The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has been prodding Western states to wrap up drought contingency plans, one each in the lower and upper basins. Little snowpack, rising temperatures and ongoing drought have led to steady declines in the river that serves 40 million people in seven U.S. states.
The amount of water that gets sent to the lower basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California — and Mexico depends on Lake Mead, the reservoir formed by Hoover Dam. No shortage has ever been declared, but the federal agency puts the possibility at more than 50 percent in 2020 and even higher in subsequent years.
Those states so far have avoided shortages through conservation, leaving water in Lake Mead and other efforts.
“The question is: How much of this do we need to do in the future and how can we stay out of shortage?” said Terry Fulp, director of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado River Region. “The likelihood is that we probably can’t.”
The Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project said they would form a committee to work out the details of a drought plan among Arizona water users and present it to the Legislature in January.
Ted Cooke, the general manager of the Central Arizona Project, said the key elements in Arizona are reaching agreement on how to handle any excess water, a program to allow tribes to store water behind Lake Mead, a mitigation plan for central Arizona farmers who would lose water under shortages and a water conservation plan.
The drought contingency plan is meant as an overlay to 2007 guidelines on what levels would trigger shortages and where they would be felt. If approved, it would spread shortages more widely and loop in California. Mexico also has agreed to cutbacks.
The plan also gives states flexibility on how to help prop up Lake Mead and an opportunity to recover the water if the lake rises above certain levels. It’s meant to last until 2026 when water users are scheduled to renegotiate the 2007 guidelines, but some provisions extend beyond that time.
The mention of one plausible future scenario along the Colorado River is enough to make some water managers in the West break into a sweat. It’s called the Compact Call, and even though it’s never happened — and is years away from ever happening — its invocation conjures up dystopian imagery of a southwest battling over scarce water supplies…
Imagine this: It’s 2030. The Colorado River, sapped by record high temperatures, is seeing its biggest reservoirs — Lakes Powell and Mead — plummet to near dead pool elevations.
Negotiations to mandate increased water conservation in Arizona and California have stalled. Throughout the southwest, frequent water shortages continue to scare off new businesses.
Bad blood among states simmering for years boils over with an exchange of nasty letters. Water managers in California, receiving less and less water from the Colorado River each year, feel slighted and start making demands for their share, kicking off a decade long legal battle. Ripples are felt all the way from Los Angeles to Denver.
To some water managers this nightmare is far from fiction. And without immediate action it could very well come true.
“It’s like a train wreck happening in glacial speed,” says Andy Mueller, Colorado River District general manager in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. “We’ll see it coming. I believe we see it coming now.”
To talk about the Colorado River’s present and future, you need to start in the past. One of the most important dates in the river’s history is Nov. 24, 1922, when leaders from the seven Western states that rely on the river met at a Santa Fe, New Mexico resort to sign the Colorado River Compact.
“It’s the cornerstone of how we allocate water on the Colorado River,” Mueller says. “On that cornerstone is built an incredible scaffolding of complex agreements, but it’s all based on that 1922 compact.”
Pilloried for decades for its structural problems, the compact did accomplish a few basic things. To make it easier to govern, the agreement divided the river into halves: the Upper and Lower Basins. The Upper Basin includes the snowy Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. The Lower is home to the desert landscapes of Arizona, Nevada and California.
Engineers used stream gauge data to estimate the river’s annual flow and the politicians took those measurements to divide the water amongst themselves. Each basin got 7.5 million acre-feet…and each state within the basin got a portion of the water. California then and today is the largest user of Colorado River water.
California’s use of the river’s water is what brought these political figures together in the first place, Mueller says. Concerns about the state’s rapid development were growing louder. If the whole watershed functioned under the frontier water law doctrine of prior appropriation (where the person who claims the water first is given priority in receiving it) California could end up owning every drop.
“The reality is that the Lower Basin had the upper hand in those negotiations,” Mueller says. “They were developing faster.”
To get a deal, the Upper Basin agreed that Lower Basin states would be guaranteed a certain amount of water right at the line that divides their two regions. Some years would be wetter, some would be drier, but the decade-long rolling average couldn’t dip below 75 million acre feet of water, measured at a spot just below Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona. If it did drop below that point, then the Lower Basin could come calling for its water.
This system works fine when there’s enough water to go around. But that’s the signature bug of the Colorado River: More water exists on paper than in reality..
Prepare for the worst, hope for the best
As of 2016 the Upper Basin is going above and beyond its ten-year obligation to the Lower Basin. According to the Upper Colorado River Commission, the 10-year total flow, starting in 2007, was just over 91 million acre-feet, well above the obligated 75 million acre-feet. But continuing dry conditions like those recorded during the winter of 2018 could quickly erode that.
“Things can get bad very quickly,” Castle says. “We have to be ready. We don’t want to make decisions about how we’re going to handle a compact call should one occur when it’s right there in front of us.”
In Colorado, the largest user of the Colorado River’s water in the Upper Basin, the threat of a compact call has prompted ongoing discussions within the state engineer’s office.
“Broadly speaking, yes, Colorado participates in ongoing efforts, alongside interstate partners, to manage this concern,” says Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The bulk of our collective energy, however, is to take steps through risk assessment, policies and technical planning to avoid a scenario like this in the first place.”
Those plans are closely held to avoid intrastate fights over future water plans, the Colorado River District’s Andy Mueller says. The state also wouldn’t want to give other Colorado River water users insight into future legal strategy should the call move from thought experiment to reality.
While the thought of a Compact Call strikes fear into Upper Basin water managers, it’s less on the minds of their Lower Basin counterparts.
“I was surprised to hear the Upper Basin express their concerns and fears when it’s not something we’ve even thought much about in the Lower Basin,” says Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the water wholesaler for the greater Los Angeles area.
“But every time we have a conversation with the Upper Basin you can tell it’s very front and foremost in their minds as something that they really want to work on and avoid,” he says.
For a call to materialize, water managers like Kightlinger and farmers throughout the southwest would need to apply pressure to their state leaders. And right now, he says they have way bigger fish to fry, like keeping Lake Mead from entering into shortage and negotiating a drought contingency plan that would require Lower Basin states to cut their water use sooner than is currently required.
But Kightlinger says he understands the Upper Basin’s fears.
“We are going to have shortages. We are going to have challenges,” he says. “But I also believe that the complex process and lengthy battle that a Supreme Court battle would take will drive the agencies to work and resolve these issues in some other fashion other than a compact call.”
This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.
Arizona Water Banking Authority commissioners met in Phoenix recently for their quarterly meeting where they heard updates on the status of the Colorado River system, deliveries, recovery planning, Central Arizona Project system and to approve the agency’s annual report and budget…
Commissioners heard the total Colorado River system content is at 50 percent or 30.68 million acre-feet of water. Lake Powell is at 53 percent or 12.9 million acre-feet with a lake elevation of 3,611.99 feet and Lake Mead is at 38 percent or 9.88 million acre-feet with a lake elevation of 1,078.38 feet…
Snowpack for 2018 has ended and the projected unregulated inflow for 2018 is 5.25 million acre-feet or 48.4 percent of the 30-year average, said Bret Esslin, Arizona Department of Water Resources’ Colorado River Management division, in his report. The most probable release from Lake Powell is 9 million acre-feet.
Esslin said the probability for shortage increased to 52 percent in 2020 and escalated to 68 percent by 2022.
Whether or not a shortage is declared will be determined when Bureau of Reclamation releases its 24-month study in August that estimates the elevation of Lake Mead and Lake Powell in January, Clark said.
“The August study is the critical one for us,” Clark said. “If the Lake Mead elevation is at or above 1,075 feet, there is no shortage, but if it is below that they’re going to have to declare a shortage.”
Clark said addressing potential shortages through development of a Drought Contingency Plan is vital for the state.
“The probabilities (of shortage) are getting so high now, we’ll have one unless we can get things like the DCP going, where we can put even more water behind the dam,” Clark said. “The DCP briefing (co-hosted by ADWR and Central Arizona Project) is today and BOR Commissioner Brenda Burman is going to be there — she’s really pushing for us to get this finalized. We really need to get this DCP done or the whole state is in trouble.”