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.
The new Zinke team, including appointments to Bureau of Reclamation, will need to learn quickly about the complexities of Colorado River water law and the drought-induced woes facing Lake Mead
By a comfortable 68-31 margin, the U.S. Senate today confirmed President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke.
The former Montana member of Congress will head a department that manages around 500 million acres of land and waterways in the United States.
Zinke’s department also includes the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the agency responsible for the system of dams and reservoirs on the Colorado River, the waterway that is integral to the livelihood of 40 million U.S. citizens living in the Southwest.
In a statement declaring his approval of the appointment, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said he looked forward to working with Zinke’s department, notably on behalf of Arizona’s Colorado River allotment.
Here’s the release from Western Resource Advocates:
Western Resources Advocates (WRA) released a new analysis today that shows Central Arizona’s cities, suburban growth in significant areas, and agriculture face substantial cuts in Colorado River water supplies if Lake Mead levels continue to fall. Analysis of data from the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) and Central Arizona Project (CAP) identifies who could face a reduction of Colorado River supplies, and at what level, within Arizona as Lake Mead levels continue to drop.
Phoenix and Tucson suburban growth that uses the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District to prove there is renewable water to cover development will be cut first in a shortage declaration under existing agreements;
Four important Central Arizona Irrigation Districts could also lose a substantial portion of their CAP water, including Maricopa Stanfield, Central Arizona, Hohokam, and Harquahala; and
Major cities, including Phoenix and Tucson, could face a reduction of Colorado River supplies within this decade if Lake Mead drops below the 1,025’ level.
These cuts are looming because Arizona’s ”bank” for 40% of its water supply, Lake Mead, is being drained faster than it can be filled. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates there is a nearly 50% chance of a federal shortage declaration, that would cut 320,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water deliveries to Arizona, happening as soon as 2018 under business as usual. This level of cuts could harm agriculture, lead to over-drafting of nonrenewable groundwater, reduce hydroelectric power, and provide a lot less water for Arizona cities and the environment.
“Arizona is facing perhaps its greatest challenge since the settlement of the region and development of modern cities, agriculture, and industry,” said Drew Beckwith, Water Policy Manager, Western Resource Advocates. “The time is now for ADWR and CAP to put in place longer-term solutions that prevent significant water shortages and stand the test of time. One cannot put Band-Aids on an ill patient, while failing to address the underlying illness.”
Arizona has already taken important action by implementing interim measures to keep more water in Lake Mead to help stave off federally mandated cutbacks of Colorado River water. The Arizona Department of Water Resources has also been working with California, Nevada, and key water users within Arizona on plans to keep Lake Mead from falling to critically low levels.
Western Resource Advocates and conservation partners at American Rivers and Environmental Defense Fund have developed seven policies and actions to protect groundwater and help Arizona’s agriculture, cities, Indian tribes, economy, and environment thrive in a future with less Colorado River water supplies.
Three of the seven proposed policies and actions are:
Water providers and farmers, with support from ADWR, should adopt next-generation water conservation and efficiencyfor our homes, business and agriculture.
The Central Arizona Project should expand its support of system conservation programs allowing municipalities and other water users to dedicate conserved water to stay in Lake Mead to prevent water levels from dropping farther.
Water providers, cities and agriculture, with support from CAP and ADWR, should increase the number of innovative water sharing arrangements between themselves,like the Phoenix-Tucson water sharing agreement.
“System Conservation Programs have proven to be a great success along the Colorado River, putting more water into Lake Mead and keeping the lake from falling to drastically low levels,” said Jeff Odefey, Director, Clean Water Supply, American Rivers. “Innovative water sharing agreements, like that between Phoenix and Tucson, are an ideal example other water interests should adopt, demonstrating the collaboration and flexibility we will need to stabilize Lake Mead levels for the long term.”
“We are all in this together in the Colorado River basin. ADWR is on the right track with increasing the level of collaboration and proactive actions with all Arizona water stakeholders. Now ADWR and stakeholders need to also adopt longer-term solutions,” said Kevin Moran, Senior Director, Colorado River Program, Environmental Defense Fund. “In the end, the strategy which has served Arizona and the Lower Basin states the most is to focus on collaboration and ongoing water management innovation that benefit both current and future generations.”
For decades, the [Colorado River] has fed growing cities from Denver to Los Angeles. A lot of the produce in supermarkets across the country was grown with Colorado River water. But with climate change, and severe drought, the river is reaching a crisis point, and communities at each end of it are reacting very differently…
The problem is that Colorado’s population will nearly double by 2050. Future residents will need more water. Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead says more storage is part of the solution. It’s also an insurance policy against future drought.
“From Denver Water’s perspective, if we can’t provide clean, reliable, sustainable water 100 years from now to our customers, we’re not doing our job,” Lochhead says.
Demand for Colorado River water is already stretched thin. So it may sound crazy that places like Colorado and Wyoming want to develop more water projects. Legally, that’s something they are entitled to do.
Wyoming is studying whether to store more water from a Colorado River tributary. “We feel we have some room to grow, but we understand that growth comes with risk,” says Pat Tyrrell, who oversees Wyoming’s water rights.
Risk because in 10 or 20 years there may not be enough water to fill up expanded reservoirs. A 16-year drought has dramatically decreased water supply even as demand keeps growing. And climate change could make this picture worse.
It makes Tyrrell’s job feel impossible.
“You understand the reality today of a low water supply,” he says. “You also know that you’re going to have permit applications coming in to develop more water. What do you do?”
Tyrrell says that as long as water is available, Wyoming will very likely keep finding new ways to store it. But a future with less water is coming.
In California, that future of cutbacks has already arrived. The water that started in Colorado flows more than 1,000 miles to greater Los Angeles.
So even in the sixth year of California’s drought, some lawns are still green.
“Slowly but surely, the entire supply on Colorado River has become less reliable,” says Jeffrey Kightlinger, who manages the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California. He notes that the water level in Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir on the river, has been plummeting.
An official shortage could be declared next winter. “And that’ll be a historic moment,” Kightlinger says.
It’s never happened before. Arizona and Nevada would be forced to cut back on how much water they draw from the river. California would be spared that fate, because it has senior water rights. So you wouldn’t expect to hear what Kightlinger says next.
“We are having voluntary discussions with Arizona and Nevada about what we would do proactively to help,” he says.
California could help by giving up water before it has to, between 5 percent and 8 percent of its supply. Kightlinger isn’t offering this out of the goodness of his heart; if Lake Mead drops too low, the federal government could step in and reallocate all the water, including California’s.
“We all realize if we model the future and we build in climate change, we could be in a world of hurt if we do nothing,” Kightlinger says.
This idea of cooperation is somewhat revolutionary after years of lawsuits and bad blood.
Recently, farmer Steve Benson was checking on one of his alfalfa fields near the Mexican border. “We know there’s a target on our back in the Imperial Valley for the amount of water we use,” he says.
This valley produces two-thirds of the country’s vegetables in the winter — with water from the Colorado River.
In fact, for decades, California used more than its legal share of the river and had to cut back in 2003. This area, the Imperial Irrigation District, took the painful step of transferring some of its water to cities like San Diego.
Bruce Kuhn voted on that water transfer as a board member of the district. “It was the single hardest decision I have ever made in my life,” he says.
Kuhn ended up casting the deciding vote to share water, which meant some farmers have had to fallow their land.
“It cost me some friends,” he says. “I mean, we still talk but it isn’t the same.”
Soon, Kuhn may have to make another painful decision about whether California should give up water to Arizona and Nevada. With an emergency shortage looming, Kuhn may have no choice.