The Wisdom of Bruce Babbitt

Yesterday, former Arizona Governor and Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt called for the immediate implementation of Tier 3 curtailments under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan (“DCP”) in an opinion piece in The Arizona Republic, Feds should declare a Tier 3 water shortage on the Colorado River (  Governor Babbitt is advocating this action in the face of inaction by Colorado River parties, including the federal government.

He noted the speeches at last week’s annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association (“CRWUA”) ranged from “pessimistic to panicked.”  “Yet, for all the hand ringing, none of the state and federal officials offered a plan or proposal for action to avert catastrophe.  Just calls for more meetings and conferences.”  “Even the Interior Department, the federal water master on the river, had nothing to offer.”  “Federal representatives simply suggested that the department will have something to say next year.”

Governor Babbitt is a decisive leader and man of action.  When he was Arizona’s Governor, he addressed Arizona’s severe groundwater overdraft by establishing the 1980 Groundwater Management Act.  When he was Secretary of the Interior in the 1990s, he laid out the “rules of the road” for water transfers on the Colorado River in a memorable keynote speech at a CRWUA annual meeting.  His speech provided the guidelines for the Imperial Irrigation District (“IID”) offering a 3.1-million-acre-foot cap on its Priority 3 Colorado River water right, as well as structuring IID’s historic agreement with the San Diego County Water Authority.  Hydrowonk knows this for a fact, being in the audience of Secretary Babbitt’s speech and taking Secretary’s Babbitt message back to the Imperial Valley and the negotiating table.

Governor Babbitt views the 2019 DCP as a “plan available for immediate action that was not mentioned or discussed in Las Vegas.”  Under the 2019 DCP, the parties “agreed to substantial reductions, timed to declining water levels in Lake Mead.”  While the formal triggers in the 2019 DCP are related to August 2022 projections of Lake Mead’s elevation as of January 1, 2023, Governor Babbitt’s proposal is based on the reasonable presumption that the “easiest” reductions beyond the current curtailments under the formal 2019 DCP triggers is an acceleration of the inevitable from 721,000 acre-feet in 2023 under the formal DCP triggers (shaded grey row) to 1,375,000 acre-feet immediately (shaded red row)—see table.

Governor Babbitt argues “the lake continues to decline toward disaster.  We must now accelerate the timetable and implement the full agreed reductions without further delay.”  “We cannot continue to gamble that a miracle will somehow materialize to make the cuts unnecessary.”  “As the states continue to procrastinate, it is imperative for the Interior Department to come off the bench and use its authority as federal water master to compel the states to begin full implementation of the DCP agreement.”

Governor Babbitt recognizes that his proposal will not solve the problem.  However, “a good start; something that can be done now, a means to break the impasse and build momentum for the difficult decisions that lie ahead.”

Not only is Governor Babbitt a leader and man of action, he is also a master strategist.

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About Rodney T. Smith

Rodney T. Smith, Ph.D., President of Stratecon Inc.—an economics and strategic planning consulting firm—advises public and private sector water users on the acquisition, sale and leasing of water rights and water supplies in the western U.S. He is routinely involved in economic valuation of water rights, water investments, and negotiation of water acquisition and transportation agreements and has served as an expert witness in the economic valuation of groundwater resources, disputes over the economic interpretation of water contracts, economics of water conservation and water use practices, and the socio-economic impacts of land fallowing. For more information, see