How “Cheap Talk” Helped Environmentalists and Water Managers Find Common Ground

Book Excerpt: Water is for Fighting Over and Other Myths about Water in the West

Sid Wilson, one of Arizona’s senior water managers, thought Jennifer Pitt was some sort of crazy tree hugger. Pitt, who worked on Colorado River issues for the Environmental Defense Fund, imagined Wilson as something akin to Genghis Khan. But until they set out on a boat trip together down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in the spring of 2004, the two had never actually met. The first night, Wilson, standing on a sandbar, kicked off the relationship by explaining why he didn’t trust environmentalists.

Colorado River Mile 53 from the The Anasazi GranaryPhoto by Andrew LangdalThere is something about nights in the depths of the Grand Canyon — the quiet water, the sliver of star-speckled sky between upraised cliffs, a beer shared on sandbars overlooking the river — that changes people.

It’s remarkable what a river trip will do. There is something about nights in the depths of the Grand Canyon — the quiet water, the sliver of star-speckled sky between upraised cliffs, a beer shared on sandbars overlooking the river — that changes people. When Pitt and Wilson emerged from the canyon, the politics of Colorado River water management had changed with them. A fragile bond had been forged, one that would strengthen during the coming years into collaboration.

“Maybe it was that we were wearing shorts and drinking beer, or maybe it was the magic of the river itself,” Pitt later explained.

The river trip, organized by one of the federal government’s senior water managers, brought together federal officials, state water managers, and Pitt (the token environmentalist). There also was an air of theater about it. In the midst of growing drought, the feds invited five of the most prominent journalists covering water in the western United States. The goal was to get the basin’s key decision makers together in one place to talk about solutions to their shared problems. Bennett Raley, the Bush administration assistant interior secretary who organized the expedition, recognized that the issues were deep and that remedies handed down by the federal government were unlikely to work. Best to get the players onto the river, organize daily seminars, run some rapids, ply them with alcohol, and see what happened. “They will come up with a much more durable solution than we could by imposing one on them,” Raley said.

The trip on the Colorado River came at a pivotal moment. Lake Mead, full as recently as 1998, was dropping fast. In the spring of 2004, Mead was at its lowest levels since the early 1960s. Back then, the low water level was intentional: water managers had reduced flow into Mead in order to hold water back in order to fill Lake Powell, behind the newly built Glen Canyon Dam just upstream of the Grand Canyon. In 2004, on the other hand, the lake’s levels were being pushed down by an increasingly alarming drought, combined with growing demands for water. Bad hydrology — low snowpacks and a warming climate — had struck at a time when growth in cities and farms left no slack. Water managers worried that in a world of increased demand and shrinking supply, they could not handle a shortage.

Nowhere was the situation more acute than at the bottom of the river, where the borders of Arizona, California, Sonora, and Baja meet. By the time the river’s upstream users had taken their cut, the Colorado barely flowed past the last dam on the US-Mexico border. Environmentalists and the state of Arizona were reduced to fighting over trickles of salty water, flowing in a concrete channel into the mudflats of the Colorado River Delta. Relative to the larger uncertainties on the river, the fate of that salty supply didn’t amount to much — perhaps 1 percent of the river’s total flow. But as shortages loomed, the issue had become a flash point. If water managers couldn’t solve this little problem, how could they tackle the big ones?

The disputed water, agricultural runoff too salt-laden to be much good for any human use, had flowed since the late 1970s across the US-Mexico border, past Yuma and San Luis, past US and Mexican farms and cities, and was dumped “unused” into the Santa Clara Slough, an old, dry Colorado River channel through the mud flats at the edge of the Sea of Cortez. But when it got there, something magical had happened. Add water and nature returned, and the water US managers intended to simply dump had become, by accident, the Cienega de Santa Clara, watering one of the most important wetland habitats in the region.

By accident, more than 40,000 acres of cattail marshes and open water had emerged from the mudflats. With much of the rest of the once-rich delta dried out by upstream water diversions, the accidental wetland had become the primary remaining habitat in the region for more than 200,000 migratory waterbirds, including 70 percent of the planet’s entire population of the endangered Yuma clapper rail.

On a river that typically carries 10–15 million or more acre-feet of water per year, the 114,000 acre-feet that had flowed down the Main Outlet Drain Extension to the Cienega de Santa Clara in 2003 is little more than a rounding error. But as Lake Mead dropped, Sid Wilson, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, worried about every drop. He was pushing the federal government to clean up the salty water and put it to human use.

This did not sit well with Pitt. Her employer, the Environmental Defense Fund, had earned a reputation as one of the environmental groups that the water managers could work with. It eschewed litigation, finding its greatest successes in developing collaborative relationships. When other people were suing to put water down the Colorado River’s main channel through the delta in Mexico, Pitt was one of the leaders of an alternative approach.

But even in collaboration, Pitt and fellow environmentalists drew a line at the Cienega. Arizona’s push to clean up that water and divert it for use upstream threatened the Cienega’s precarious existence. Wilson and Pitt had taken to battling for the support of Arizona’s newly elected governor, Janet Napolitano, and they were very publicly sparring in the press. In an Arizona Republic op-ed, Pitt and University of Arizona water law scholar Robert Glennon accused Wilson, by name, of an attitude “typical of Arizona’s water past, with its single-minded dedication to increasing the supply of water.”

But until the two were invited on their trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon in the spring of 2004, they didn’t know each other. By the time the trip was over, a change in attitude had taken place that rippled out through Colorado River Basin problem solving for years to come.


Cienega de Santa ClaraPhoto courtesy of University of ArizonaThe Cienega de Santa Clara is a beautiful outcome of one of the most dysfunctional episodes in Colorado River history.

The Cienega de Santa Clara is a beautiful outcome of one of the most dysfunctional episodes in Colorado River history, the effort to solve the dilemmas posed by farming the Wellton-Mohawk Valley along the Gila River in southwestern Arizona. The tale of the Wellton-Mohawk irrigation system and the Cienega de Santa Clara is byzantine, but understanding its details matters because it shows how important place-specific solutions become as we try to thread the needle of broader Colorado River Basin management.

Historian Evan Ward described the Wellton-Mohawk Valley as “an agricultural atoll in an arid sea of land.” Up the Gila River from the town of Yuma, Wellton-Mohawk is a narrow strip of green amid stark aridity, with brown hills rising sharply from either side of the irrigated valley floor. It is one of those places where you can almost feel the cocoon of safety created by irrigation. “The desert,” a valley farmer once told me as we stood beside one of his water-rich vegetable fields, “is right over there.”

Wellton-Mohawk farming began with one of the area’s earliest attempts to use river water — the Mohawk Canal diverting water from the Gila River in the late 1800s. But the farmers were no match for the unruly Gila. When floods weren’t washing out the irrigation headworks, drought left the farmers dry.

By the early 1900s, the farmers had turned to wells, forming the Antelope Irrigation District to run a steam-powered plant to pump water for the valley’s growing farms. But by the 1920s, the area’s agriculture had entered a period of decline because of a common problem—the buildup of salts in the groundwater.

All irrigation water has some level of salts and other minerals. When you spread it across a field, the plants transpire some of the water, concentrating the salts and minerals in the water that remains to soak down into the aquifer. Salinity is always a problem in irrigation agriculture. In Wellton, where the farmers kept pumping up water over and over again, the salt buildup eventually became intolerable.

To overcome the problem, the farmers turned to the federal government and the Colorado River. Work on the Wellton-Mohawk part of the water-delivery system did not begin until the 1940s, and by that time the salt problem had become worse. To solve it, the farmers and the federal government hatched a plan: they would bring in good, high-quality Colorado River water to replace the salty groundwater.

For a time, this worked. Farmed acreage, which had been declining because of the salinity problem, began expanding. But soon the Wellton-Mohawk farming district butted up against a familiar problem in Lower Colorado River agriculture. The bounty of imported river water, soaking down through the farm fields and into the aquifer, was raising the water table. To combat this, the farm community began installing a network of groundwater pumps, sucking up the salty groundwater and in effect replacing it with cleaner Colorado River water. But the salty water had to go somewhere. By 1961, that “somewhere” was a canal that carried it off and dumped it into the natural river channel draining the valley. That river channel drained to the Colorado, and the salty water ended up in Mexico, contaminating the water supply that the United States was delivering to Mexican farms and cities.

The United States government, straight-faced, advanced a boldly cynical argument. The 1944 treaty between the two nations required that the United States deliver 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year to Mexico. The treaty said nothing about the quality of that water. Usable or not, the salty Wellton-Mohawk water met our water-delivery obligation.

This did not sit well with farmers and cities in Mexico, as the Wellton-Mohawk drainage water was strangling Mexican crops and leaving municipal water taken from the Colorado River south of the border undrinkable. The Mexicans complained, and by the early 1960s the tension over the issue had grown from a regional water management problem into an international diplomatic conflict.

Negotiations dragged on until 1973, when the two countries finally came to terms on an agreement grandly titled the “Permanent and Definitive Solution to the International Problem of the Salinity of the Colorado River.” The national governments agreed to enforceable salinity standards for the water delivered at the Mexican border, and the United States agreed to build a concrete channel to bypass the salty Wellton-Mohawk water all the way to the Santa Clara slough. The water delivered through that channel, because it was unusable, would not be counted against the Mexicans’ share of the river. That is, the United States still had to deliver 1.5 million acre-feet per year, but the bypassed salty water would not be counted as part of that obligation. The US government would have to find another source.

Critically, the Salinity Control Act, the federal legislation that implemented the US terms of the deal, specified that the “lost” water being sent to Santa Clara would not come out of Arizona’s share of the Colorado River distribution. It would be “a national obligation.” The notion that Arizona and the Wellton-Mohawk farm community should account for their own water use did not seem to register with the planners. Rather, the decisions made in the 1970s assumed that US taxpayers, as well as water users across the Colorado River Basin, would bear the burden of Wellton-Mohawk’s lousy hydrology.

A “National Obligation”

glen canyon damPhoto by Alik GriffinThe Glen Canoyn dam is an example of the longstanding US pattern of spending a lot of money on infrastructure for water for human use.

To fulfill this “national obligation,” the Salinity Control Act prescribe old-school engineering — US taxpayers would fund a $256 million desalination plant on the US-Mexico border to treat the saline water coming out of Wellton-Mohawk and return the cleaned-up water to the Colorado River for use in Mexico. This followed the longstanding US pattern of spending a lot of money on infrastructure for water for human use.

In the interim, while the Yuma Desalting Plant was being built, the federal government extended the Wellton-Mohawk drain into Mexico, where it began the accidental creation of the Cienega de Santa Clara. To make up the difference until the desalting plant was completed — a hundred thousand acre-feet or more of clean Colorado River water had to be delivered annually at the US-Mexico border to make up for the salty water being bypassed to the Cienega — the US government simply released more water from Lake Mead.

In 1992, the Yuma Desalting Plant was completed and put into operation, but it was quickly shut down when a flood from the Gila River tore out its intakes. At that point, bureaucratic inertia set in. Lake Mead had plenty of water, no one was worried about shortages, and it was cheaper and easier to just cover the shortfall with extra releases from Lake Mead rather than spend the money and energy to get the Yuma Desalting Plant running again. Surplus water from Lake Mead would be released for Mexico, and the salty water could be left to the Cienega.

With plenty of water in Lake Mead, taking a bit out of the giant reservoir each year to avoid the financial cost of running the desalting plant as well as the environmental and cultural cost of drying up the Cienega made sense. Thus, the happy accident of the Cienega de Santa Clara, one of the only remaining large tracts of nature in the otherwise dewatered Colorado River Delta, endured. This was one more luxury afforded by the surpluses flowing down the river in the 1990s, but also one more problem deferred. As we see time and again in the Colorado Basin, when there is plenty of water, it is far easier to just put things off.

The Yuma Desalter Working Group

That was the state of things when Bennett Raley invited environmentalist Jennifer Pitt and Arizona water manager Sid Wilson to raft the Colorado. By the time the trip was done the pair had laid the foundations for an informal working group to try to bridge the gap between the two sides. In the year that followed, the group’s members came up with a report that stands as an odd but remarkably important document in the efforts to sort out the Colorado River Basin’s complex problems.

Never before had such a diverse group of Colorado River stakeholders—representatives of federal and state governments as well as environmentalists—come together. The group represented an impressive body of expertise on the river’s water-management issues, and the individual members were carefully chosen. In order to work, this had to be composed of people who got along well.

The “fundamental objectives” laid out by the working group sound crazily optimistic: reduce the risk of shortage to Lower Colorado River Basin water users while at the same time maintaining the wildlife and habitat at the Cienega de Santa Clara. And also, “to the extent possible,” improve water quality for cities in the border area. As if that weren’t ambitious enough, the solution shouldn’t cost very much money. Plus, it should be something that could be done quickly. The whole thing amounted to a Christmas list.

In bringing the people together, Wilson and Pitt laid out an important rule. Members of the working group “were asked to participate in the process as individuals rather than as stakeholders. In other words, members did not have to represent the position of their employers nor in any way was it assumed that the groups or agencies they normally represent would even agree with or endorse the Workgroup’s recommendations.” The caveats in the report’s footnotes are almost comical in the pains they take to point out that the results “do not represent the official position of, or endorsement of” the various agencies represented.

The process has been criticized for lack of official participation, and therefore the lack of binding commitments, but in fact that was one of its strengths. As we will see later, scholars who study collaborative efforts to solve common-pool resource problems have found that such informal conversations can set the stage for later deals. Precisely because there are fewer constraints and the stakes are lower, participants get a chance to really understand one another’s perspectives. Elinor Ostrom, the political scientist and Nobel laureate who pioneered research into this approach, called it “cheap talk.”

In the short run, the relative informality meant that there was no concrete, institutionalized way to carry out the working group’s recommendations. But in the long run, the forum proved profoundly important. It is not that the ideas behind the recommendations were new. But the workgroup created space for a conversation that had never before been possible — about how those ideas could fit into broad solutions. For the first time, Arizona water managers acknowledged the importance of the Cienega, and they conceded that any solutions to Arizona’s water shortfalls couldn’t simply brush the accidental wetland away. Environmentalists, in turn, acknowledged that Arizona’s vulnerability to shortage was real, and that any solutions to the river’s environmental problems needed to recognize that reality. In the decade that followed, many of the ideas worked out in the Yuma-Cienega meetings shifted from “cheap talk” to official dialogue.

Among these ideas was the construction of a new storage reservoir to capture excess flows on the lower river that frequently happened during rainstorms, when farmers couldn’t use water they had ordered from Lake Mead. The workgroup also suggested water-conservation steps on the Mexican side of the border, to which the wealthier United States would contribute. The group recommended finding a way to make use of excess groundwater in the Yuma area, a suggestion that remains a central option among decision makers today. And the group recommended managing flows to the Cienega as an environmentally valuable phenomenon, rather than simply an accident of history. Once heresy for water managers, this concept is now a given in Colorado River Basin water policy discussions.

Even more significantly, the workgroup recommended a “pilot, Basin-wide, consumptive-use reduction and forbearance program.” This was revolutionary. Up to that point, water conservation programs had narrow, specific purposes: save water over here so that we can use it over there. But the Yuma group was recommending something different — conserving water in order to simply leave it in the river or the basin’s reservoirs, in trust for all. The group’s report led to a pilot test of the desalting plant to gain information about its technical operation and the costs of its future use, something that before the detente would almost have certainly led to conflict between environmentalists and the water-management community.

Most importantly, the working group’s recommendations provided a framework for formal, multiparty negotiations that eventually expanded to include the Mexican government and that nation’s water agencies and environmental groups. These talks led to the historic Minute 319 US-Mexico agreement that for the first time intentionally released environmental river flows back into the Colorado River Delta. But the historic agreement, rooted in large part in the Yuma-Cienega discussions, had a far broader reach in that it began to deal with important cross-border environmental and water-management issues.

All of the successes that grew out of the Yuma working group are place-specific. They depended on active participation by experts in the unique geographies where the water had to be managed. So the specific solutions do not generalize to other parts of the Colorado River Basin, or to other challenges in water management. What does generalize is the method, the ability to break down barriers, starting with “cheap talk.” What began on a Grand Canyon river trip laid the groundwork for real cooperation between environmentalists and water managers, poking holes in the myth of inevitable conflict and creating a model that can be replicated across the West.

Excerpted from Water is for Fighting Over and Other Myths about Water in the West. Citations from original omitted. Copyright © 2016 by the author. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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