said, adding, "how good are all your legal rights if "Lake Mead is at dead pool!!!!" That's a catch phrase for the state at which the lake would be so low -- 895 feet elevation, compared to around 1,074-75 feet today == that it becomes virtually inoperative.
Mulroy now works as a senior fellow for the Brookings Institution after having been general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority from 1993 until retiring in early 2014. She is probably the only Western water figure, at least in recent times, to have been profiled twice in one year by different publications. One appeared last March in the the biweekly High Country News magazine. The other appeared this month on the ProPublica investigative website.
Her remarks come as Arizona, Nevada and the other five Colorado River Basin states' water managers are in the midst of prolonged negotiations over how to solve the river's structural deficit. The deficit is caused by the fact that even in a non-drought year, the residents and farmers of the Lower Basin are using far more water than Mother Nature and the operation of the river's reservoirs are providing, causing Mead to drop up to 12 feet a year.
If this state continues, the fear expressed by many observers, including Mulroy and many Arizonans and Californians, is that the lake will drop below its current elevation of about 1,075 feet to at least 1,000 feet. At that level, Hoover Dam power production would be radically curtailed and Central Arizona Project water deliveries to cities and Indian tribes might or will have to be cut back.
Here's Mulroy's response to two articles about Gov. Doug Ducey's remarks this month warning that California should keep its hands off Arizona's water. One is from the Arizona Republic, the second is a post from this blog.
"The stories are very disappointing. If there has ever been a time for level heads to prevail it is now. California can’t take Arizona’s water as a matter of law. Now what is probably being referenced is the fact that Arizona signed off on the 1968 Act whereby they agreed to take the first shortage on the river down to the full 1.2 million acre foot capacity of the Central Arizona Project. Arizona is secure down to elevation 1025 … what happens below 1000 is anyone’s guess.
"Those discussions still have to happen and for Arizona to beat the war drums going into those discussions will drive even the moderate voices in California into the bunker. Every one of these pronouncements does nothing but hurt Arizona because it hardens positions. Right now it would be key to find ways to work with California to develop a strategy that would avoid the system crashing. If we keep this rhetoric up we will have no one to blame but ourselves when the river resembles the situation in California.
"Remember when Mead drops below 900 there won’t be any water going to Lake Havasu either and everyone in Arizona and California is in trouble. Whatever paper water right someone has won’t be worth the paper it is written on. So on any number of levels this fight is counter-productive. The key is finding a common solution that everyone can survive. Put the bogeyman back in the closet."
Next is her reaction to a story from the Cronkite News Service in which Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton uttered warnings similar to Ducey's. By "Tom," Mulroy means Tom Buschatzke, Arizona Department of Water Resources director, who is quoted in the article as saying that Arizona is trying to find sustainable solution's to the river's problems that would work for all three Lower Basin States.
"Tom’s comments about finding a system solution were good and the mayor seems to be more tempered but still causing concerns for Arizonans. None of us have time for protracted legal battles unless we want to cede all state and local control over water resources and simply sit back and see what a Supreme Court Water Master will do each year.
"My favorite quote: Change is coming … you can either be an architect of that change or its tenant. If we all think causing total acrimony and chaos on the river is good for our economies … have at it."
Finally, here's her response to my question about whether California is likely to go after and obtain some of Arizona's river water rights:
"Look the compact is a contract - approved by 7 Legislatures, signed by 7 Governors, ratified by Congress and signed by the President. Then the Supreme Court of this country set the Lower Basin allocations. To think that no matter how large a Congressional delegation is that they can upset that is ludicrous. This pathway is one that leads nowhere but to mutual destruction."