There’s a reason residents don’t pull their hoses to the street, turn on their faucets en masse and let water run into storm drains for days on end: They can’t afford it. The more they use, the steeper the bill. It’s a powerful incentive to conserve.
Maybe one day the federal government will treat Colorado River water managers the same way. Until then, abuses such as those carried out by the Imperial Valley Irrigation District won’t be terribly surprising.
The district already gets the largest single share of river water: 3.1 million acre-feet a year, more than 10 times Nevada’s annual allotment. Yet the agency that serves Southern California’s farms, according to a Saturday Review-Journal report, has been drawing far more than its giant share for three years.
In 2010, the district sent more than 46,000 acre-feet of water into the Salton Sea, the smelly, unsightly reservoir that holds irrigation runoff. Enough water to supply more than 90,000 households for a year was made completely useless for aesthetic purposes. Then, from 2011 to 2012, the district delivered almost 217,000 additional acre-feet to farms, enough water to sink Lake Mead’s level by 2 to 3 feet.
Such arrogance puts at great risk the stressed supply of water on which Nevada and Southwestern states rely.
“A depletion of this magnitude, without prompt responsive action, has the potential to tip the system into shortage earlier than might otherwise occur, with IID at the focal point of such a destabilizing event,” Terry Fulp, Lower Colorado regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation, wrote in a letter to the district earlier this month.
Potable water is the desert’s most precious commodity, yet it’s immune from market pressures. States are guaranteed their allotments. The water is free. The rates and fees water managers charge their customers cover infrastructure and delivery costs. Farmers get that water for a fraction of what population centers pay.
The Imperial Valley Irrigation District would not have swiped so much additional water if it knew a $100 million bill would result. Instead, the district has been ordered to reduce its water deliveries over the next two years, and, miracle of miracles, it has formed a conservation committee. That the irrigation district is allowed overruns regardless is a symptom of the larger problem.
Blow up the archaic water law of the West, which encourages inefficiency. Let the Salton Sea evaporate. Allow water rights to be bought and sold in a free market. End the de facto subsidies for farmers and make them compete for the resource.
The status quo won’t save the Colorado.