From The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):
After expressing their frustration privately for weeks, negotiators for four Colorado River Basin states sent a strongly worded letter to Arizona water managers on Friday, singling out the actions of one state agency as “threaten[ing] the water supply for nearly 40 million people.”
In the letter, the Upper Colorado River Commission said those actions could threaten efforts to conserve water and prevent Lake Mead from going into shortage for as long as possible. It could, they wrote, also undermine a decade of broader collaboration intended to avoid costly litigation between Colorado River users.
In a second letter released on Monday, Denver Water told the Arizona water agency — the Central Arizona Project — that it is prepared to pull conservation funding because CAP’s actions “severely compromise the trust and cooperation that has allowed us to develop [the program].”
The mounting pressure on CAP, which is operated by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD), comes as the agency is engaged in a fight within Arizona over how to manage the state’s Colorado River water. At issue is whether the Central Arizona Project, which delivers water to Tucson and Phoenix, is gaming a set of guidelines intended to balance the river’s reservoirs during times of drought. The Arizona Department of Water Resources, an arm of the governor’s office, has criticized CAP’s strategy for months and now other Colorado River users are piling on, warning the agency to stop before it jeopardizes delicate negotiations over drought planning.
In response to the letters on Monday, Arizona’s top water official doubled down on his criticism. Tom Buschatzke, who directs the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said he shared some concerns in the letter and agreed CAP was manipulating the system to get more water from the Upper Basin.
“I have huge concerns that the unilateral actions of CAWCD are threatening the regional and binational [drought] plans… that will benefit and protect Lake Mead,” Buschatzke said on Monday in response to the two letters.
In a statement, CAP said it was “surprised and disappointed to have received a letter from the Upper Colorado River Commission questioning CAWCD’s intentions in leaving water in Lake Mead. We have been reaching out to our partners in the Upper Basin, hoping to clarify apparent misunderstandings, and to facilitate in-person, collaborative discussions aimed at finding solutions that will benefit the communities and environment served by this mighty river.”
What’s going on here
The Colorado River is split into an upper and a lower basin with two main reservoirs in each division — Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah are obligated to release a certain amount of Lake Powell water for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.
On top of that, the Upper Basin has agreed, in recent years, to send “bonus water” to Lake Mead if it is at a low elevation relative to Lake Powell. The dispute with CAP is about the “bonus water.” Recently, CAP has advocated in presentations for keeping Lake Mead at a “sweet spot” — high enough to avoid a shortage but low enough to get “extra water” from Lake Powell.
This creates a political issue for the Upper Basin. It wants to store water in Lake Powell and boost the reservoir’s elevations. That way it can ensure full deliveries to the Lower Basin in dry years and continue producing hydropower.
CAP is undermining efforts to keep water in Lake Powell, the letters argue, by adjusting how it orders water from Lake Mead (CAP’s general manager Ted Cooke defended this practice on Twitter last week as placing its “water order wisely”).
The letter signed by representatives for all the Upper Basin states calls CAP’s action a “strategy to intentionally maximize demands within the Central Arizona Project to induce larger than normal releases from Lake Powell.” The “goal,” they wrote on Friday, “appears to be to delay agreement on drought plans in order to take advantage of what it terms the ‘sweet spot.’”
Denver Water called it “unacceptable.” The municipal agency said that it would cancel funding for a Colorado River conservation program in the Upper Basin unless CAP “is able to verifiably establish it has ceased all actions to manipulate demands and is fully participating in aggressive conservation.”
In recent months, Cooke has defended CAP’s decisions. CAP’s supporters see the actions as a water agency acting in its own interests. Cooke argued that it would be counterproductive to store more water in Lake Mead because that could boost its elevation so much that the Lower Basin would forgo any “bonus water.” Arizona would take the steepest cuts during a shortage. He has said the best thing to do is to get as much water from Powell as the current rules allow and use it to mitigate a shortage.
From The Arizona Daily Star (Tony Davis):
The agency that runs the $4 billion Central Arizona Project is being accused of manipulating Colorado River reservoirs’ operations to suck out more water for its Tucson, Phoenix and Pinal County customers.
The accusation came in two letters in the past few days from representatives of four Upper Colorado River Basin states, the federal government and the Denver Water Dept. They say CAP’s approach threatens a Western water supply serving nearly 40 million people. It also threatens the harmony that has marked relations among the seven basin states since they approved guidelines to run the Colorado River’s reservoirs in 2007, they say.
Under criticism is CAP’s practice of limiting how much river water it conserves each year, in order to prop up Lake Mead’s declining reservoir levels. The CAP has resisted pressure from other water agencies in Arizona to boost its conservation beyond about 200,000 acre-feet a year, enough to cover that many football fields a foot deep.
CAP says that’s because as Lakes Mead and Powell are managed under the 2007 guidelines, conserving too much, or “overconserving” as CAP officials put it in the past, could reduce water releases from Powell to Mead. That would trigger shortages and cutbacks in water deliveries to Arizona users. CAP brings drinking water to Tucson and Phoenix and irrigation water to Pinal County via a 336-mile-long canal.
That stance irks the Upper Colorado commission, representing the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming and the U.S. government.
Last Friday, commissioners wrote that the Central Arizona Water Conservation District — a three-county water district running CAP — “intends to disregard the basin’s dire situation at the expense of Lake Powell and the other basin states.” CAP is trying to “maximize demands” to get larger water releases from Powell, said the letter to Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke.
Officials of the CAP water district responded in a statement, “We are surprised and disappointed to have received a letter from the Upper Colorado River Commission questioning CAWCD’s intentions in leaving water in Lake Mead.” On Twitter, CAP general manager Ted Cooke recently said the agency places its water order wisely, following federal guidelines…
Since 2014, CAP and its partners reduced water use enough to be able to leave more than 850,000 acre-feet in Mead, the statement said…
In its letter, the Upper Colorado commission noted that because of a high water release expected from Powell this year and continued low snowpack and poor river runoff, Powell is expected to drop 30 feet in the next year. If these conditions persist, CAP’s efforts to boost water releases from Powell could make future reservoir conditions worse and trigger more severe shortages in the long term, the letter said…
The letters were triggered by a graphic recently posted on CAP’s website, saying the agency has maintained a “sweet spot” for Lake Mead’s water levels.
By that, it means conservation has kept Lake Mead high enough to avoid a shortage, but not so high as to cause the federal government to release only 8.23 million acre-feet of water each year — the customary average annual delivery from Powell to Mead. Instead, the feds have released 9 million acre-feet each of the past four years.
The graphic, which the agency took down after it generated controversy, made Lake Mead’s level appear to be a bigger factor in determining water releases than the weather, which others disagree with.
The Upper Colorado commission and Denver Water are also concerned that this conflict threatens an interstate program in which the feds, Lower Basin water agencies and Denver Water pay farmers and other users to use less water, with the savings held in Mead.
This program has saved about 139,000 acre-feet of river water. But Denver Water is prepared to end its support of the conservation program unless, among other things, CAP can show “it has ceased all actions to manipulate demands and is fully participating in aggressive conservation measures,” Denver Water chief Jim Lochhead wrote to the CAP…
Paul Orme, an attorney for four irrigation districts in Central Arizona, said he continues to support CAP. Farmers will be the first to lose water during a shortage and they’re more interested in year-to-year releases, Orme said.
“What they are doing is permitted under the (2007) guidelines,” Orme said, referring to the CAP. “I know the Upper Basin says they’re not in the spirit of the guidelines, but they’re in the letter of the guidelines.”
From KJZZ.com (Bret Jaspers):
Here’s what the upper basin doesn’t like: the CAWCD aims to keep Lake Mead at a so-called “sweet spot.” If the level of the lake stays in that range, then under current agreements, more water comes down from Lake Powell.
The Commissioners’ letter expressed deep concern that CAWCD “intends to disregard the basin’s dire situation at the expense of Lake Powell and all other basin states.” Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said bluntly in an interview. “That kind of manipulation is unacceptable to the Upper Basin.”
CAWCD also reminded people of the water the agency has conserved on behalf of Lake Mead, “at a significant cost to CAP water users in terms of water and water rates.” CAWCD runs the Central Arizona Project canal system, which delivers water to the Phoenix and Tuscon areas…
The Upper Colorado River Commissioners also urged Arizona to get its internal house in order so all seven states and Mexico can plan for long-term drought.
“The seven Colorado River Basin states and Mexico are connected at the hip in this river,” Ostler said. “And what is going on with regards to one state, its failure to make progress, is having an effect on all seven states.”
Buschatzke and Gov. Doug Ducey are trying to get big-ticket water legislation through the state Capitol this year. But time is running out on the legislative session.
Click here to read Denver Water’s letter to the Central Arizona Project:
From InkStain (John Fleck):
Denver Water today joined state leaders in the Upper Colorado River Basin with a letter accusing the managers of the Central Arizona Project of manipulating water orders to get more water out of the Upper Basin’s reservoir at Lake Powell. The actions of the CAP’s managers “several compromise the trust and cooperation” needed to solve Colorado River problems, the letter from Denver Water’s Jim Lochhead said.