Your Watershed column: Cutbacks on Colorado River use projected to begin in 2020
News broke this week that Arizona and Nevada are projected to take their first mandatory cutbacks of Colorado River use in 2020 because of low water levels at Lake Mead. This is a big deal in that the cutbacks are mandatory as part of the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) negotiated by seven states in the basin and the federal government. Congress made it law earlier this year.
In reality, Arizona and Nevada have practiced for this eventuality and have been conserving what would be required by a mandatory edict. So the result is an accounting change. But historically and politically, this official triggering of the DCP is a milestone as we who live in the Colorado River basin grapple with a long- term drought, or a new normal, if you will.
The year 2019 was a stellar snow year with a long, steady runoff but nobody should say this changes the pattern of subpar hydrology. We’ll be very lucky to be wrong if 2020 and 2021 look like 2019 (but maybe not the historic avalanche cycle). That said, 2019 was only the fifth in the last 19 years that hydrology has exceeded average. The dire drought year of 2002 was the real eye-opener that something dramatic was happening on the river. The years 2012, 2013 and 2018 drove that message home. 2011, a bigger snow year than 2019 systemwide, was another reprieve, and a great ski year to boot.
What is the Drought Contingency Plan? It’s a basinwide response to what this drier and warmer period has done to water levels at Lakes Powell and Mead. The four upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico have one and the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California have one. The Bureau of Reclamation is a partner and in the lower basin, it actually has its hands on the controls that release water from Mead. Or not.
As we’ve seen this week, the lower basin’s DCP is a numbers driven plan. When Lake Mead is modeled to hit certain levels, the lower basin states enact mandatory cutbacks. As things get worse, California joins Arizona and Nevada in the pain cave.
The upper basin DCP differs. First of all, if levels at Lake Powell threaten power generation at the Glen Canyon Dam, the states and the Bureau of Reclamation will work out the moving of water to Powell from the Aspinall Unit in Colorado, Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border and Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico.
If things get worse and the upper basin states are staring at a forced curtailment under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the upper basin states agreed to study if demand management can be a tool to avoid or comply with compact challenges. What does demand management mean? It means not diverting and using water and letting it flow to Lake Powell. And let’s not forget that the upper basin DCP also calls out continued work on cloud seeding and control of tamarisk and other invasive, water-hungry species along our streambanks.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Colorado River District and the Colorado Basin Roundtable are engaged in demand management discussions, study and policy-making. The key is that this is a feasibility study. If demand management is feasible, it will be a decision of the state’s official water policy body, the CWCB, to make it a policy. Another key is that CWCB policy is to study compensated, voluntary and temporary forbearance of water. This is the opposite of mandatory. The Colorado River District and the Colorado Basin Roundtable strongly supported these three principles.
Feasibility will live or die on issues of what water-use sectors supply the conserved water, what geographic regions, who pays, how much, how the water actually gets to Powell and many more concerns. What’s going to happen to the farm economy? What’s going to happen to Main Street? What’s going to happen to the built ecology we’ve created in the irrigated West? Inquiring minds want to know.
Colorado and the upper basin’s work is only beginning and we don’t know the outcome. The lower basin differs. It has certainty, and it took the parties a lot of work to get there. We should be watching how it plays out in the lower basin, especially in regard to Arizona’s irrigated farm economy. Surely there will be lessons for Colorado.
To learn more about demand management and Colorado River challenges, these websites will be helpful: ColoradoRiverDistrict.org, ColoradoBasinRoundtable.org and cwcb.state.co.us.
Jim Pokrandt is the community affairs director at the Colorado River District and is chair of the Colorado Basin Roundtable.
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