The hope is that this will lead to approval by year’s end of a proposed Drought Contingency Plan for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California, to conserve more water now to prevent catastrophic declines at Lake Mead later.
At stake is the future of your drinking water supply — the CAP’s canals bring river water to Phoenix and Tucson — and that of the 40 million people in seven states and Mexico who also depend on the Colorado River for water.
Here are six things to know about this future:
1. President Trump has called concerns about human-caused climate change bad science. But out West, his Bureau of Reclamation officials are saying the seven basin states must act to avert a crisis on the Colorado that many scientists have traced to climate change…
2. CAP officials are concerned that conserving “too much” water in Lake Mead could trigger a premature shortage in water deliveries first for Arizona farms, and later for Phoenix and Tucson’s drinking water. Others say that isn’t valid…
3. Without a drought plan, the bad tidings that many fear will befall Lake Mead in the distant future could arrive much sooner…
4. The drought’s additional threat to Lake Powell could threaten Western power production as well as Lake Mead, which supplies water to Arizona…
5. Arizona’s water agencies are making nice now, and a top CAP official sounds almost contrite. But approval of a drought plan remains uncertain…
6. The drought plan is only a band-aid, but putting an end to the fighting is considered essential.
Under the Compact, the Upper Basin States are obligated to deliver 7.5 million acre feet (maf) of water downstream to the thirsty Lower Basin states. Unfortunately, this requirement was derived from faulty baseline data as the rainfall patterns that occurred in the years prior were abnormally high and the flows were vastly overestimated. Delivery of this amount of water will be further impacted by warming climate projections that indicate that the region will become drier in the long-term, and we may be in an era of steadily declining river flows along the Colorado. To make matters worse, demand in all of the basin states like Colorado are increasing as populations in the area continue to grow, further stressing the already over-allocated river.
These devastating impacts are evident in the water storage levels within the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are measured in order to determine if the Compact obligations are being met. Recently the reservoir levels have dropped to their lowest levels since 1937 and have shrunk to less than half their capacity. Until now, the system has worked, but if the Upper Basin states fail to deliver the mandatory volume of water to the reservoirs then the Lower Basin states could make a “Compact call” forcing the Upper Basin to curtail use of post-1922 water rights from the Colorado. That means Colorado’s growing population, amidst a warming and drier climate, will be forced to use less water so Lower Basin states can receive their legally obligated share.
To address diminishing flows and greater demand for the water, agricultural producers in Colorado’s west slope are participating in a voluntary pilot program that compensates them for temporarily fallowing their crops and letting the water run down the river.
In 2014, facing declining levels in lakes Mead and Powell, the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC), the Bureau of Reclamation and four water providers piloted a program in the Upper Basin to test water conservation strategies that could be part of a drought contingency plan. The goal of the Colorado River System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) was to demonstrate the viability of proactive, cooperative and voluntary compensated means to reduce the risk of reaching critical reservoir levels needed to protect the Compact entitlements. The program allows farmer and ranchers to voluntarily and temporarily let water run down the river and forego the use of their water to irrigate fields in exchange for compensation. The SCPP also reduces “buy and dry” scenarios where struggling farmers are bought out so developers can have access to their water for neighborhoods or transfer their water to municipalities.
A shining example is the 9,177-acre Porcupine Ridge Ranch in Routt County, Colorado and the latest to take advantage of the UCRC’s program by voluntarily reducing consumptive use of its water rights and fallowing 1,941 acres of their irrigated hay fields, or nearly twenty percent of their ranch. In exchange, the ranch will receive up to $421,650, in addition to the current cattle and hunting leases that remain operative alongside the water fallowing. This is one of the largest awards given to a single property in Colorado and outlines a model of what’s to come, if ranchers and farmers take advantage of the opportunity while they can.
As the Compact nears its 100th birthday, policymakers and landowners alike need to take an honest and accurate view at rainfall rates amidst a warming and migrating population to rebalance water needs and who gets what (and why.) The SCPP is a start in the right direction as it addresses water supply shortages and provides a possible hedge against potential future Compact calls. It also benefits agricultural producers by creating a potential income source by funding voluntary conservation measures while also avoiding buy and dry measures that separate their water from the land.
In a pointed message Wednesday, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said drought and low flows continue on the Colorado with no end in sight, so it’s up to those who rely on the river to stave off a coming crisis.
“We need action and we need it now. We can’t afford to wait for a crisis before we implement drought contingency plans,” Burman in a written statement. “I’m calling on the Colorado River basin states to put real — and effective — drought contingency plans in place before the end of this year.”
The bureau’s latest projections call for the river to see just 42 percent of its average flow between now and July due to record-low snowpack that has already melted away in parts of the basin.
Federal forecasters now say there is a 52 percent chance that Lake Mead will decline into shortage conditions by 2020. That would force Nevada and Arizona to cut their river use for the first time under shortage rules adopted in 2007.
Nevada, Arizona and California have been working on a plan since 2015 to keep Lake Mead out of shortage by voluntarily leaving more water in the reservoir, but the talks have stalled in Arizona and California, where water users are arguing over how to share the necessary cuts.
Then last month, a war of words broke out among the seven states that share the Colorado after Arizona’s largest water utility revealed a controversial strategy to keep water levels in Lake Mead high enough to avoid any reduction in its share but low enough to require upper-river users to send more water downstream to the lake.
The Central Arizona Project, which supplies water to about 5 million people in Phoenix and Tucson, has since issued a statement saying it “regrets using language and representations that were insensitive” to other river users.
Officials for the utility promised “a more respectful and transparent dialogue in the future” and said they would do their part to finish the drought contingency plan.
The surface of Lake Mead has dropped by more than 130 feet since 2000, when the current drought descended on the mountains that feed the Colorado. According to the bureau, the river basin is in the midst of the driest 19-year period on record and one of the worst drought cycles of the past 1,200 years.
“This ongoing drought is a serious situation, and Mother Nature does not care about our politics or our schedules,” said John Entsminger, the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s general manager and one of several top water officials who signed on to Burman’s call to action. “We have a duty to get back to the table and finish the drought contingency plan to protect the people and the environment that rely upon the Colorado River.”
Following a Monday meeting in Salt Lake City, Colorado River water users are pledging to move past two weeks of public fighting between an Arizona agency and four states that divert water from the river. The Arizona utility — the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) — said at the meeting that it regretted having used rhetoric that inflamed tensions…
On Monday, the agency apologized for its rhetoric and said it hoped to begin to repair its frayed relationship with the state agency, an arm of the governor’s office, to work on the drought plan.
“CAWCD regrets that intra-Arizona issues have impacted other parties in the Colorado River basin,” a CAWCD spokesperson wrote in a statement. “Specifically, CAWCD regrets using language and representations that were insensitive to Upper Basin concerns, and resolves to have a more respectful and transparent dialogue in the future. As a result of the meeting, CAWCD has committed to beginning a fresh conversation within Arizona, including with ADWR and other stakeholders, to chart a path forward for an effective Drought Contingency Plan.”
The meeting was less an attempt to resolve the conflict and more a chance to start talks.
“Our objective for this meeting was not to resolve all issues but, rather, to identify a path forward for our talks,” James Eklund, who represents the state of Colorado in the negotiations, said Tuesday in a statement. “Despite these encouraging messages, the jury is still out.”
He said that any progress forward would be in the district’s actions.
It’s unclear how much of an impact the meeting will have in solving the issue that upset the Upper Basin enough to send a rare letter that singled out CAWCD. While CAWCD said it regretted its rhetoric, the agency was quiet about whether it would change its strategy.
The meeting didn’t resolve the issue, says James Eklund, the Colorado representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, but CAP officials did offer an apology.
“District representatives expressed regret about their use of rhetoric in describing the policy of maximizing reservoir releases solely for the benefit of the [Central Arizona Water Conservancy] District at the expense of the rest of the Colorado River Basin,” Eklund said in a written statement.
States in the river’s Upper Basin — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico — accused CAP and CAWCD of manipulating how much water the project received to avoid a shortage, while still gaining more water from those states’ biggest reservoir, Lake Powell.
In response to a series of public statements and an infographic sent to CAP’s Twitter followers demonstrating this strategy, Upper Basin representatives sent a letter in mid-April saying CAP’s behavior, while within the rules, was a violation of the watershed’s collaborative spirit. The larger basin-wide feud was borne out of a dispute within the state of Arizona over which agencies have final authority to decide how to conserve water…
Meeting attendees did not schedule a follow up meeting to further address the issue, and a meeting between CAWCD and state of Arizona water officials has yet to be scheduled.
The dust up caused at least one city to pull out of a Colorado River conservation program meant to boost reservoir levels. The city of Pueblo, Colorado’s water department cited CAP’s behavior in rescinding its proposal to participate in the System Conservation Pilot Program.
“This river really only works and functions the way we’ve designed it if trust is in abundance and we’re truly viewing the entire basin as connected,” Eklund says. The discussion in Salt Lake City was a starting point, “but the proof of progress will be in [CAP’s] actions.”
Here’s the release from the Central Arizona Project (DeEtte Person):
Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) is grateful for the opportunity to have met on April 30th with the Upper Colorado River Commission representing Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and the United States. In addition, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) and Denver Water participated in the meeting on the phone.
Concerns from the Upper Basin Commissioners were heard and respected, and there was a productive discussion. All parties recognize there is still much work to do. The Commissioners and CAWCD are resolved to returning to the collaborative processes, and important relationships, that have defined the successes for which the Colorado River Basin has been famous for two decades. The meeting was an opportunity to express intent, and going forward we must focus on results.
CAWCD regrets that intra-Arizona issues have impacted other parties in the Colorado River basin. Specifically, CAWCD regrets using language and representations that were insensitive to Upper Basin concerns, and resolves to have a more respectful and transparent dialogue in the future. [ed. emphasis mine]
As a result of the meeting, CAWCD has committed to beginning a fresh conversation within Arizona, including with ADWR and other stakeholders, to chart a path forward for an effective Drought Contingency Plan. We believe that a renewed collaborative process will ultimately support development of broad-based solutions with our Colorado River Basin colleagues to benefit the entire Colorado River system.
The Central Arizona Project, which provides water to about 5 million people, pledged to be more cooperative with other river users and promised “to have a more respectful and transparent dialogue in the future.”
The tension boiled over last month after the Arizona utility said it was trying to keep water levels in a major reservoir high enough to avoid any reduction in its share but low enough to require other users to send more water into the river.
That angered officials in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah, who accused the Central Arizona Project of manipulating the water at the expense of others and putting the entire river system in jeopardy.
James Eklund, Colorado’s representative on Colorado River issues, said the Arizona utility’s goal was “gaming the system.”
The Central Arizona Project initially denied the accusations and described its approach as good management. But after meeting with its critics Monday in Salt Lake City, the utility released a statement saying it “regrets using language and representations that were insensitive” to other river users.
It also pledged to cooperate on drawing up a multi-state plan for possible shortages in the river, which appear more and more likely because of the drought and climate change.
Other users had grown impatient over delays in completing the drought plans and accused the Central Arizona Project of stalling to avoid the water cutbacks the plans might require.
Colorado and Wyoming officials said Tuesday they were encouraged by the Central Arizona Project’s new statement but were waiting to see how it follows through.
“I think we heard an apology yesterday, certainly for the rhetoric they used,” said Patrick T. Tyrrell, Wyoming’s representative on the Colorado River. “The jury’s probably still out till we see what happens with their actions going forward.”
No single authority oversees the river — instead, it is governed by international treaties, interstate agreements and court rulings known collectively as “the law of the river.” The seven states in the Colorado River system are Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming…
For years, the seven states, the federal government and Mexico have relied largely on negotiations to settle their disagreements without public rancor or lawsuits. That made the Arizona dispute stand out and prompted critics to say the Central Arizona Project was threatening to wreck the cooperative spirit of the river states.
The real problem isn’t one water user striving to achieve a “sweet spot” in reservoir levels to maximize its own water use; it’s the failure so far of the basin states to adjust to the new hydrology. Region-wide aridity and a warming climate just might force that hand for them.
Over the last week, those of us who eat, sleep, and drink Colorado River issues have watched with alternating measures of surprise, concern, and alarm as water users from the Upper Basin states publicly called out the operators of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) for “gaming” reservoir levels to maximize water deliveries to Arizona. The worry is that CAP’s efforts to find a “sweet spot” in managing the Colorado River has the effects of undoing nearly a decade of collaborative conservation successes and threatens to pull the entire Basin into shortage more quickly than is already likely.
Media coverage of this dustup has been welcome, highlighting the complexity and conflicting motivations at the heart of efforts to manage the Colorado River as a water supply for seven states and 40-plus million people. The states and major water users along the river agreed in 2007 to a set of guidelines that spelled out collaborative responses to drought and shortages in water supply. But these guidelines don’t resolve the tension between an ethic of “we’re all in it together” and the long-practiced tendency of each state to maximize their own water use. More critically, the guidelines are a good effort to respond to short-term drought, but deftly avoid the substantive management changes needed to address permanently diminished flows associated with long-term aridity.
Conflict between states and water users is regrettable, but more so, there is a missed opportunity within ongoing multi-state negotiations to fully acknowledge what all of us privately admit… there isn’t going to be enough water in the Colorado River in the future to fulfill all of the previously made promises. If the Colorado basin ever really provided a reliable fifteen to seventeen million-acre-foot (MAF) supply, those days were brief, and they are long gone. The consensus of climate science and hydrology points toward a future in which Colorado River flows total 12 MAF or less, perhaps as low as 9 MAF. The real problem isn’t one water user striving to achieve a “sweet spot” in reservoir levels to maximize its own water use; it’s the failure so far of the basin states to adjust to the new hydrology. Region-wide aridity and a warming climate just might force that hand for them.
In this regard, Arizona certainly could be doing more. Individual users of Colorado River water, some of the major urban water providers, and an irrigation district or two, have shown innovation and commitment to conserving water and creating more flexible tools for sharing their water resources. Likewise, cities in southern Nevada and southern California have demonstrated real foresight, either in reducing demand or developing resilient local water supplies as alternatives to uncertain and declining Colorado River imports. But as a whole, the states that share the river haven’t yet shown a full commitment to solving the underlying problem of getting by with a smaller share of Colorado River water.
If there’s a silver lining in last week’s airing of dirty laundry, maybe, just maybe, it’s in the way the family feud has highlighted our need to get to the real issues. As the basin looks toward negotiations around a new set of operating guidelines to succeed those adopted in 2007, let’s hope they can bring a spirit of innovation and honest, intentional, collaboration to meet this challenge.