A snowy winter in the Rocky Mountains helped Colorado River water users escape a shortage for the next year and likely for at least two more, federal water managers project, though a hot spring made the escape a narrow one.
The river’s reservoirs combined have gained 5 percent of their capacity in the last year, and now sit at 57 percent full. It means customers using Central Arizona Project water in the Phoenix and Tucson areas won’t lose deliveries next year and have just a 31 percent chance of losing some water in 2019 — a marked improvement from roughly even odds projected in recent years.
“We had a fairly decent runoff this year, which certainly helped us trend in the right direction,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Doug Hendrix said Tuesday.
Conservationists say the projections provide a nice reprieve but that the seven states on the river must use the time to plan and save more water and prevent future pain.
“I don’t think we really have time to wait for an official shortage declaration,” said Jeff Odefey, drinking-water-supply program director for the group American Rivers…
A 2007 agreement between Reclamation and the seven states said CAP customers, starting with farmers, would lose some of their river water in any year when the August projections show Lake Mead’s elevation dropping below 1,075 feet elevation on Jan. 1.
The lake would already be well below that level if not for conservation measures by the states and Mexico, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said in a statement Tuesday…
The government currently projects Lake Mead will end this year well above shortage level, at 1,083.46 feet. It was about 1,080 feet throughout on Tuesday, and should gain elevation as fall temperatures cool and reduce the demand for irrigation water, allowing more of the inflow to pool behind the dam…
The Green River, the biggest tributary to the Colorado, had a record snowpack in Wyoming last winter, Odefey said, while western Colorado was also above normal.
Warm weather then melted, evaporated and increased demand for water, reducing earlier predictions that Lake Mead would get a bigger boost…
The states and the federal government have already propped up the reservoir by paying for conservation and efficiency improvements with a goal of leaving water behind the dam instead of earmarking it for a particular use.
From 2012 through 2016, the states collectively saved 1.2 million acre-feet of water in the reservoir, said Jennifer Pitt, the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River program director.
That’s enough water to support a few million households, and it approaches the Central Arizona Project canal’s share of the river.
“It’s a great demonstration of the fact that water conservation can be done,” she said. “It makes me optimistic about the future.”
According to projections released Tuesday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the reservoir east of Las Vegas will have enough water in it on Jan. 1 to stave off a first-ever federal shortage declaration — and the mandatory water cuts for Nevada and Arizona that would come with it.
The lake is also on track to avoid a shortage in 2019, thanks to decreased demand downstream on the Colorado River and a larger-than-usual influx of water from Lake Powell upstream.
The extra water from Lake Powell is expected to raise Lake Mead’s surface by more than five feet by the end of the year.
The new federal projections come as officials in the United States and Mexico finish work on a new binational agreement aimed at stretching limited resources on the Colorado and keeping more water in Lake Mead.
Negotiators from the two countries, including representatives of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, have agreed on a range of water-sharing and water-saving initiatives, including voluntary cuts that Mexico could begin taking as soon as next year to prop up the overdrawn, drought-stricken river system.
The agreement also spells out how much Mexico would have to reduce its river use during a declared shortage and how much extra water the nation would get in the event of a surplus on the Colorado.
The new pact, known as Minute 323 to the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944, extends many of the provisions of an earlier treaty amendment approved in 2012 and set to expire at the end of this year. For example, Mexico will be able to keep storing some of its river allotment in Lake Mead, and U.S. water agencies will be able to continue to invest in infrastructure improvements south of the border in exchange for a portion of the saved water.
The water authority board is expected to vote Thursday to sign on to Minute 323 when the agreement is finalized next month.
“It’s a good deal for both countries,” Authority General Manager John Entsminger said.
The most important thing about the deal is the certainty it provides, Entsminger said. Water managers in both countries will now know what to expect should the river continue to shrink.
“It’s a big deal because the last thing you want is uncertainty when you get into a shortage condition,” he said.
The voluntary water cuts Mexico would take under the treaty deal hinge on a separate but related pact being negotiated by water officials in Nevada, Arizona and California.
The three states have agreed in principle on the so-called Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, under which Nevada, Arizona and, eventually, California would voluntarily leave some of their river water in Lake Mead when the surface of the reservoir falls to certain trigger points.
Entsminger said the multistate deal is on track for completion next year despite some public spats and lingering disagreements among water agencies in Arizona and California over how the voluntary cuts should be made in each state.
“I do believe it will happen,” he said…
The Las Vegas Valley relies on Lake Mead for 90 percent of its drinking water supply. The surface of the reservoir now sits at about 1,080 feet above sea level, roughly 130 feet lower than it was before the current drought began on the Colorado River in 2000…
Above-average flows in the Colorado River helped keep Lake Mead out of shortage for another year, but the real news is on the demand side.
Over the past year, Nevada, Arizona and California combined to use less than 7 million acre-feet of river water for the first time in 25 years.
Colby Pellegrino, Colorado River programs manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the decline in demand is proof that conservation efforts on the Colorado are making an impact.
The last time the three lower basin states combined to use less than 7 million acre-feet of river water was in 1992, when the region was home to roughly 7 million fewer people than it is now.
“We’ve successfully decoupled our economic prosperity from our water use,” Pellegrino said.
Mexican and American officials are finalizing a water-sharing deal for the Colorado River, and a newly released summary of the accord’s key points shows negotiators have agreed on a cooperative approach geared toward boosting reservoir levels and trying to stave off a severe shortage.
The document, which federal officials have circulated among water agencies, outlines a series of joint measures that build on the current 5-year agreement, which expires at the end of this year.
The new accord – titled Minute No. 323 to the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty – is expected to be signed sometime this fall, perhaps as early as September, and would remain in effect through 2026.
It would extend provisions in the current agreement, known as Minute 319, that specify reductions in water deliveries during a shortage, as well as increases in water deliveries during wet periods. The agreement also provides for Mexico to continue storing water in Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, helping to boost the reservoir’s levels, which in the past few years have dropped to historic lows.
The accord would also establish a “Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan,” in which Mexico would join U.S. states in temporarily taking less water out of Lake Mead to reduce the risks of the reservoir reaching critical levels.
Those commitments by Mexico would only take effect if California, Arizona and Nevada finish their own Drought Contingency Plan, under which the states would forgo larger amounts of water than they’ve previously agreed to as the reservoir’s level declines.
“The Mexicans have demonstrated their interest in pursuing this, and it’s a clear benefit to the river to have more storage in Lake Mead,” said Bart Fisher, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California. He said the agreement would benefit water suppliers in California, Arizona and Nevada by giving them “certainty in case of shortage that Mexico will also share in the shortage.”
“All of those things put together, it’s a big win-win for both countries,” Fisher said…
Talks on the U.S.-Mexico agreement began during President Barack Obama’s administration and have continued with negotiating sessions held on both sides of the border by the International Boundary and Water Commission, which includes representatives of both governments. Representatives of U.S. states have also participated in the talks.
Even as political tensions have grown over Trump’s immigration policies and his vows to have Mexico foot the bill for a border wall, the Colorado River negotiations seem to have moved ahead relatively smoothly – pressed on by the approaching expiration of Minute 319.
“We largely concluded the framework for these negotiations a year ago,” Fisher said, “and the only fine-tuning has been the drought contingency portion, and cleaning up a little bit of inconsistent language.”
The agreement itself has not yet been publicly released. The summary provided by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was presented Wednesday at a board meeting of the Imperial Irrigation District, which holds the biggest single entitlement to water from the river.
In a memo, IID officials said in order to implement the U.S. commitments under the deal, several agreements must first be completed between the states, water agencies and the Interior Department.
Those agreements include a U.S.-funded program to invest $31.5 million in water conservation projects in Mexico, including infrastructure upgrades such as concrete lining for leaky canals and other improvements to reduce water losses from distribution systems.
The federal government will provide $16.5 million, while the remaining $15 million will come from four water agencies, including IID, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.
Each of the water agencies will contribute a fourth of the funding. In return, they will receive a portion of the water freed up through conservation in Mexico.
The conservation projects are intended to generate a total of 229,000 acre-feet of water – enough to cover an area two-thirds the size of Los Angeles with a foot of water. Of that, 50,000 acre-feet will be used to give a boost to the Colorado River system and 70,000 acre-feet will be used to “satisfy the U.S. commitment to provide water for the environment.”
The accord lays out a cooperative strategy for Mexico and the U.S. states to jointly put the brakes on water use to reduce the risks of a crash in the system if the drought persists.
As of this week, Lake Mead stands at just 38 percent full, with its level at an elevation of nearly 1,080 feet, not far above the initial shortage threshold of 1,075 feet…
In April, the Bureau of Reclamation estimated the odds of Lake Mead hitting shortage levels in 2019 at 31 percent. A previous projection had put the odds at 50-50 before the winter brought a substantial snowpack, which was measured at 113 percent of average across the Colorado River basin.
The government’s summary of Minute 323 says the United States and Mexico “share a common vision on a clear need for continued and additional actions to reduce the risk of reaching critical reservoir elevations at Lake Mead.”
The document details how continued declines at the reservoir would trigger a rising scale of cutbacks in water deliveries, with Mexico contributing alongside the states – as long as the states have a similar plan in place.
By developing this type of plan to reduce water use effectively, the aim is to reduce risks of severe shortages threatening water deliveries and the generation of hydroelectricity, said Jennifer Pitt, who leads the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River project.
“It’s avoiding the shocks of sudden disruptions in water supply that is most important,” Pitt said. “But with these agreements, where the states and countries … commit together to a planned decrease in water use, I think the prospects for sustainable management increase greatly, and likely without severe economic impacts.”
The U.S.-Mexico deal includes a list of other measures, including establishing several joint working groups to focus on issues such managing the river’s salinity and optimizing flows to benefit the environment.
One of the groups, according to the government’s outline, will focus on studying the potential for desalinating seawater from the Sea of Cortez…
Under Minute 319, which was signed in 2012, the U.S. and Mexico agreed to an experiment: a one-time release of water into the parched delta that would resemble a natural flood.
That “pulse flow,” which gushed into the delta for eight weeks in 2014, temporarily reconnected the river with the Gulf of California, bringing a bloom of cottonwoods and willows along its path and attracting birds.
In Minute 323, there is no mention of plans for another “pulse flow.” This time, the focus is instead on securing a more steady flow of water to sustain wetlands south of the border. Goals include expanding restored habitat areas from about 1,000 acres to 4,300 acres.
Under the agreement, Mexico, the U.S., and nongovernmental organizations will team up to secure water for environmental purposes, plus $18 million for habitat restoration and monitoring.
“It seems like everybody’s in agreement on how to address these challenging issues,” said Tina Shields, IID’s water manager, who presented an overview of Minute 323 to the district’s board.
Managing the hardest working river is no easy task. Join us as we discuss the challenges, successes, and collaborations that have occurred to both harness and protect the bounty that is the Colorado River.
One of the most complex river systems in the country, the Colorado River, journeys 1,450 miles through seven states, two countries, and supports 36 million people. Its water forms the foundation for agriculture, recreation, industry, and municipalities, from Denver to Tijuana, and fuels a $1.4 trillion annual economy.
Managing the hardest working river is no easy task.
More than a century ago, populations across the west were booming. The seven states dependent on the Colorado River recognized the need to formally divide it, ensuring everyone received an appropriate amount of water. Ratified in 1922, the Colorado River Compact marked the beginning of how and why the Colorado River is managed as it is today. However, the Compact’s underlying analysis was based on one of the wettest 10-year periods in history; meaning that the Colorado River Compact is actually based on an allocation of water that isn’t there. And never will be there in any reliable way.
But the Compact is only one thread in a much larger story. Because the whole basin’s demand for water is higher than what it can supply, the Colorado River has become both one of the most stringently managed, as well as aggressively disputed, rivers in the world. There are numerous other compacts, federal laws, court decisions, decrees, contracts, and guidelines that have been developed since the 1922 compact that dictate the challenging management of the Colorado River; these are collectively known as the “Law of the River.”
The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages dams and reservoirs on the Colorado River, said it will release 9 million acre-feet (11 billion cubic meters) from Lake Powell, sending it down the Colorado to Lake Mead, where it will be tapped by Arizona, California and Nevada…
…the planned release is above the annual average of 8.7 million acre-feet (10.7 billion cubic meters), and it should be enough to delay a widely expected shortage in Lake Mead, said Marlon Duke, a spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation.
A shortage would trigger cuts in water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada, the first states to be hit under the multistate agreements and rules governing the Colorado River. That had been expected as soon as next year.
“It’s pushed that shortage likelihood out into the future,” Duke said, but it’s too early to say how far.
Melting snow is expected to raise the level of Lake Powell by about 50 feet (15.24 meters) by mid-July, but after the 9 million acre-feet (11 billion cubic meters) is released, the reservoir will be about 35 feet (10.67 meters) higher on Oct. 1 than it is now, he said.
The two reservoirs are part of the Colorado River system, which supplies water to about 40 million people and 6,300 square miles (16,317 sq. kilometers) of farmland in seven states and 20 Indian reservations. Mexico is also entitled to a share under a treaty.
A prolonged drought and rising demand for water have overtaxed the river. Some researchers say global warming is also affecting water flows.
The nonprofit American Rivers had placed the entire Colorado River and upper river atop its list of “most-endangered rivers” in previous years. But this is the first time the lower Colorado, which supplies Las Vegas with 90 percent of its water via Lake Mead, has been designated as in danger.
“The main criteria we use is whether there’s a key decision point in the year,” said Amy Kober, a spokeswoman for the group. In the case of the lower Colorado, much of the impact could come from President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which would cut funds to the Department of Agriculture’s regional conservation partnership program and the Department of the Interior’s WaterSmart program, she said.
Trump also has issued an executive order that would eliminate a 2015 water rule issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which asserted federal power over small waterways like wetlands and streams for the purposes of controlling pollution under the Clean Water Act. The order had no immediate impact but could eventually lead to the rule’s repeal.
But Patricia Mulroy, who has worked within the international water community for 25 years, expressed frustration that the river is being used as “political arrow” to score public relations points.
“There was obviously a lot of emotion in this,” Mulroy, former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said of the river’s appearance atop the list. “It has now created an atmosphere where it will be harder, not easier, to forge the agreements that need to be forged this year on the river.”
Mulroy was referring to a 2012 agreement on the Colorado River between the U.S. and Mexico set to expire at year’s end and continuing negotiations on a drought contingency plan among Nevada, California and Arizona to keep Lake Mead from shrinking enough to trigger a first federal shortage declaration. That would force Nevada, which receives most of its water from the Colorado, and especially Arizona to slash use of river water.
“Those agreements have to be entered into,” Mulroy said.
Despite the political rhetoric, Bronson Mack, a Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman, said the agency expects the agreements will get done.
“Water cuts across party lines,” Mack said.
Mack said even if water levels do reach shortage, Nevada residents won’t go without water.
“Should Lake Mead get to that severe of an elevation, Nevada has taken steps to ensure that we would be able to access that supply,” he said.
American Rivers’ annual report, published since 1984, ranks the 10 most threatened rivers nationwide. The group said it tries to spotlight rivers that are subject to influential policy decisions, not necessarily the most polluted.
This year, it chose the lower portion of the Colorado River for greatest attention based on ongoing concerns about dwindling flows due to increasing water consumption and adverse impacts from global warming.
It’s unclear what effect, if any, the spotlighting will have. For decades, all manner of people — federal and state officials, scientists, environmentalists, recreational organizations — have sounded the alarm about drought and excess user demand causing the Colorado’s water levels to keep dropping. Yet relatively little has been done to change those dynamics.
American Rivers focused its 2017 report on the part of the river that flows from Glen Canyon Dam and past Arizona, Nevada and California because federal support for water conservation is at a crossroads. The states are counting on federal leadership and financial support for conservation at a time when the Trump administration proposes slashing the Interior Department’s budget up to 15 percent, said Matt Rice, the group’s Colorado River program director.
“There’s a real concern that the new administration has taken their eye off the ball on Colorado River issues,” Rice said.
Some water managers aren’t feeling quite the pressure they once did to reach a shortage-prevention deal thanks to a snowy winter in the Rocky Mountains that has reduced the urgency. But Arizona Department of Water Resources officials say it remains a priority for them because relying on favorable weather isn’t a plan.
The department had sought big cutbacks in consumption this year to keep water levels higher at Lake Mead through 2020. Now, spokeswoman Michelle Moreno said, the wet winter appears likely to have managed that on its own — for now.
The evolving drought plan “must adapt to the new conditions,” Moreno said, perhaps with a goal of forestalling mandatory reductions for even more years. The department is currently reviewing “an appropriate new target date and potential volume of water to get to that end.”
The department will not seek authorization for a drought plan from the Arizona Legislature this year, Moreno said. It previously had planned to do so, but, Moreno said, Central Arizona Project officials determined the state’s conservation proposal was no longer viable. The water delivery proposal has raised concerns about losing out on possible releases from Glen Canyon Dam upstream if the lower-basin states keep too much water in Lake Mead.
The federal government releases extra water through Glen Canyon Dam during wet years like this one to equalize the holdings in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The higher Lake Mead is at the start, the less extra water it gets from Lake Powell that year. The result could be that conserving water in Lake Mead without regard to the year’s weather could actually result in less water filling the reservoir to last through future dry years, CAP Colorado River Programs Manager Chuck Cullom said.
CAP objected to a plan that would designate specific conservation volumes every year instead of parceling the savings out over drier years. But the agency still supports a state effort to save water, Cullom said…
Drew Beckwith, a water policy expert with Western Resource Advocates, said he remains hopeful that Arizona can still reach agreement among various water users this year, even if it can’t get immediate legislative approval. Putting off conservation makes little sense on a river system that is routinely overextended, he said.
“Fundamentally, Arizona is still on the hook first for the largest amount of water (losses) if there’s a shortage in Lake Mead,” Beckwith said…
One alternative to a drought plan is to wait and hope for more wet winters to keep resetting the clock and buoying Lake Mead above elevation 1,075 feet — the level at which a 2007 federal-state agreement starts curtailing Arizona’s water without any compensation.
That’s a plan that American Rivers considers no plan at all. A big snow year in 2011 broke a long string of dry years and raised hopes throughout the basin, Rice noted, but ultimately proved just a blip on the drought chart.
The three lower-river states still consume more than the river can give long-term regardless of any one winter, he said.
Conservation funding isn’t the only requirement for sustainability, Rice said. The Southwest also needs federal leadership to help strike new deals like the one that the last administration made allowing Mexico to store water in Lake Mead and help prevent an earlier shortage that could have affected Arizona, he said.
The Hispanic Access Foundation joined American Rivers in calling on state and federal leaders to keep water in the river and reservoir. Foundation president Maite Arce said the group held a gathering at the Grand Canyon and learned that Latino leaders from Yuma and San Luis feared the loss of river water threatened cultural and economic values, from riverside baptisms to farm jobs.
As a result, the non-profit produced a film, “Milk and Honey,” documenting generations of river users from the area. Its release online coincided with the American Rivers report.
The Lower Colorado River, which provides drinking water for more than 30 million Americans—including those in major cities like L.A., Las Vegas, and Phoenix—tops the list as the most endangered river this year. Second most endangered is the Bear River in California.
Similar to 2016’s list of the most endangered rivers, water scarcity, rising demand, and climate change put the Lower Colorado and Bear River at risk, says Amy Souers Kober, national communications director for American Rivers.
“The takeaway is that we can’t dam our way out of these problems,” Kober says. “On all of these rivers, we need 21st century water management solutions. We need political support and funding for water conservation.”
The Lower Colorado is challenged with water demands that outstrip supply and effects from climate change, the report says. Trump’s proposed cuts to the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture put the river at risk, the group argues. The reduced funding, if it passes Congress, could eventually lead to cutbacks on water deliveries to Arizona, California, and Nevada in the years ahead.
Additionally, the Lower Colorado is of particular importance to Latino communities, one-third of which live in the Colorado River Basin.
“From serving as the backbone for the agricultural industry to providing a cultural focal point for faith communities, the Lower Colorado River is essential to the livelihood of the Southwest,” said Maite Arce, president and CEO of Hispanic Access Foundation, in a press statement.
Two years ago, when the American West was reaching peak drought, The New Yorker published a lengthy story rather depressingly titled, “The Disappearing Colorado River.” The article described a parched river in crisis, its water in such high demand that in most years it runs dry before reaching the Gulf of California.
Because more water is allocated to users than the river provides reliably, “even if the drought ended tomorrow problems would remain,” the story noted.
That admonition is well worth remembering this spring, following a wet winter that produced an above-average snowpack in the Rocky Mountains. In some quarters, the prospect of a robust spring runoff is washing away persistent worries of impending water shortages.
Unfortunately the fundamental problems plaguing the Colorado persist and, if anything, require more immediate attention than ever.
The challenges are laid out in sobering detail in a new report from American Rivers that lists the Lower Colorado River – the section that runs through Arizona, Nevada and California – as the “most endangered” in the nation.
In its annual ranking of rivers in peril, the environmental group said the Lower Colorado has reached a “breaking point” that could “threaten the security of water and food supplies and a significant portion of the national economy.”
As recently as last August, the federal Bureau of Reclamation warned there was more than a 50% chance that water levels on Lake Mead – the Colorado’s measuring stick – would fall low enough to trigger a mandatory shortage declaration that would restrict water use in the lower basin.
While water levels at Lake Mead have recovered by about eight feet from the start of the year, the reservoir is still only 41% full. It’s expected Lake Mead’s level will begin falling again later this year as water is delivered to lower basin states and Mexico.
Adding to the challenges, the report from American Rivers warns that possible funding cuts to important federal programs – including the Bureau of Reclamation’s Water Smart Program and the System Conservation Pilot Program, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program – risks reversing the progress made in recent years to reduce water consumption in the Lower Colorado basin.
Thankfully, there is a path forward that can reduce the threats of a shortage on the Colorado and assure stability and water security for the region’s businesses, agricultural economy and environment.
The most immediate priority for the federal government and the lower basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada – should be the completion of a Drought Contingency Plan to help stabilize water supplies in the Lower Colorado. If successfully negotiated, the states could agree to voluntary reductions of water deliveries if Lake Mead reaches certain critical elevations. This would benefit all of the water users in the Lower Basin because it would assure that there is a plan in place to stabilize Lake Mead if difficult hydrology continues to persist.
“One of the points we want to get across is that this is exactly the right time to push this drought contingency plan across the finish line, because we have a little bit of space with the hydrology this year basin wide,” says Matt Rice, Colorado Basin director for American Rivers.
“The Lower Colorado basin is kind of teetering on the edge. The heavy snowpack might stave off a shortage declaration for a year or two. But one good winter does not stabilize a system.”
In addition to supporting a drought contingency plan, the federal government should also prioritize the renewal of a U.S.-Mexico agreement, which was negotiated in 2012 and is set to expire this December. Under the agreement, both countries share water shortages and surpluses. They work together to conserve water, increase agricultural and municipal water efficiency and improve water management for a variety of purposes including benefiting the environment.
This binational agreement is a vital tool for managing water supply, with Mexico agreeing to receive less water from the Colorado in dry years while being allowed to store some of its water in U.S. reservoirs. No one should underestimate what’s at stake if new water-sharing drought contingency plans are not reached, or shortages are declared.
The Colorado River is indispensable to the prosperity of the Southwest. It provides drinking water to almost 40 million people in several of the country’s fastest-growing cities. It irrigates more than 5 million acres of farmland that grow $600 million worth of crops each year – including about 90% of the winter vegetables grown in the nation.
For native American tribes, it holds sacred and spiritual value. For millions of others, its landscapes inspire reverence.
The river’s problems are significant and can, at times, seem overwhelming. But over the past two decades, by the collective will and cooperation among water users, we’ve started to find ways to address them. Now is not the time to hit the pause button.
The situation last summer was as clear to accept as it was sobering. Prolonged drought had strained an already overallocated Colorado River, and nowhere was this more visible than at the reservoirs along the river. Behind the Hoover Dam, surface levels at Lake Mead, from which Las Vegas draws most of its water, dropped to a low not seen since the lake was filled in 1935. Water managers said states likely would face cuts to their supplies.
As this threat swelled last year, the states that pull municipal and agricultural water from the lake — Arizona, California and Nevada — started negotiating a Drought Contingency Plan. Under the agreement, which was supported by the Obama administration, the states would voluntarily reduce Lake Mead intake during times of drought to prevent more severe mandatory cuts. The plan would provide the states, especially Arizona, with more flexibility to plan for less water.
At the same time last year, the Obama administration and state water managers were pushing for an accord with Mexico that would make it easier to share water during shortages. A draft agreement was finalized and negotiators rushed to complete it before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who had pledged to alter the U.S.-Mexico relationship by renegotiating NAFTA and building a wall between the two nations.
Months later, neither agreement has been completed, although state water managers remain confident they will proceed, citing recent progress and stressing the need for more tools to manage a waterway that supports 40 million people across the Southwest and Mexico. Some are concerned about how quickly the deals will progress, citing shifts in hydrology and the political climate.
The binational talks
In early March, Western water officials wrote a letter to Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, pressing the Trump administration to provide leadership in sealing the two deals.
“The Basin states urge you to support the completion and execution of (the U.S.-Mexico deal),” wrote negotiators for Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The Trump administration has made no official statements on the Mexico agreement. It is still staffing out the Bureau of Reclamation, the Interior Department agency that manages the river. But since sending the letter March 8, state-level negotiators have received some assurances that Mexico appears willing to agree to the accord, as it was finalized toward the end of 2016.
“We’re still not 100 percent sure where everyone in the Trump administration is on this,” said Tom Buschatzke, who directs the Arizona Department of Water Resources and signed the letter to Secretary Zinke. “But the staff-level people who worked on this with us are still there.”
Yet increasingly antagonistic U.S.-Mexico foreign policy concerns some observers of the Colorado River, including water users, environmentalists and conservationists.
In a report last month, the Congressional Research Service wrote that any new deals “are likely to be influenced by the general character of the relationship between the two countries in 2017.”
Mexico splits Colorado River water with Western U.S. states under a 1944 treaty. The deal under negotiation, known as Minute 32x, amends the treaty with a pathway for conservation and water-sharing during shortages. It would replace a similar agreement that expires this year.
Under the accord, Mexico would bank water in Lake Mead, helping stave off shortages by keeping elevations high. In return, it would receive U.S. funding for conservation projects…
Mumme said the Trump administration would be foolish to turn its back on a deal that could avoid a future conflict between the two countries over water shortages. “Mexico has a treaty right,” he said. “This is an area where the Trump administration has no room for maneuver if it’s uncooperative. There is every incentive to want to consolidate the diplomatic gains.”
An Interior Department spokesman said in a statement that it is “hopeful that a new agreement can be reached this year.”
The domestic agreement
Two days before Trump’s inauguration, outgoing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the agency, soon to have new political appointees, to continue working with states on the Drought Contingency Plan. If successful, the agreement — between Arizona, California and Nevada — would slow Lake Mead’s dropping elevations through conservation and water storage.
During shortages, the states would voluntarily cut their lake intake. Arizona would accept the steepest cuts and California would only start cutting when the lake dropped to severely low elevations.
“We are sort of on a hiatus,” Harris said of that plan, which must gain the support of municipal and agricultural water users in all three states before it gets federal approval.
If the political climate could endanger the binational agreement, the physical climate could slow the Drought Contingency Plan. The Colorado River’s hydrology has changed in recent months; winter storms have replenished Rocky Mountain snowpack, the Colorado River’s lifeblood.
In an article for the Arizona Daily Star, officials from the Central Arizona Project, which distributes much of the state’s water, have suggested reviewing conservation efforts in light of the improved hydrology. In an interview with The Sunday, CAP Director of Water Policy Suzanne Ticknor said CAP supports the plan and that “good hydrology has given us a reprieve but not a solution.”
State officials insist on moving ahead with the plan. “One good year is not going to solve our problem,” said Buschatzke, Arizona’s top water official.
But it remains complicated because of issues internal to each state. In California, for instance, there had been some hesitance to move ahead before the state had finalized a separate proposal to mitigate dust at the shrinking Salton Sea, a problem that could be intensified by river cuts. In late March, the state unveiled its Salton Sea plan, which could alleviate some of that resistance.
State negotiators still agree on the importance of the Drought Contingency Plan and speak multiple times per month. Bronson Mack, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said Nevada still supports the drought plan, despite the winter snowstorms.
For many months, water agencies including Tucson Water have discussed a plan to save 1.2 million acre-feet of river water over three years to delay the threat of shortages to the Central Arizona Project, which brings drinking water to Tucson and Phoenix and irrigation water to Central Arizona farmers.
But the snowy winter appears to mean that the river and lake will be flush enough this year to significantly reduce the odds of short-term water cuts even without a conservation plan. The abrupt weather shift has intensified an already major split among water officials about what to do next.
CAP officials say the earlier proposal is “no longer viable” and that it’s time for a new approach.
“The improved hydrology has changed the landscape and given us a reprieve,” said Suzanne Ticknor, CAP’s water-policy director. “We have the opportunity to get it right, to sit back and find out what we want to do to find consensus in the state. We don’t need to do huge volumes of conservation right now.”
Other water users disagree with this position, including the Arizona Department of Water Resources (DWR), the Tucson and Phoenix water utilities and the Gila River Indian Community, which controls the largest share of CAP water.
“I do not believe one year of good hydrology is enough to stop us from seeking to conserve water in the lake,” Arizona DWR Director Tom Buschatzke said, referring to Lake Mead, a reservoir of Colorado River water.
He and other officials said recent weather doesn’t substitute for a long-term policy during a 17-year drought, the longest in the historical record dating to 1906.
WATER FEAST OR FAMINE
At stake is an Arizona version of the Drought Contingency Plan, an effort by this state, California and Nevada to negotiate a long-term, water-use reduction agreement. The goal is to reduce the risks of Lake Mead dropping below 1,025 feet, compared to the 1,070s to 1,080s it has been at recently.
At the lower lake level, water deliveries to Tucson and Phoenix would be jeopardized and Hoover Dam’s power output would be dramatically curtailed. The risk is due to what authorities say is a structural deficit, in which people in the Lower Colorado River Basin use more water each year than the over-allocated river provides, even when it’s not in a drought.
The Arizona plan, called DCP Plus, seeks to delay for three years or longer the first CAP shortage, which would happen if the lake drops below 1,075 feet at year’s end. Last December, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation predicted that the chance of a shortage for 2018 through 2020 was around 50 percent and warned the river was “on the brink”.
But at a March 2 CAP board meeting, project officials were rejoicing over the heavy snowfalls that had fallen in the river’s Upper Basin, which supplies crucial spring runoff to Lake Powell, another Colorado River reservoir.
“The Green River has a tremendous snowpack situation. Flooding will occur in that watershed this spring. Not that we’re wishing it on our Wyoming friends, but quite frankly I’m for it,” said CAP Colorado River program manager Chuck Cullom.
There’s so much snow that a major Wyoming cloud-seeding program has been suspended to reduce the risk of flood damage, Cullom added.
As of March 1, Upper Basin snowpack was 154 percent of normal. Annual spring runoff into Powell was predicted to be 10.4 million acre-feet, or 145 percent of average, said Brenda Alcorn, a federal Colorado Basin River Forecast Center hydrologist.
The reclamation agency now sees a greater chance of above-average water releases from Powell to Mead for three years than it does of shortages.
So instead of a fixed, three-year conservation plan, CAP official Ticknor said that while the agency remains committed to reducing the river’s structural deficit over the long term, the best solution now is to plan annually.
“It has to be more of an adaptive approach and look at things in real time and understand the hydrology, what the inflow to Powell is and what Mead’s elevation is each year,” she said.
Setting hard, three-year targets can create an “overconserving” risk, Ticknor said.
That’s possible due to the complex, seven-state guidelines covering management of Lake Mead at the Arizona-Nevada border and Lake Powell at the Arizona-Utah border, she said. Worrying about “overconserving” is a shift in emphasis among CAP officials, who have a “Protect Lake Mead” message on their home page and produced videos and other material saying the same.
While remaining concerned about Mead’s long-term risks, CAP officials say that under certain circumstances, the guidelines mean that too much conservation can reduce how much water Powell releases to Mead. That deprives the three Lower Colorado River Basin states, including Arizona, of additional water.
Phoenix Water Director Kathryn Sorensen counters, “The ‘risk’ of overconserving is a Colorado River that is less vulnerable to shortages and more resilient over the long run, a river that is more protective of our economy and our quality of life.”
Under guidelines approved in 2007 by the seven basin states, Lake Mead gets an extra surge of water from Powell in a year in which forecasters predict that Powell will stay above 3,575 feet while Mead falls below 1,075 feet on a given date.
This year, conditions are good enough that the lake is expected to get at least 9 million acre-feet, nearly 700,000 acre-feet above average. But if conservation pushes Mead’s forecast above 1,075 at the end of 2017, that extra water goes away.
“You could have an unintended consequence,” Ticknor said. “You have a narrow band of operating space with the reservoirs. You have to be careful about what you do.”
“NOT A GAME OF POKER”
Phoenix’s Sorensen replied that playing the probabilities of shortage year-by-year is a short-sighted strategy that fosters uncertainty and keeps Arizona’s economy closer to the razor’s edge.
“This is not a game of poker. Arizona has weathered the last 17 years of drought precisely because generations ago, we planned methodically for the long run. We must continue this legacy,” Sorensen said.
State Water Resources Director Buschatzke said he prefers the risk of overconserving “because if you underconserve there isn’t much you can do about it” if a shortage occurs. Tucson Water Director Tim Thomure said authorities should err on the side of conservation and focus on the longer term.
“We have to be nimble enough to manage year by year, but decisions need to be made with the long-term in mind,” Thomure said.
Plus, Mother Nature can make unanticipated weather shifts, Buschatzke said. Just since March 1, hot, dry weather has caused federal river-basin forecasters to lower projections for runoff into Powell by half a million acre-feet. That’s enough to serve Tucson Water’s 700,000-plus customers for five years.
The April runoff forecast is still expected to be high enough for an above-average release from Powell. But if the region experiences the flip side of the “Miracle May” rains that pounded the Rockies in May 2015 — saving the river from an almost certain shortage — that wouldn’t leave authorities much time to forestall a 2018 shortage, Buschatzke said.
“These are hard issues — harsh decisions. I want to err on the side of more certainty,” he said.
The bottom line is that the water agency now can’t meet its goal of getting a water-saving plan to this year’s legislative session for approval, he said.