From KUNC (Luke Runyon):
The Colorado River Water Users Association annual conference brings together nearly every municipal water agency, irrigation district, Native American tribe and environmental group that relies on the Colorado River.
In a room the size of an airplane hangar, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman took the stage to give attendees a congratulatory pat on the back for the recent completion of Drought Contingency Plans, which dominated discussion at these meetings for five years.
“To all of you in this room, to those of you in the negotiating parties, for those of you who covered for them at home while they had disappeared for months on end, to negotiate, to work, to analyze,” Burman said. “Well done, everyone.”
At last year’s meeting Burman’s message was dire. She urged the river’s users to complete their Drought Contingency Plans, or face the federal government’s regulatory hammer.
With the deals signed earlier this spring, she acknowledged that they’re not a final solution.
“Since completion of the DCPs in May, I recognize that the hard work of implementation has begun,” Burman said.
That now includes the plans’ first true test. Lake Mead, the river’s largest reservoir just outside of Vegas, is still less than half full. Because of that, the drought plan requires users in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico take less water from it in 2020. Though, they’re all already conserving above and beyond what the plan requires.
It’s a different story in the river’s headwaters, where no restrictions were placed on users to take less from the Colorado River and its tributaries. Instead water managers in the river’s Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexicio — chose to focus on coordinating reservoir operations, and continuing to invest in weather modification .
Those states also began taking a look at a controversial program that attempts to curb water use in the midst of a crisis. Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s top water agency, said completion of the drought plan kicked off a statewide campaign to study the concept and gather feedback.
“That is the beginning. That is not the end,” Mitchell said of the Drought Contingency Plans. “And so that’s the process that we’re in right now, is looking at what’s best for the state of Colorado.”
In theory, a demand management program would pay users to conserve in the midst of a crisis in order to boost the river’s big reservoirs. How it would work, who would participate and how it would be funded are still unanswered questions. Another concern is how to make the program equitable — so it doesn’t burden one user over another…
But for all the hand-wringing, the Drought Contingency Plans brought across the basin, it is a temporary fix for the region’s water problems. As one water manager put it during the Vegas conference, “it simply prevents a catastrophe.”
The drought plans expire in six years. They essentially give water managers some disaster insurance while they’re hammering out details of an even tougher deal, set to take effect in 2026. They’re known as the river’s operating guidelines, and they were last signed in 2007.
The renegotiation of the guidelines is set to start by the end of 2020. There’s little agreement about whether the new guidelines should be a big, broad response to the realities of climate change or a more conservative, incremental step toward someday solving the river’s long-term imbalances.
“There are some much larger challenges that we need to face,” said Jennifer Pitt, the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River program director. “We don’t know what the weather will be like in the next couple of decades, but we do know that the warming trend is going to dry the basin out.”
The negotiation over the 2007 guidelines left out key players like Native American tribes and environmental groups, Pitt said. Heading into a new round of talks, she said it’s in the basin’s best interest to have different perspectives at the table…
A long-standing dispute over who’s responsible for delivering Mexico’s allocation of the river’s water remains unresolved. Chatter about a possible water use cap for the Upper Basin states continues to grow louder. And Upper Basin states want to see the risks of climate change more evenly spread across the basin.
In California, the state with the largest entitlement to Colorado River water, a major sticking point over the last two decades has been the future of the Salton Sea, a huge inland lake that’s shrinking, causing health problems for people and wildlife alike.
“You know what? Sometimes you gotta throw a little rock or two to get people’s attention,” said Tina Shields, water manager for the Imperial Irrigation District — the sprawling expanse of vegetable and hay fields in southern California, and the single largest user of Colorado River water. The district became the lone holdout to the Drought Contingency Plans.
Before they sign onto any future deal, Shields said they want a long-term solution for the ecological disaster playing out in their backyard…
The Las Vegas meeting was also buzzing with grand ideas on how best to fix the Colorado River’s long-standing imbalance — where more water exists on paper then in the river itself.
From KNPR (Rachel Christiansen):
KUNC reporter Luke Runyon was in the midst of it all.
“The Drought Contingency Plan is sort of a temporary patch to some of the Colorado River basin’s long-term water scarcity problems,” Runyon explained.
The plan took five years to negotiate and was signed by both upper and lower basin states this year. But the plan looks different depending on which basin a state is in.
The lower basin part of the agreement is based on levels at Lake Mead.
“The plan really lays out a set of tiers of cuts for states when Lake Mead drops. States like Arizona, Nevada, even California would have to take water cut back deliveries to what they receive from the Colorado River,” he said.
For the upper basin states, it wasn’t about cutbacks but about managing use.
“There weren’t any cutbacks spelled out for those states. Instead, they’re focusing on this idea of demand management and what that is kind of code for is basically looking at how, in a crisis, can you ask or force people to reduce how much water they’re using.” Runyon said.
Runyon explained that the real focus is on farmers and how exactly to cut back on irrigation when reservoirs start dropping quickly. States in the upper basin still have to hammer out the details of that part of the plan.
Overall, Runyon said water managers along the Colorado River are pleased with the DCP because it provides an orderly cut back of water use.
“Anytime you’re talking about water cutbacks, people are not going to be happy that they’re receiving less water but when you talk to the water managers what they were really saying is, ‘We’ve created through the DCP a plan where those cutbacks are more orderly, where there’s not as steep of a cliff for water deliveries to fall over,’” he said.
From Aspen Public Radio (Christian Kay):
Luke Runyon reports on the Colorado river for KUNC and attended the conference last week.
What are some of the solutions in this drought contingency plan?
It varies by basin. The Colorado River is split into two basins: an upper and a lower. In the lower basin [California, Arizona and Nevada], the drought contingency plan looks like a series of cutbacks to water users. As Lake Mead, which is just outside of Las Vegas, drops due to climate change or drought, those water users will be forced to take some cutbacks to how much water they’re getting.
The upper basin looks a little bit different. One of the more controversial parts of the upper basin drought contingency plan was this concept of “demand management,” where basically the states in the upper basin are trying to figure out how to limit water use on a voluntary basis. That could look like paying farmers not to irrigate for a certain amount of time in order to save some of the reservoirs and boost their levels.
What long-term approaches to water shortages were discussed at the conference?
Attention is turning to these broader guidelines that are set to be renegotiated over the next several years. The current operating guidelines for the river were put into place during 2007 and they expire in 2026, so between now and [then], these Colorado river water managers have to come up with a broader set of guidelines. Determining what is included in those guidelines, how broad or how narrow they are, how conservative they are or how they might include big ideas, that has yet to be determined.