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A priority for Colorado River water
San Diego Union Tribune, March 26, 1998

John Fritschie

FRITSCHIE is an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife and its representative on the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program.

It has been reported that at any given time, approximately five times as muchwater is held in reservoirs behind dams as is flowing through all the world's rivers combined.

The dramatic impacts of these massive, internationally subsidized hydropower projects on the riparian environment, the associated large-scale loss of productive farmland or forests and the tragic social disruption from the forced dislocation of local peoples are well known. Globally, water resources conflicts are among the most pressing of environmental issues that are emerging as national-security concerns

The Colorado River is known to many Americans as the carver of the Grand Canyon and the site of engineering marvels such as Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam. Many Americans probably do not realize that some 30 million people in this country use the river for municipal, industrial or agricultural purposes -- much of it for water-intensive crops or decorative fountains in an extremely arid land. Far more are likely unaware that the completion of Hoover Dam had cataclysmic impacts south of the border inMexico, where the Colorado River flows.

The vast complex of marshes in the river's delta was once among the largest desert wetlands systems in the world, supporting a stunning abundance and array of wildlife such as the now endangered Yuma clapper rail and desert pupfish. High flows in the spring once spread out over the land nourishing the soil and supporting locally adapted agriculture practices of the indigenous peoples.

Fishing villages in the Gulf of California thrived off the bounty of the magnificent totoaba fish. Noted naturalist Aldo Leopold on his travels to the region referred to the delta as "a hundred green lagoons" in a "milk and honey wilderness," and wrote of beavers, jaguars and impressive flocks of migratory birds

Today the delta is largely a desolate expanse of desiccated salt flats. The indigenous Cucupa people now must drive for miles just to reach the sea they once thrived upon. Fishing villages in the northern gulf have been severely impacted by fishery declines, in part due to overharvesting but also from the decline in the overall ecological health of the gulf caused by the loss of Colorado River freshwater flows

Late last year, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, the "watermaster" of the Colorado River by virtue of his position, issued proposed regulations for the offstream storage and interstate transfer of the river's water among the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada. Disturbingly, the proposed rules and a perfunctory environmental assessment ignore the continuing profound implications of the United States' management of the Colorado River south of the border, as well as the ongoing ecological crisis in the lower basin of the river on the U.S. side of the border

Comprehensive reform of the management of the Colorado River is urgently needed. As Secretary Babbitt made clear, getting California to live within its allotment, which it has regularly exceeded for decades, is the first step toward sustainable and equitable use of this vital international river. But the proposed rules are at best a Band-Aid solution and at worst a fig leaf covering up a national disgrace.

What is needed is a "minute" -- the term for a specific provision of a treaty. The 1944 water treaty between the United States and Mexico allotted Mexico less than one-tenth of the estimated flow of the river at that time.

This treaty is over 50 years old, was signed at a time when the United States was emerging from the ravages of World War II and did not consider the impact of water diversions to the environment or indigenous peoples. It is time for the United States and Mexico to add an environmental minute to the treaty, formally committing to provide water for the environment, the wildlife and the indigenous peoples on both sides of the border.

Recently, 16 nongovernmental organizations and scientific experts wrote a letter to Babbitt and the federal/state Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program planning committee asking for a more comprehensive binational approach to river management. In response, the Colorado River Board of California, whose president is the chairman of the MSCP planning committee, passed a resolution opposing binational cooperation in the development of a long-term plan for this international river. The board's move was wrong, but it will only take a "minute" to right it.

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