How do we sustain the #ColoradoRiver past 2026? Here’s how #Arizona intends to find out — Arizona Central #DCP #COriver #aridification #conservation

Here’s a guest column from Tom Buschatzke and Ted Cooke that’s running in Arizona Central:

The Drought Contingency Plan is working, but it’s just the beginning. Here’s how we move forward.

It didn’t take long for the completion of the Drought Contingency Plan to create value to Arizona and the Colorado River Basin. Its focus on stabilizing Lake Mead and creating incentives to “bank” water in the reservoir already are paying dividends.

We can say with confidence that DCP is already a success.

DCP is providing a safe harbor while we work on important issues leading up to 2026, when the existing guidelines for the operation of the Colorado River system expire.

We now have an opportunity to build on the successful Arizona process that led to the DCP signing. Arizona is Stronger Together. And that will serve us well as we work toward the next step – maintaining a stable, healthy Colorado River system as we face a hotter and drier future.

Lake Mead is 22 feet higher than expected

A year ago, many of us were immersed in the details of Arizona’s Drought Contingency Implementation Plan, which benefited from the cooperative spirit of its participants, including elected leaders and representatives from every sector of the state’s water-using community.

In 2020 and likely 2021, we will be operating under DCP’s Tier Zero, a reduction of 192,000 acre-feet to Arizona. The estimated impact of contributing this water is more than $40 million, but the investment is worth it to protect the Colorado River system.

DCP’s incentives allow for greater storage in Lake Mead this year. That, coupled with a lot of snow from the Rocky Mountains and additional tributary flow, increased storage in Lake Mead by more than 22 feet from what was initially projected.

An excellent winter snowpack in the Rockies helped Lake Mead a lot. But here is the kicker: Almost half of that 22-foot rise in Lake Mead was due to storage and contributions to system conservation.

And conservation and storing water in the reservoir is a trend that will continue. Arizonans are doing our share, with more than 20 water users, agencies and the state having signed agreements to contribute to implementing the DCP.

But DCP won’t hold us forever

The term used for the coming negotiations on the system’s new guidelines is “reconsultation” of the “Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.”

The emphasis is on “interim.” The 2007 guidelines expire in 2026. So, when people ask “What’s next?” for Colorado River management, that’s it: The difficult challenge of assessing the effectiveness of the current guidelines, with the DCP overlay, and exploring new approaches for the next iteration of the guidelines.

As we learned on Jan. 31 when the state Legislature passed and Gov. Doug Ducey signed Arizona’s DCP, we achieved success because we worked together. We intend to bring the steering committee process back to life, reviving that spirit of cooperation that so infused negotiations.

To that end, we are embarking on a listening and data-collecting effort. It is our plan to meet first with the elected leaders who contributed so much time and effort to the successful steering committee process. Then we plan to sit down with other delegates, including those representing Arizona tribes, cities, agriculture, mining, development and the nonprofi community.

Our goal: To develop a shared vision

Our new goal? Gather our stakeholders’ thoughts and develop a shared vision as we plan for Arizona’s Colorado River water supply.

This will ensure Arizona is a strong voice among the Colorado River Basin states and the federal government as we hammer out the next set of agreements for managing the Colorado River Basin beyond 2026.

That is our “next step.” It’s a big one and we must be prepared. And we will be, because Arizona truly is Stronger Together.

Tom Buschatzke is director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Ted Cooke is general manager of the Central Arizona Project. Together, they co-chaired the steering committee that helped finalize the state’s Drought Contingency Plan signed May 20. Reach them at tbuschatzke@azwater.gov and tcooke@cap-az.com.

System Conservation Pilot, water markets, and demand management #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Hay fields under Meeker Ditch 2. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Time (Lucas Isakowitz):

…scarcity is the mother of invention, and western states are coming up with innovative ways to save water. One was a pilot program which ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid farmers—including [Paul] Kehmeier—about $200 for every acre-foot of water that they had the right to but did not use…

Over the course of four years, the pilot program sponsored 64 projects, conserving an estimated 46,000 acre-feet of water. There was so much interest in some districts that participants had to be selected via a lottery system. Participating farmers closed off some of their irrigation canals, allowing water that would normally go to their fields to flow downstream; at the same time, water administrative agencies and environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited helped monitor flow rates.

The pilot cost about $8.5 million, with funding coming almost entirely from the major municipalities that rely on the Colorado River, including Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Now the states in the upper Colorado River basin are exploring how to scale it up. Colorado has formed a series of working groups, set to meet for the first time in September, which will tackle questions like who will foot the bill for a large-scale program (which could run in the hundreds of millions of dollars), how to ensure participating farmers are legally allowed to lease out their water rights, and what sort of mechanisms can safeguard conserved water as it makes its way to reservoirs…

Not everyone is thrilled about the possibility of a water market in the upper Colorado River. “Let’s be honest about what it is that we’re doing here: paying farmers not to farm, and drying up land to buy water,” says David Harold, a sweet-corn farmer from Olathe, Colorado, who participated in the pilot program for one year. “This is ‘buy-and-dry’ with another name,” he says, referring to the practice of cities buying land purely for the water rights tied to them, leaving rural communities parched and jobless…

Harold isn’t the only skeptic. “Every single person I interviewed mentioned ‘buy-and-dry,’” says Kelsea MacIlroy, a PhD student at Colorado State University who interviewed 34 irrigators and water experts in western Colorado to understand local perceptions of a demand management program, which is a technical name for a water market where farmers can lease out their water. “People said ‘maybe it’s not exactly the same thing, but we’re afraid that demand management could lead to ‘buy and dry.’’’

[…]

Some, like Harold, see a water market as putting their counties on the road towards becoming another Crowley. But others view a demand management program as a way to avoid the fate of Crowley County. As the pressure mounts along the Colorado River, something’s got to give, and a water market—in which farmers choose to lease their water out for a set period, regaining it again when the program times out—is a more palatable option than selling their water entitlements outright. “Demand management is different than ‘buy and dry’ because it leaves the water in the hands of the farmer,” says Kehmeier…

For a demand management program to significantly reduce water security risks along the Colorado River, it will need to attract a lot of farmers and funding. Policymakers are envisioning a scaled-up version of the pilot that could lease out as much as half a million acre-feet of water by 2026, costing around $100 million. But even that won’t keep the Colorado River from over allocation. That’s why, MacIlroy says, some of the irrigators she spoke with felt demand management “was a Band-Aid and that there’s no point in continuing that conversation unless there are efforts being made to address the larger issues in the Colorado River.”

@ASU water policy expert addresses new #drought plan: State will take less water from the #ColoradoRiver under a new contingency plan #DCP #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam, shows the effects of nearly two decades of drought. (Image: Bureau of Reclamation)

Here’s the release from Arizona State University (Marshall Terrill):

The Southwest’s long-standing drought has left the state staring down a historic and first-ever Colorado River water cutback in 2020.

Starting Jan. 1, Arizona will see a 6.9% reduction of Colorado River water under the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which was finalized in May with California, Nevada and the federal government. Mexico will give up 3% of its allotment under a separate agreement.

The cuts are part of a plan to keep Lake Mead, a reservoir at the Arizona-Nevada boundary, functional. Water levels for both Lake Mead and Lake Powell have precipitously dropped as a result of historic over-allocation and a drought that started in 2000.

ASU Now spoke to Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, about the cutbacks and what they will mean for Arizona’s agriculture and the state’s roughly 7 million residents.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. Photo credit: Arizona State University

Question: Are these cuts a move that has been anticipated for some time, and should Arizona residents be worried?

Answer: Yes, the cuts have been anticipated and were agreed to by the parties to the Drought Contingency Plan or DCP. In fact, until a few months ago, we expected deeper cuts, but good mountain snowpack last winter and aggressive conservation efforts shored Lake Mead up a bit. The cuts are part of a larger plan to safeguard the Colorado River system. The plan was negotiated for several years and finalized this spring.

The Lower Basin DCP incentivizes conserving water in Lake Mead while also imposing bigger and bigger cuts should lake levels fall to certain levels. Water users on the Central Arizona Project, which brings Colorado River water to central and southern Arizona, are in line to take largest cuts because they are the lowest priority users.

The 2020 cuts won’t really be felt by Arizona water users because the state has never built out demand for all of its Colorado River supplies. For years, Arizona water managers have used “extra” Colorado River water for aquifer recharge and other purposes. Annually starting in 2015, Arizona has voluntarily conserved in Lake Mead the equivalent amount of this year’s cut.

Rather than worry, Arizona residents should continue to find ways to permanently use water more efficiently. Statewide, Arizona uses the same amount of water today as it did in the mid-1950s, though we now have seven or eight times the population and a much larger economy. There are still lots of opportunities to stretch our water supplies through conservation and efficiency measures.

Q: Who will be the first group of people to feel the sting of cuts in Colorado River supplies?

A: If Lake Mead falls below 1,075-feet elevation, Arizona will take additional cuts and farmers in Pinal County will be the first to feel the impacts. They plan to turn to groundwater (that is, water pumped from wells) to make up for some of those cuts.

Cities are in a different situation. Municipal providers that use CAP supplies tend to have high priority rights, so they would be among the last CAP users to experience cuts. Many cities in the Phoenix and Tucson areas have diverse water portfolios, including groundwater, reclaimed water and other surface water, which gives them a measure of resilience against cuts in Colorado River supplies. And since passage of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, growth has been tied to long-term water supplies in the state’s most populous areas, so water providers must plan well in advance for foreseeable supply reductions.

Q: So if agricultural is the first to take a hit, will this mean the cost of fruits and vegetables will likely go up — and by how much?

A: That’s a question for an economist, but I will note that Arizona’s agriculture industry is not monolithic when it comes to water supplies. Right now, only Pinal County farmers are facing cuts — other Arizona farmers have higher priority Colorado River rights or get their water from other sources. Two-thirds of Pinal County’s agricultural revenues come from cattle and dairy. That production will not be directly affected by cuts in CAP deliveries. The county’s main irrigated crops are cotton and hay.

Q: What’s the effect going to be on individual households and what should consumers be mindful of, or start practicing?

A: For some households, water rates may increase as their water providers take additional steps to ensure water deliveries in the event of decreased Colorado River supplies. In addition, some households in newer developments in Maricopa, Pinal and Pima Counties depend on groundwater and are required to pay into a fund to purchase water supplies to replenish the groundwater withdrawn for their use. This amount shows up as an assessment on county property-tax bills. As fewer supplies become available, the costs of water to meet the replenishment obligation may also increase.

We should always treat water as the precious resource it is here in Arizona. The single best way for an individual household to help is to permanently reduce the amount of water used for outside landscaping.

Q: Is this going to be the new normal or a sign of things to come?

A: We should think of this as the new normal. Lake Mead is over-allocated. The prolonged drought has exacerbated the problem because it results in less extra water in the system. There are signs that the region is aridifying, meaning that average flows in the Colorado River may decrease.

We shouldn’t overlook the conservation efforts that are critical to keeping the Colorado River system functional. The Drought Contingency Plan includes important ground rules for conserving water in Lake Mead, and Arizona’s Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community, along with CAP, will be conserving and storing significant quantities of water in the lake.

Changing nature of Colorado River droughts, Udall/Overpeck 2017.

Colorado River: The West’s precious, but limited resource — Brenda Burman

THE GRAND CANON,
​​​​​​​LOOKING EAST FROM TO-RO-WEAP
From “Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries” By J. W . Powell, 1875

Here’s a guest column from USBR Commissioner Brenda Burman that’s running in The Hill:

One hundred fifty years ago, John Wesley Powell and his small band of courageous explorers captured the nation’s imagination as they completed their first expedition down the Colorado River. Powell and his team faced the unknown, and they came through the river’s canyons with a hard-earned appreciation for the Colorado River as a precious, but limited resource. His vision of diverting water for agriculture contributed to the Reclamation Act of 1902 and the birth of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Powell’s descriptions of Western water scarcity helped inspire American investment in water storage and conveyance infrastructure up and down the Colorado River — forward-thinking investment that built facilities like Glen Canyon Dam with his namesake reservoir, Lake Powell; Hoover Dam with Lake Mead; and other important reservoirs.

Today, that system of reservoirs can store four times the average annual inflow of the Colorado River Basin — absolutely critical storage for the life and livelihood of 40 million people across the West. In fact, without Lake Powell, Lake Mead and other key storage reservoirs along the Colorado River, the basin would have already faced an overwhelming water crisis many years ago.

The century and a half since Powell’s expedition brought many challenges and innovative solutions for the Colorado River. A year ago, the basin was suffering its fifth driest year in over a century; another abysmal datapoint in one of the driest 20-year periods of the last 1,200 years. In contrast, as recently as 2000, both Lake Powell and Lake Mead were nearly full. The water stored in those massive reservoirs blunted the effects of prolonged drought and protected cities, farms and families across the basin from devastating water shortage impacts.

In fact, Colorado River reservoirs helped ensure water deliveries each year during the current 20-year drought — enabling certainty and predictability for water users while avoiding the need for shortage declarations. That’s the value of water storage reservoirs and the lasting legacy of past water leaders like John Wesley Powell.

Unfortunately, not all Western river basins are positioned to withstand the effects of prolonged drought. For example, water storage infrastructure in California’s Sacramento River Basin stores less than one year’s average flow — that’s not enough to sustain ever-increasing demand. As water scarcity in the West becomes more challenging, stretching existing supplies while expanding and improving water storage infrastructure is even more important. We must strengthen our ability to capture, store and deliver limited water supplies while maximizing efficiency to enhance conservation.

While our Colorado River reservoirs have performed very well through prolonged severe drought, we cannot simply maintain the status quo. In January 2019, the combined storage of Lakes Powell and Mead fell to just 38 percent of capacity. That’s what brought the seven Colorado River basin states, the Republic of Mexico, the U.S. government, Native American Tribes, conservation interests and other non-governmental organizations together earlier this year to complete historic drought contingency plans.

Water users in the Colorado River Basin have survived the drought through a combination of water storage infrastructure and voluntary actions to protect reservoir storage and water supply. Adoption of drought contingency plans this summer, developed over years of collaborative negotiation, takes the next step by implementing mandatory action to reduce risk and protect limited water supplies.

I agree with others who believe John Wesley Powell would be happy with the level and success of collaboration in the Colorado River Basin; collaboration that helps focus governance on community and local needs along the river.

On Aug.15 the Bureau of Reclamation released its 2020 operational plans for Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Looking ahead, we are pleased that the basin will avoid deep water delivery reductions or face rapidly-declining reservoirs next year. That’s welcome news and reflects the impact of 2019’s excellent snowpack and runoff into Lake Powell and Lake Mead. That above-average runoff pushed today’s total system storage to 55 percent of capacity. But, one good year can’t undo nearly two decades of drought. We must remain focused on infrastructure improvement, conservation and other efforts to protect the Colorado River’s precious limited water.

John Wesley Powell’s courage and vision introduced America to the treasure that is the Colorado River. Our courage and vision must equal his as we confront challenges like ongoing drought and growing demand throughout the basin. Like we’ve done for the 150 years since Powell first explored those awe-inspiring canyons, we must continue to collaborate and cooperate to find innovative water management solutions for today and future generations. That’s our mandate and, if recent drought contingency plans are an indication, we are up to the task.

Brenda Burman is the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Bureau of Reclamation is a contemporary water management agency and the largest wholesale provider of water in the country. It brings water to more than 31 million people and provides one out of five Western farmers with irrigation water for farmland that produces much of the nation’s produce. It is also the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the country.

Water equity a concern for Western Slope water users — @AspenJournalism #cwcsc2019 #DCP #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Pitkin County is using this irrigation system to grow potatoes for vodka on county open space land. The state is exploring how a voluntary, temporary and compensated water-use reduction plan, known as demand management, could incentivize irrigators to leave more water in the river. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Colorado’s agricultural-water users have concerns about how exactly the state would fairly implement a voluntary water-use reduction plan known as demand management.

That was the takeaway from some of the first meetings organized by the Colorado Water Conservation Board as part of its investigation into how a demand-management program might work in the state. Water managers discussed the issue of equity at the first meeting of the agricultural-impacts workgroup in Delta in early August and again at Colorado Water Congress in Steamboat Springs on Thursday.

If Western Slope agricultural-water users don’t see cuts being taken by water users in municipalities, on the east slope and in the lower Colorado River basin, they won’t want to participate in a demand-management program, said Ken Curtis, chief of engineering and construction for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

“If (Western Slope users) don’t see that question of fairness, they don’t even want to open the conversation,” he said at the meeting in Delta.

A large irrigation canal in the Grand Valley, which relies on water from the Colorado River to irrigate fields. The state is exploring how a voluntary, temporary and compensated water-use reduction plan, known as demand management, might work. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Social and cultural perceptions

This sentiment is not surprising to Colorado State University doctoral candidate Kelsea Macilroy, who spent last spring interviewing about 40 irrigators and water managers on the Western Slope. At CWC on Thursday, she unveiled her Nature Conservancy-funded research on the social and cultural perceptions of demand management.

There are three key conclusions of the report: Awareness and understanding of demand management vary greatly, defining what demand management is and how it will work is not straightforward, and conversations about demand management are connected to other tensions that create a general sense of vulnerability and fear.

“People don’t see this as a discussion about feasibility,” she told Thursday’s audience. “It feels like something that’s going to happen.”

The CWCB has formed nine workgroups, each tasked with helping to identify and solve one of the following issues: agricultural impacts, law and policy, water-rights administration, environmental considerations, economic considerations and local government, funding; education and outreach, monitoring and verification, and tribal interests. The workgroups began meeting this summer.

At the heart of a demand-management plan is a reduction in water use by agriculture on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis, all in an effort to send up to 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to meet Colorado River Compact obligations. Under pilot programs, the state could pay ranchers and farmers to leave more water in the river.

But the description “voluntary, temporary and compensated” also is the crux of the problem for many water users.

“Compensation is one of the stickiest and hardest to define,” Macilroy said. “It’s not just a number; it’s an idea and a value. Is it even truly possible to compensate for reductions in water use? Water is more than just a commodity.”

Water and agriculture on the Western Slope are tied to Colorado’s rural identity, culture and landscapes. Demand management provokes an emotional response for some who fear that without irrigated, green fields, a community’s way of life is threatened.

Some said they feared that demand management is a back door to “buy and dry.” Several people invoked the tough lesson of Crowley County, a formerly agricultural hub on Colorado’s southeastern plains. Many of the county’s agricultural-water users sold off their water rights to Front Range municipalities. As irrigated farmland dried up, so did the county’s economic base.

“I’ve been worried about this because these communities are smaller and ag-dominated,” Cindy Lair, program manager for the State Conservation Board of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, said at the Delta meeting. “They don’t have the resiliency for decreased water. They don’t have the buffering capacity.”

Macilroy’s results also revealed a complicated relationship between “voluntary” and “parity.” Water managers want to ensure that a demand-management program would spread the burden across different user groups and basins in the name of fairness. But that conflicts with the requirement that participation in any program be voluntary.

“A voluntary program appeals to people,” Macilroy said. “It also has some major weaknesses. Because it is voluntary, it serves as a direct challenge to implementing parity. You can’t have voluntary and parity at the same time.”

Brent Newman, head of CWCB’s section on Colorado River issues, said the research findings were not surprising. Helping people understand demand management is a key part of the program, he said.

“I think that’s a question all the workgroups have identified as one of the key threshold questions: How do you have a voluntary program but also disincentivize negative proportionate impacts to basins?” he said. “We are just starting to wrap our heads around that.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Times on coverage of water and rivers.

@MWDH2O: Metropolitan statement on #ColoradoRiver reservoir conditions #COriver #DCP #aridification

Here’s the release from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (Rebecca Kimitch/Maritza Fairfield):

Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, issues the following statement on the Bureau of Reclamation’s latest 24-month study on Colorado River system reservoir conditions:

“We’re certainly grateful that nature provided some relief to the critical conditions in the Colorado River Basin. But the Southwest wouldn’t be in this encouraging position without also the successful collaboration of the Colorado River Basin states to develop the Drought Contingency Plan. The DCP wasn’t just about sharing the pain of potential water cutbacks; one of its primary benefits was to incentivize storage in Lake Mead. It creates new storage opportunities for California, Arizona and Nevada and increases the flexibility to access stored water.

“Today is evidence the DCP is working as we hoped. By the end of the year, the Lower Basin states and Mexico together anticipate storing an additional 700,000 acre-feet of conserved water in Lake Mead in 2019 – a record amount that will boost the lake’s elevation by nearly
9 feet. Metropolitan alone will store 400,000 acre-feet this year, bringing our total stored in the lake to nearly 1 million acre-feet, another record.

“While all that storage helps keep Lake Mead out of shortage, it also helps prepare Southern California for our state’s next drought. Being able to store water when it is available for use in times when it is not is the key to ensuring the region has reliable water in the future. We got some reprieve from drought conditions on the Colorado River this year, but Lake Mead is still less than half full. And climate change is likely to lead to drier conditions in our future. As we begin work to resolve the water supply imbalance on the river, we’re pleased the DCP helped address the immediate concerns.”

All American Canal Construction circa. 1938 via the Imperial Irrigation District

@USBR Announces 2020 #ColoradoRiver Operating Conditions: #LakeMead operations = Normal or ICS Surplus Condition in Calendar Year 2020, #LakePowell operations = Upper Elevation Balancing Tier in Water Year 2020 #DCP #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead. Photo credit: Bureaus of Reclamation

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aron/Marlon Duke):

The Bureau of Reclamation today released its Colorado River Basin August 2019 24-Month Study, which sets the annual operations for Lake Mead and Lake Powell in 2020. Based on projections in the 24-Month Study, Lake Mead will operate in the Normal or ICS Surplus Condition in Calendar Year 2020 and Lake Powell will operate in the Upper Elevation Balancing Tier in Water Year 2020 (October 1, 2019 through September 30, 2020).

The Upper Basin experienced above average snowpack, and runoff was 145% of average this past spring, raising Lake Powell’s elevation by more than 50 feet since early April. Total Colorado River system storage today is 55% of capacity, up from 49% at this time last year. In addition, critical drought contingency plans adopted by the seven Basin States, federal government and Mexico earlier this year are now in place to reduce risks to the system.

“While we appreciate this year’s above average snowpack, one good year doesn’t mean the drought is over. We must remain vigilant,” said Commissioner Brenda Burman. “I applaud everyone who came together this year to get the drought contingency plans done. The additional actions under the contingency plans will help ensure the reliability of the Colorado River system for the 40 million people dependent upon it.”

The August 2019 24-Month Study projects Lake Mead’s January 1, 2020, elevation to be 1,089.4 feet, about 14 feet above the Lower Basin shortage determination trigger of 1,075 feet. Lake Powell’s January 1, 2020, elevation is projected to be 3,618.6 feet — 81 feet below full. Because Lake Mead is projected to begin the year below the drought contingency plans threshold of 1,090 feet, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will make water savings contributions to Lake Mead in 2020.

Despite the above average 2019 snowpack, the Colorado River Basin continues to experience its worst 20-year drought on record, dating back to 2000. This 20-year period is also one of the driest in the 1,200-year paleo record. The August 2019 24-Month Study can be found at https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g4000/24mo.pdf

DCP’s Tier Zero Begins a New Era from the Central Arizona Project (Chuck Cullom):

Today, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued its August 24-Month Study Report, a two-year outlook projecting water supply and operating conditions in the Lower Colorado River Basin..

The August Report defines, among other things, the operating conditions for Lake Mead for 2020, and includes the recently enacted Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). At the end of 2019, the projected Lake Mead elevation – the measuring stick for whether there is a shortage declaration on the river for 2020 – is just shy of 1090’. And, for the first time, the Lower Colorado River Basin will formally implement reductions outlined in the DCP at the new Tier Zero beginning January 2020.

What does this mean?

In short, it shows that in its first year, DCP is already working.

While the Basin experienced a stellar snowpack year and subsequent phenomenal run-off, because Lake Mead is projected to end 2019 below elevation 1090’, the Lower Basin States (Arizona, California and Nevada) will be in a DCP Tier Zero shortage condition next year. Under Tier Zero, Arizona’s Colorado River supplies will be reduced by 192,000 acre-feet; Nevada’s will be reduced by 8,000 acre-feet; and California takes no reductions. In addition, Mexico will reduce its water use by 41,000 acre-feet, due to Minute 323, an agreement under the 1944 Treaty for water users in both countries. [ed. emphasis mine] Because of Arizona’s Colorado River priority system and agreements amongst water users, the Central Arizona Project (CAP) will take 100% of Arizona’s reductions under Tier Zero. CAP’s supplies will be reduced by 192,000 acre-feet, representing 12% of its normal annual Colorado River water supply. For CAP customers, this means eliminating the water that would have been available for underground storage, banking and replenishment. Water going toward CAP agricultural uses will be reduced by about 15%.

The Tier Zero reduction to CAP, while significant, is largely equivalent to the amount of Colorado River water CAP has been leaving voluntarily in Lake Mead since 2015 as part of our Lake Mead Conservation Program. In essence, CAP and its water users have been planning and preparing for Tier Zero reductions for the past five years. The difference is that those previous contributions were voluntary – now, under DCP, these contributions are mandatory.

Through the DCP, Arizona continues to prepare for a drier future. This year, CAP, along with the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes, is contributing and storing 236,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead. Next year, even with the Tier Zero reductions, these same water users, along with the Mohave Valley Irrigation and Drainage District, will continue to conserve and store additional water in Lake Mead. These efforts are part of Arizona’s plan to implement DCP developed collaboratively by the Arizona water community and legislative leaders. The plan balances the impacts of DCP amongst water users and provides additional protection to the Colorado River system, giving us a road map to follow for the next several years.

Tier zero cuts. Graphic credit: Central Arizona Project

From Arizona Central (Ian James):

Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will be required to take less water from the Colorado River for the first time next year under a set of agreements that aim to keep enough water in Lake Mead to reduce the risk of a crash.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation activated the mandatory reductions in water deliveries on Thursday when it released projections showing that as of Jan. 1, the level of Lake Mead will sit just below a threshold that triggers the cuts.

Arizona and Nevada agreed to leave a portion of their water allotments in the reservoir under a landmark deal with California called the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which the states’ representatives signed at Hoover Dam in May.

California agreed to contribute water at a lower trigger point if the reservoir continues to fall. And Mexico agreed under a separate accord to start contributing to help prop up Lake Mead, which is now 39 percent full…

Reservoirs were approaching levels last year that would have triggered a shortage and required deeper cuts, but heavy snow across much of the Rocky Mountains this winter boosted runoff and raised reservoir levels. The river’s reservoirs are now at 55% of total capacity, up from 49% at the same time last year.

But Lake Mead is still projected to be just below the threshold of 1,090 feet above sea level at the beginning of next year. That will put the reservoir in a zone called “Tier Zero,” at which the first cuts take effect.

“While we appreciate this year’s above-average snowpack, one good year doesn’t mean the drought is over. We must remain vigilant,” federal Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said in a statement. She applauded the seven states that depend on the river for coming together to finish the set of drought-contingency plans. Burman said the actions laid out under those agreements “will help ensure the reliability of the Colorado River system for the 40 million people dependent upon it.”

Arizona will see a cut of 192,000 acre-feet in water deliveries next year, or 6.9% of its total allotment of 2.8 million acre-feet. Nevada’s share will be reduced by 8,000 acre-feet, while Mexico’s will take 41,000 acre-feet less. That water will remain in Lake Mead, and will only be recovered once the reservoir rises above an elevation of 1,100 feet.

The cuts under the Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP, represent 12% of the total water supply for the Central Arizona Project, which delivers water by canal to Phoenix, Tucson and other areas. Chuck Cullom, manager of Colorado River programs for CAP, said this reduction will mean “eliminating the water that would have been available for underground storage, banking and replenishment,” and cutting CAP deliveries to agriculture by about 15%.