Three Things To Know About #ColoradoRiver Plans In The Works — KUNC #COriver #aridification

A big beach during sunset in Cataract Canyon, above Lake Powell, on Oct. 1, 2018. Low flows in the Green and Colorado rivers have left Lake Powell less than half full and left big beaches along the rivers above the falling reservoir. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From KUNC (Luke Runyon/Bret Jaspers):

Water managers along the Colorado River are trying to figure out how to live with less.

Climate change is growing the gap between the river’s supply, and the demands in the communities that rely on it, including seven western U.S. states and Mexico. The federal government recently released proposals called Drought Contingency Plans designed to keep the Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs from falling to levels where water is unable to be sent through the dams that hold up Lakes Powell and Mead.

The river’s two basins are working on separate plans to manage the risks posed by dwindling water supplies. The Upper Basin — comprised of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — is focused on protecting water levels within Lake Powell. The reservoir is 45 feet lower now than it was in October 2010. It’s projected to fall another 15 feet in the next year.

Powell acts as the Upper Basin’s savings account, and water managers in those states say the water it holds keeps them compliant with a 1922 agreement that divvied up the river’s water and promised a certain amount to downstream users. Violating that agreement could spark a decades-long legal battle among government agencies throughout the basin.

In the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada, the problem is overuse. Essentially, more water exists on paper than in the river itself. That supply-demand gap is causing the country’s biggest reservoir, Lake Mead near Las Vegas, to drop too, increasing the likelihood of a federal water shortage declaration at the start of 2020.

Because they make fundamental changes to how the river is managed, the plans will require congressional approval before they go into effect. The plans are an attempt to patch problems that arose from a set of river management guidelines agreed to in 2007…

Here are the top three things to keep an eye on as water managers attempt to get the plans finished:

1. Will the Upper Basin create a protected pool in Lake Powell?

The most contentious portion of the Upper Basin plan is the establishment of a conservation pool in Lake Powell…

2. Will Arizona capitalize on California’s offer to cut back?

Some Lower Basin water managers see their Drought Contingency Plan as a rare opportunity. For the first time, California is willing to cut back its water deliveries when Lake Mead drops past 1,045 feet in elevation. California has the highest priority water rights in the Lower Basin in times of shortage. Under current rules, the Central Arizona Project, which feeds Phoenix and Tucson, could lose every last drop of its Colorado River allocation before California has to take even a modest curtailment…

3. What effect will Mother Nature, federal officials have?

Whether these plans move from draft proposals to signed agreements is still uncertain. Outside forces could either speed up or derail the ongoing negotiations.

In August, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman gave the seven basin states an end of year deadline to finish their Drought Contingency Plans. Mexico has already agreed to cutbacks, but only if the Lower Basin states finish and sign their plan.

Arizona is the sole basin state that requires state legislative approval before it can officially sign a deal, and there are currently no plans for a special session before the end of the year. Federal officials could give some leeway to that end of year deadline as long as states can show progress is being made.

State officials in the West are adamant they don’t want the federal government steering the ship when it comes to Colorado River governance, and the threat of interference could be enough to get the plans over the finish line.

Another pressure point is the weather. It was the unprecedented dry conditions that forced water managers to the table to come up with the 2007 guidelines, and then again to form the Drought Contingency Plans. The 2018 water year — from Oct. 1 2017 to Sept. 30 2018 — wrapped up as one of the driest on record for the entire Colorado River Basin.

If the El Nino weather pattern currently taking shape in the Pacific Ocean fails to pummel the southern Rocky Mountains with wintry storms, expect the heat to get turned up even more to get these agreements done.

Colorado River Basin. Graphic credit: Water Education Colorado

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