States, Business Will Drive Solutions To West's Water Supply Issues

By Will Stone
Published: Wednesday, March 30, 2016 - 4:46pm
(Photo via
Lake Mead.

In a period of uncertainty on the Colorado River, the onus to solve the Southwest's water shortage may fall mostly on states and the private sector, not the federal government. 

That was one of the themes to emerge from the Business of Water, Corporate Leaders Summit in Phoenix Wednesday, which brought together industry leaders, policymakers and water managers.

For years, Arizona and the six other states reliant on the Colorado River have been using more water than the river yields. But with a deficit of one to three million acre-feet a year, that is no longer realistic.

“We’re bumping up against an era of limits and of finite amounts of water," said Grady Gammage, an attorney and water law expert. "You can’t just go out and build a new canal and let the politicians fight about it anymore.”

The solution - a less rigid and more collaborative approach to divvying up the West’s limited water, driven not as much by the federal government, but by states and businesses.

Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District, said that also requires reforming the “Law of the River," a byzantine legal structure based on the doctrine of prior appropriation.

“We just need to move it in the direction of a more market-based, flexible system of management that doesn’t ignore the property rights aspect of it," Kuhn said.

Examples include trading water between agriculture users with senior rights and cities with junior ones.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake said he does not expect Congress will come to the rescue and pour money into larger scale projects like more reservoirs or dams anytime soon.

“The days where you could rely on the federal government for massive investments are long past,” Flake said, who reiterated that any legislative proposal must respect state water laws and property rights. 

Flake, along with California’s senators, are advancing Western drought legislation. One priority, Flake said, is permitting states to voluntarily agree to leave some water in the Colorado River in order to avoid a shortage declaration. That legislation would also stipulate that any conserved water does not get taken by another state. 

Flake predicts even a bipartisan bill has less than a 50-percent chance of passing this session.