drought

Whisky Is for Drinking, Water Is for Fighting

Poojan Thakrar, MJLST Staffer

The American Southwest often lives in our imagination as an arid environment with tumbleweeds strewn about. This hasn’t been truer in centuries, as the Colorado River is facing its worst drought in 1200 years, in large part because of climate change.[1] The Colorado River is the region’s most important river, providing drinking water to about 40 million people.[2] In June, the federal government gave the seven states[3] that rely on the water two months to draft a water conservation agreement or risk federal intervention. The states blew past that deadline and the DOI’s Bureau of Reclamation imposed cuts to water usage as high as 21%.[4]

The History of the Modern Colorado River Allocation System

In 1922, the Colorado River Compact allocated an annual amount of 15 million acre-feet (maf) evenly between the Upper and Lower Basin states.[5] One acre-foot represents the volume of water that covers one acre in one foot of water and is about the amount of water that a family of four uses annually.[6] However, relying on 15 maf was already problematic; data from the past three centuries showed that the Colorado River has average flows of 13.5 maf, with some years as low as 4.4 maf.[7] 

Moreover, Arizona refused to sign this compact, arguing that water should be allocated amongst individual states instead of between river basins.[8] Tensions flared in 1935 as Arizona moved National Guard troops to the California border in protest of a new dam.[9] Arizona finally ratified the compact in 1944, but the disagreements were far from over.[10] 

Arizona also brought a case to the Supreme Court for a related dispute, asking the Supreme Court to allocate how each basin splits water according to the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928.[11] Originally filed in 1952, Arizona v. California was not resolved until a Supreme Court opinion in 1963.[12] In the end, the Supreme Court accepted the recommendations of a court-appointed Special Master, whose findings California disagreed with. Of the 7.5 maf allocated to the Lower River Basin, 4.4 maf was allocated to California, 2.8 maf to Arizona and 0.3 to Nevada.[13] The court affirmed each state’s use of their own tributary waters, which Arizona argued for.[14] The case also affirmed the Secretary of the Interior’s authority under the Boulder Canyon Project Act to allocate water amongst the states irrespective of their agreement to a compact.[15] Ultimately, this was a victory for Arizona. 

Colorado River water use has been less contentious since Arizona v. California. The Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico signed a contract to divide their 7.5 maf amongst themselves without the need for federal intervention.[16] However, because of comparatively less development in these Upper Basin states, they collectively only use 4.4 maf of their allocated 7.5 maf.[17] California has historically enjoyed the excess and has often historically surpassed its own allocation.[18]

Modern Water Allocation

Until this year, the seven Colorado River states have relied on voluntary agreements and cutbacks to manage water allocation. For example, in 2007, the states agreed to rules which decreased the amount of water that can be drawn from reservoirs when levels are low.[19] In 2019, they agreed to Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) in the face of waning reservoir levels.[20] It was under this new DCP that the Bureau of Reclamation first announced a drought in August of 2021.[21] Later that December, the Lower Basin states were able to come to an agreement regarding the drought declaration to keep more water in Lake Mead, a reservoir on the Colorado.[22]

However, the December 2021 cutbacks were presumably not enough. In June of 2022, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton testified in front of the Senate Energy Committee about the dire situation on the Colorado.[23] She testified that Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both reservoirs on the Colorado, cannot sustain the current level of water deliveries.[24] Commissioner Tounton gave the seven states 60 days to agree how to conserve 2 to 4 maf.[25] 

Underlying this recent situation is the megadrought that the western United States has suffered since 2000.[26] The last 20 years have been the driest two decades in the past 1200 years.[27] The Colorado River states have become remarkably adept at conserving water in that time. For example, the Las Vegas basin’s population has grown by 750,000 in the past 20 years, but its water usage is down 26%.[28] Earlier this year, Los Angeles banned lawn watering to only one day a week, much to the chagrin of Southern California’s most famous residents.[29] 

Commissioner Tounton’s 60 day deadline came and went without an agreement.[30] During a speech on August 15th of this year, Commissioner Tounton mandated that the seven states have to cut their water usage by 1 maf, roughly the amount of water usage of four million people.[31] However, the cuts were not proportioned equally. Arizona was mandated to cut its water by 21% because of the old water agreements, while California was not required to make any.[32]

More recently on October 5th, several California water districts volunteered cuts of almost one-tenth of their total allocation.[33] California conditioned these cuts upon other states agreeing to similar reductions, as well as on incentives from the federal government.[34] California’s cuts are significant, representing roughly 0.4 maf of the 1 maf that Commissioner Tounton asked states to conserve in her August 15th statement.[35] This represents a bold, good-faith move considering California was not mandated to make any. However, there is no doubt that these ad hoc negotiations are unsustainable. As the drought continues, Colorado River water policy will have implications on how food is grown and where people live. The 40 million people that live in the American Southwest may see their day-to-day lives affected if a solution is not crafted. Ultimately, this situation is far from over as states are forced to come to grips with a new water and climate reality.

Notes

[1] The Journal, The Fight Over Water In The West, Wall Street Journal, at 00:50 (Aug. 23, 2022) (downloaded using Spotify).

[2] Luke Runyon, 7 states and federal government lack direction on cutbacks from the Colorado River, NPR (Aug. 27, 2022, 5:00 AM) https://www.npr.org/2022/08/27/1119550028/7-states-and-federal-government-lack-direction-on-cutbacks-from-the-colorado-riv.

[3] Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico are considered Upper Basin states and California, Arizona and Nevada are the Lower Basin states.

[4] The Journal, supra note 1, at 12:30.

[5] Joe Gelt, Sharing Colorado River Water: History, Public Policy and the Colorado River Compact, The University of Arizona (Aug. 1997), https://wrrc.arizona.edu/publications/arroyo-newsletter/sharing-colorado-river-water-history-public-policy-and-colorado-river.

[6] The Journal, supra note 1, at 8:08.

[7] Gelt, supra note 5.

[8] Id.

[9] Nancy Vogel, Legislation fixes borders wandering river created; Governors of Arizona, California sign bills to get back land the Colorado shifted to the wrong state, Contra Costa Times, Sept. 13, 2002.

[10] Gelt, supra note 5.

[11]  Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963).

[12] Supreme Court Clears the Way for the Central Arizona Project, Bureau of Reclamation https://www.usbr.gov/lc/phoenix/AZ100/1960/supreme_court_AZ_vs_CA.html.

[13] Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546, 565, 83 S. Ct. 1468, 1480 (1963).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Gelt, supra note 5.

[17] Heather Sackett, Water managers set to talk about how to divide Colorado River, Colorado Times (Dec. 13, 2021) https://www.steamboatpilot.com/news/water-managers-set-to-talk-about-how-to-divide-colorado-river.

[18] Gelt, supra note 5.

[19] Lower Colorado River States Reach Agreement to Reduce Water Use, Renewable Natural Resources Foundation (Feb. 4, 2022) https://rnrf.org/2022/02/lower-colorado-river-states-reach-agreement-to-reduce-water-use/.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Marianne Goodland, Reclamation official tells Colorado River states to conserve up to 4 million acre-feet of water, Colorado Politics(June 15, 2020) https://www.coloradopolitics.com/energy-and-environment/reclamation-official-tells-colorado-river-states-to-conserve-up-to-4-million-acre-feet-of/article_376a907a-ece6-11ec-b0ba-6b2e72447497.html.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Ben Adler, ‘Moment of reckoning:’ Federal official warns of Colorado River water supply cuts, Yahoo News (June 15, 2020) https://news.yahoo.com/moment-of-reckoning-federal-official-warns-of-colorado-river-water-supply-cuts-171955277.html.

[27] Id.

[28] The Journal, supra note 1, at 5:50.

[29] Id. at 6:10.

[30] Id. at 8:55.

[31] Id. at 10:05.

[32] Id.

[33] Marketplace, Why women have been left behind in the job recovery, American Public Media, at 11:35 (Oct. 6, 2022) (downloaded using Spotify).

[34] Id.

[35] Ian James, More water restrictions likely as California pledges to cut use of Colorado River supply, L.A. Times, (Oct. 6, 2022) https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-06/southern-california-faces-new-water-restrictions-next-year.


Guest Commentary – Climate Change: Is Anyone Ever Going to Do Anything about it?

by Myanna Dellinger, JD, MA – Associate Professor at Western State College of Law and Director of the Institute for Global Law and Policy

Extremely cold weather conditions still haunt the American North and Northeast. Meanwhile, California is suffering through July temperatures in January and the worst drought since 1895. No doubt about it, we are witnessing ever more frequent extreme weather events. Since nations still can’t agree on what to do about this urgent problem, it may be up to local actors such as cities, states, companies, and NGOs to take the required action now.

Nations have agreed to “try” to limit global warming to 2° C and to agree on a new climate treaty by 2015 to take effect by 2020, but in reality, we are headed towards a 5.3° C increase. Even if the 2° degree target were to be met, vast ecological and economic damage would still occur in the form of, for instance, severe economic disruptions to our food and water supply.

Disregarding climate change is technologically risky too: to meet the target of keeping concentrations of CO2 below the most recently agreed-upon threshold of 500 ppm, future generations would have to literally pull CO2 out of the air with either machinery that does not yet exist and may never become technically or economically feasible, or with bioenergy crops that absorb CO2, which would compete with food production.

My article “Localizing Climate Change” argues that effective and urgent action is likely to come from the local and not the national or international levels.

In fact, the parties to the climate treaty framework UNFCCC similarly recently agreed that cities, other subnational authorities, and the private sector must play a role in future treaty-making contexts. This makes sense. Local actors may be the ones best situated to find out what can be done technically and politically in each location. Meanwhile, nations are almost unbelievably playing two fiddles at the same time, subsidizing fossil fuel development much more than cleaner energies. That’s right: although renewable energy policies are becoming more prevalent, they are financially and politically outcompeted by the rapid growth of fossil fuels in the USA and elsewhere. Perhaps indicative of the true state of affairs is the fact that climate adaptation talks are intensifying as mitigation agreements seem to be stalling. It doesn’t help that a secretive network of conservative billionaires is pouring billions of dollars into a vast political effort attempting to deny climate change and that–perhaps as a consequence–the coverage of climate change by American media is down significantly from 2009, when media was happy to report a climate change “scandal” that eventually proved to be incorrectly reported. Little wonder that the most recent IPCC report concluded that it is “extremely likely” (i.e. with 95-100% certainty) that human activity is the principal cause of climate change.

If you think all this is driving you crazy, you may be right. Shifts in climate have been strongly linked to human violence around the world, such as spikes in domestic violence in Australia, increased assaults and murders in the United States, land invasions in Brazil, police violence in Holland, and civil conflicts throughout the tropics.

What are we, as a nation, doing about this? In the summer of 2013, President Obama announced the first-ever United States Climate Action Plan. This relies on a number of Executive Orders, as the Senate is still unlikely to ratify a climate treaty. As with other recent Congressional gridlock, this highlights the importance of local action. If the United States was willing to ratify a new climate change treaty, this could spur much-needed action by the relatively low number of nations needed to make a big impact on the problem. After all, the world’s top ten emitters account for 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

This leads to my questions: Where is the most likely and substantively effective action going to come from: local or national/supranational entities? If you think climate change must be countered at the national and international levels, who is then responsible? For instance, should it be the historically largest emitters (among them, the USA and China), the most capable (the industrialized world), the most progressive (arguably the EU), or . . . ? Is anything even going to happen at all, or are we as human beings simply incapable of worrying about the future as a recent study indicated?


Juggling GMOs: Balancing Benefits, Risks, & Unknowns

by George Kidd, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Thumbnail-George-Kidd.jpgThe recent multi-billion dollar loss as a result of the 5th worst drought ever recorded in U.S. history adds fuel to an already raging debate over genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”). Amanda Welters, in “Striking a Balance: Revising USDA Regulations to Promote Competition Without Stifling Innovation,” delivers a fantastic overview of key issues in the GMO debate while also introducing novel legislative ideas garnered from the pharmaceutical industry. Ms. Welters’ article provides important insights into the continuing struggle to provide society with an optimal outcome.

While recent documentaries such as “Food Inc.” and “King Corn” give informative, although one-sided, analyses of the GMO debate, GMO’s may indeed be necessary for the future. The recent drought only emphasizes why utilizing GMO crops may be so necessary. Benefits of using these crops could include increased resistance to severe weather, increased food production from less land, and decreased pesticide use. With so many benefits it is easy to see why these types of crops may have a lasting future.

But the road to societal riches as a result of using GMOs may be a tightrope walk with a long fall. Most of the pushback comes from the fact that the effects of consuming GMO products are largely unknown. Further, when all farmers use GMO seed, biodiversity is reduced, opening up problems if a disease were to effectively eradicate a particular GMO crop. Lastly, while Monsanto has done a good job of creating essentially “self-destructing” seed, reducing the crop yield of further generations of their soybean to encourage farmers to purchase new yearly seed, introduction of modified genetic material may have an irreversible environmental impact.

In light of the World Bank issuing a global hunger warning, perhaps we should accelerate our efforts in moving toward a legislative balancing act in either moving forward with GMO crops or looking elsewhere for innovative ideas. Producers of new GMO technology need to remain adequately incentivized to make GMOs more effective and safer for human consumption. But competition also plays an important role in improving GMO’s future viability. Expiration of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean patents in 2014 will allow generic brand competition to spur price drops and competitive innovation.

In the end, when we do find that optimal balance between innovation and competition, the only winners are us.


Juggling GMOs: Balancing Benefits, Risks, & Unknowns

by George Kidd, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Thumbnail-George-Kidd.jpgThe recent multi-billion dollar loss as a result of the 5th worst drought ever recorded in U.S. history adds fuel to an already raging debate over genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”). Amanda Welters, in “Striking a Balance: Revising USDA Regulations to Promote Competition Without Stifling Innovation,” delivers a fantastic overview of key issues in the GMO debate while also introducing novel legislative ideas garnered from the pharmaceutical industry. Ms. Welters’ article provides important insights into the continuing struggle to provide society with an optimal outcome.

While recent documentaries such as “Food Inc.” and “King Corn” give informative, although one-sided, analyses of the GMO debate, GMO’s may indeed be necessary for the future. The recent drought only emphasizes why utilizing GMO crops may be so necessary. Benefits of using these crops could include increased resistance to severe weather, increased food production from less land, and decreased pesticide use. With so many benefits it is easy to see why these types of crops may have a lasting future.

But the road to societal riches as a result of using GMOs may be a tightrope walk with a long fall. Most of the pushback comes from the fact that the effects of consuming GMO products are largely unknown. Further, when all farmers use GMO seed, biodiversity is reduced, opening up problems if a disease were to effectively eradicate a particular GMO crop. Lastly, while Monsanto has done a good job of creating essentially “self-destructing” seed, reducing the crop yield of further generations of their soybean to encourage farmers to purchase new yearly seed, introduction of modified genetic material may have an irreversible environmental impact.

In light of the World Bank issuing a global hunger warning, perhaps we should accelerate our efforts in moving toward a legislative balancing act in either moving forward with GMO crops or looking elsewhere for innovative ideas. Producers of new GMO technology need to remain adequately incentivized to make GMOs more effective and safer for human consumption. But competition also plays an important role in improving GMO’s future viability. Expiration of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean patents in 2014 will allow generic brand competition to spur price drops and competitive innovation.

In the end, when we do find that optimal balance between innovation and competition, the only winners are us.


Hurricane Highlights Need for Better Regulatory Tools

by Kenzie Johnson, UMN Law Student, MJLST Managing Editor

Kenzie-Johnson-Thumbnail-White-Back.jpgThe Gulf Coast just can’t seem to catch a break. From the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the region has had its fair share of environmental and natural disasters in recent years. Events this summer have placed the region in the news again–namely Hurricane Isaac, and perhaps less publicized, drought that has threatened fresh water supply in southern Louisiana. On the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Isaac made landfall causing severe flooding in rural areas along the Louisiana coast. In addition, this summer’s drought has also caused water levels to drop significantly in the Mississippi River, causing saltwater to work its way up stream threatening some areas’ fresh water supply.

These two events have, yet again, brought attention to environmental and natural resource issues in the Gulf Coast, but as Daniel Farber points out, environmental degradation in the Gulf-Coast region is not a new phenomenon. In an article published in MJLST, “The BP Blowout and the Social and Environmental Erosion of the Louisiana Coast,” Farber explains that the Gulf Coast has long suffered from disappearing wetlands that are important in reducing storm surges, a large aquatic dead zone that threatens marine life, coastal erosion, and numerous threats to biodiversity. He also discusses the effects climate change will have on the region. Farber argues that improved regulatory tools are needed to restore the region’s ecosystems and prepare for challenges the region is likely to face in the future. Farber also calls for increased restoration funding including the direction of Clean Water Act civil penalties towards Gulf Coast restoration.

In June, 2012, Congress passed the RESTORE Act which directs 80 percent of Clean Water Act penalties into a Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund. The Act also creates a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council charged with comprehensive planning for restoration of the region and overseeing the use of Trust Fund money. On September 10, 2012, President Obama signed an Executive Order terminating the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force and moving forward the establishment of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council. The order also names the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture as trustees to the Natural Resources Damage Assessment Trustee Council that is charged with assessing natural resource damages from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, restoring natural resources, and seeking compensation for lost resources.

As can be seen by the recent events, the Gulf Coast region will continue to face natural disasters as well as environmental and natural resource challenges, and the region needs a regulatory system structured to address such events. Recent actions by Congress and President Obama show promise towards long-term restoration, but as Farber points out, the complexities of these issues will take continued action and improvements in regulatory tools to fully restore the region.