#ColoradoRiver: Lower Basin #drought contingency plan update

The Colorado River is about 1,400 miles long and flows through seven U.S. states and into Mexico. The Upper Colorado River Basin supplies approximately 90 percent of the water for the entire basin. It originates as rain and snow in the Rocky and Wasatch mountains. Credit USGS.

From The Arizona Republic (Joanna Allhands):

Arizona has issues to work through — and a lesson to learn — before it approves a drought contingency plan for Lake Mead…

For decades, the way to decide who gets how much water from the Colorado River involved big, protracted fights in Congress and the courts.

Now, the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada are voluntarily working on a drought contingency plan to cut the water each state gets from Lake Mead once a shortage is declared.

California would agree for the first time to take cuts, which is definitely better than the current agreement that forces Arizona to take the bulk of the cuts while California escapes with none. Arizona and Nevada also would agree to take more cuts, propping up Lake Mead levels in hopes of avoiding more drastic cuts later on.

Is it a war? A spat? A debate?

The basic framework is finished, and major players say they support the deal. Which is good news, because even if we’re expected to narrowly escape the first ever shortage declaration in 2018, things aren’t looking so good for 2019.

We don’t have a ton of time to spare to get a plan in place before cuts come home to roost.

But it’s still anyone’s guess when the agreement will be signed, because there are big tensions brewing over how those cuts will play out.

Ironically, even that tension has become a point of contention. There’s broad disagreement in Arizona over whether this is a battle, or even whether there are “sides” to this debate. The severity of the fighting depends on whom you ask.

But clearly there are strong differences of opinion over how the cuts should play out in this state, and our ability to resolve them could have wide-ranging consequences for the future.

The issue: How do we make it fair(er)?

Here’s the hangup:

Underground water banking and Pinal County farmers are first in line for cuts. Without the drought contingency plan – let’s call it DCP – there would be no excess water available for underground water banking, and farmers would lose roughly half of their allotment once Lake Mead falls to the shortage trigger level of 1,075 feet of elevation.

But water banks and Pinal County farmers would lose all of their allotment if DCP is approved. Arizona is working on a separate plan – called DCP-Plus – to spread some the cuts across higher-priority users, including tribes and cities, so the lower-priority users aren’t decimated.

That planning process ha revealed a major sticking point between the Arizona Department of Water Resources and Central Arizona Project over water levels in Lake Mead. The hydrology is complicated, and I don’t want to make your head spin.

The debate over flexibility — and cash

But in a nutshell, CAP contends that DCP-Plus could leave on the table more than 700,000 acre feet of water per year that the Lower Basin otherwise would have the rights to receive.

Instead of agreeing to conserve the same amount of water per year – which ADWR says is more prudent because lake levels can be so volatile – CAP wants the amount to be flexible to maximize the amount of water Lake Mead receives from neighboring Lake Powell.

ADWR has since scrapped an earlier version of DCP-Plus, and hydrologists from both agencies have begun meeting to revise their models. But, obviously, it’s going to take some time to get a finished plan for policymakers – who likely will slice and dice it even more.

There are other sticking points, most notably the lack of money to pay farmers for fallowing their land and not using the water they otherwise would be allotted. The state is doing its best to rustle up cash, but it doesn’t have anywhere near what it’s going to take fairly compensate everyone whose livelihood depends on the water.

Some also argue – rightly – that it’s a poor use of public cash to keep paying people year after year not to use their water. This is a Band-Aid solution, at best.

What we’re not discussing (but should)

The good news, if you want to call it that, is California is experiencing similar internal hangups over how it would shoulder DCP’s cuts. It’s not as if Arizona’s issues are holding everyone else up.

And despite the differences of opinion, it’s clear that everyone involved understands the need to work together, not let this stuff play out in Congress or the courts.

They also are keenly aware of the need to conserve water, because shortages are coming on Lake Mead. Even if we have a string of wet winters, it doesn’t change the fact that we’ve allocated more water to states than the river can produce.

They call it a structural deficit, and it’s not about to go away.

Maybe that’s the greatest lesson we should take from this process. As important as both agreements are for the state’s future, neither actually fixes the structural deficit.

That will require big-ticket projects to permanently reduce or augment our water supply, such as fixing leaky canals and expanding desalination plants.

And that means sooner or later, we’re all going to have to pony up.

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