If California does not live up to its part of a non-partisan, seven-state agreement to reduce its use of Colorado River water by 2015, then the Secretary of the Interior, as watermaster for the lower Colorado River, is required by law to limit the state to 4.4 million acre feet of water from the Colorado River in 2003.
"If specific California agencies choose not to adopt agreements necessary for the gradual, voluntary reductions contemplated under the plan developed by the seven Colorado River Basin states, California will lose access to extra Colorado River water," Norton told a meeting of Western water officials. "The state will be forced to live within its 4.4 million acre-feet apportionment from the Colorado River beginning on Jan. 1, 2003."
California agreed to and helped craft the historic agreement on Colorado River water use that was negotiated and approved by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. The principal issue of the negotiations was how to achieve certainty that California would actually reduce its overuse of the Colorado River.
The agreement is embodied in what is known as the Interim Surplus Guidelines, which implements the Law of the Colorado River and an order of the United States Supreme Court. After careful review when she took office, Norton endorsed the agreement and decided to stay the course.
"We are at a turning point in the history of the Colorado River," Norton said in her remarks to the Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas, Nevada. "Our common future is shaped by record drought and population growth within the Colorado River Basin. These factors herald a new era of limits on Colorado River water uselimits that shape the decisions that will guide the future course of the river."
"While drought and population growth are causing change, what must not change is our commitment to honor treaties, compacts, decrees and agreements. Otherwise the legal foundation upon which this river is administered will be at risk," Norton said.
Under the multi-state agreement, California can continue to have enhanced access to surplus water by taking specific actions to reduce its Colorado River water use to 4.4 million acre-feet by the year 2015. Alternatively, if the California entities do not take the required actions, the state would immediately lose enhanced access to surplus water, beginning Jan. 1, 2003. The choice will be determined by whether California water entities sign a document known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement by Dec. 31, 2002.
Norton sounded a note of urgency because of a Dec. 9 vote of Californias Imperial Irrigation District to reject a water sale to San Diego County that is a linchpin of the voluntary approach. It appears that the District may not sign the Quantification Settlement Agreement. Other California water agencies required to sign the QSA appear ready to do so.
Cities in Southern California would bear the immediate shortfall, potentially losing as much as half of the Colorado River water they currently receive. Because the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California has developed alternative water supplies, people there will continue to see water flow from their taps. But over time, the reduction in Colorado River water could have very real impacts to all water users in Southern California.
California agreed in 1929 to limit its annual use of water from the Colorado River to 4.4 million acre-feet. Over the years, California grew accustomed to using more than 5 million acre-feet of water per year. This did not cause problems at that time because other Basin states were not using their full allocation. California's agricultural users have a priority right to 3.85 million acre-feet of the states apportionment of Colorado River water, and the small remainder is all that is left for Southern California cities serving more than 17 million people.
Secretary Nortons speech is online at www.doi.gov.