top of page

The Hidden Costs of Colorado River Deals

Updated: May 2

Twenty years ago, CURE began publishing its blog “What Price Water” in the

wake of the largest ever transfer of water from Imperial Valley farms to San Diego after

a long multi-state, multi-party battle over the Colorado River reminiscent of what we are

witnessing today. Known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement (“QSA”), this so-

called “landmark” deal was intended to be the “water war that ended all water wars”.

The QSA was promoted as a restoration solution to the Salton Sea and a mechanism

by which monies flowing from the deal would help Imperial farmers implement

conservation measures. We need only look at the current battle over an even more

depleted Colorado River to know how those intentions failed.

In 2003, CURE proposed that the QSA contracts specifically provide that for

every dollar San Diego paid for Imperial’s water, ten cents would go to Salton Sea

restoration and ten cents would go to macro community development, i.e., a four year

college, a quality hospital, and better infrastructure for one of the poorest areas of

California. Over time, the allocation of those funds would have generated hundreds of

millions of dollars to address environmental and economic impacts for the benefit of the

entire region. Today, Imperial Valley is still plagued with bad roads, under served

schools, and inadequate health care requiring residents be transported to Riverside

County for care. The Sea is virtually dead and air quality is being “mitigated” by the use

of hay bales rather than restored habitat. The “promises” made by federal, state and

local officials to induce Imperial to sign the deal evaporated as soon as the QSA ink


Worse yet, the QSA triggered more unsustainable growth and water demands in

urban areas. Buoyed by the prospects that the QSA freed up more water for

development, Nevada, Arizona and Southern California continued permitting homes

built on “paper” water. Recently, residents of housing developments outside Scottsdale

Arizona began paying to truck in water when water supply was cut, and farmers once

again are being asked to fallow productive land in return for large cash payments. The

2003 assurances that the QSA would be the last “Ag to urban” transfer proved untrue.

As one former Bureau of Reclamation employee quipped: “Sending water to San Diego

solved nothing. The QSA was like giving opium to a drug addict.”

The current Colorado River negotiations are mostly patterned on the decades old

QSA without any policy discussion over why that deal was shortsighted and failed to

offer a more permanent solution. There has been no critical analysis of just how much

food the United States should grow domestically and the consequences of fallowing

more farm land. Similarly, the Coachella Valley - home of Larry Ellison’s tennis ranch

and the now famous rock concerts - has never reckoned with just what a diminished

Salton Sea will mean for its economic and public health future. These are just two

externalities not factored into the current negotiations over price per acre foot.

The United States will not let the Colorado River “dead pool” this decade. In the

end, the parties will find a solution tied to how much money the farmers can leverage in

return for fallowing land. Simply put, negotiators have yet to reach a high enough price

in the supply and demand calculation. And yes, the lawyers will “saber rattle” and

inevitably litigation will be filed so that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on

attorney fees and lobbyists. That’s what occurred for years after the QSA was executed

as discussed in a recent book entitled “The Morality of Deceit.”

Admittedly, some water municipal agencies have taken steps to reduce urban water usage (though substantial quantities still flow to the ocean after rain) and some jurisdictions limit housing absent a twenty year source of sustainable water supply But mostly, the

Colorado River basin states, water officials, and politicians have squandered the last

two decades ignoring reality rather than addressing the true cost of allocating limited

resources for the long-term. Let’s hope that shortsightedness changes before the next “crisis” is upon the Western United States.

1 Comment

Feb 11, 2023

Remember, restoration does not mean refilling. The lake that was created by an engineering error in 1905 is finally going away. Abandoned in the 70s due to the underlying silt going into solution and fouling the pristine Colorado River water. And that will continue even if all the water was replaced with clean water all over again. Dry it up to a crusty lakebed. That will be happening soon no matter what the local people desire,

bottom of page