From The High Country News (Emily Benson):
On a sunny March morning in 2014, dam operators lifted a gate on the Morelos Dam on the Colorado River, at the U.S.-Mexico border. Water gushed toward the river’s dry delta at the Gulf of California. This “pulse flow” coursed downstream for several weeks, nourishing cottonwood and willow saplings and boosting bird and other wildlife populations.
Though most of the water soaked through the parched riverbed to aquifers below, enough remained aboveground to allow the river to meet the gulf for the first time since the late 1990s. That reminded people throughout the basin of the Colorado’s importance — and how humans have altered it. The 2012 international agreement that made the flow possible and addressed other river-management issues expires at the end of 2017. Officials, however, are expected to sign a new pact in the coming weeks. That deal, called “Minute 323,” will extend and expand the previous agreement — and reduce the risk of a catastrophic water shortage that could leave fields and faucets dry.
Under the new agreement, Mexico would commit to voluntary reductions in water use beyond those specified in 2012 when Mead drops, according to a summary of Minute 323 several water agencies presented to their boards. But those extra restrictions only go into effect if the U.S. Lower Basin states also agree to similar cutbacks, called the “drought contingency plan.”
That kind of cooperation is critical for the success of basin-wide plans, says Jennifer Pitt, the director of the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River Program and U.S. co-chair of the Minute 323 environmental working group. (High Country News board member Osvel Hinojosa serves as the co-chair from Mexico.) “It only works if they all jump in the pool at the same time.”
The Lower Basin states are still at least a few months away from taking that leap. While water agencies hope to have the drought contingency plan finished by mid-2018, obstacles abound, including conflicts between Arizona water managers and disagreements over the Salton Sea in California, which is fed by Colorado River water. Still, the conditional agreement from Mexico adds an extra incentive for finalizing the Lower Basin plan. After all, “(Mexico) wouldn’t owe any more than they do today if the Lower Basin fails to act,” says Chuck Cullom, the Colorado River programs manager at the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. That would leave the U.S. to face additional water shortages on its own.