An Era of New Partnerships on the Colorado River
Balancing water supply and demand has never been a simple equation when it comes to the Colorado River. Serving as the “lifeline of the Southwest,” the river provides water to 35 million people and more than 4 million acres of farmland in a region encompassing some 246,000 square miles. Supplying water, generating hydroelectric power and protecting endangered species have all shaped development and management of the river. These issues have generated their share of conflict. But for more than a decade the river’s diverse stakeholders – the states, the federal government, Mexico, Indian tribes and environmentalists – forged new agreements and partnerships to confront the challenging issues of the future.
Historically, management of the river was largely viewed as an Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) issue or a Lower Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada) issue, although each faces similar challenges, among them: water supply, environmental protection, water conservation, water transfers and climate change. With the 2007 adoption of coordinated operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the Colorado River Basin Study, which was released in December 2012, and a recent series of binational agreements between the U.S. and Mexico on the Colorado River, policymakers are beginning to address issues from a broader, basin-wide perspective.
“We need to be thinking about different interests in the river as opposed to geographic locations. You have municipalities, you have tribes, you have the environment, recreation, you have agriculture,” said Jim Lochhead, general manager of Denver Water, speaking at the Water Education Foundation’s September 2013 Colorado River Symposium in Santa Fe, N.M. “How do we balance demands in the system to accommodate those various interests in a way that equitably allows for additional development, economic opportunity in the Basin, and that equitably apportions shortages? I think that there are ways that we can do that within the existing frameworks that we have.”
The underlying framework for the Colorado River is the Law of the River, the collection of compacts, agreements, contracts, an international treaty, state and federal legislation, U.S. Supreme Court decisions and federal administrative actions that apportion and regulate the use and management of Colorado River water among the seven basin states and Mexico. The best known item is the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which divided the Colorado River Basin into upper and lower halves and apportioned the waters between the two basins. For years there has been debate, off and on, about whether the Compact should be re-opened to address current needs.
At the 2013 Symposium, on the question of reopening the Compact, former Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) Commissioner Bob Johnson said, “I think everybody understands that’s not a point of discussion anymore because those things will never change. Those are the cornerstones that the Law of the River is built on and we can talk about changing them, but it will never happen. But what does happen with the Law of the River is it evolves over time.” The question, he continued, given the continuing drought, is whether other institutional or legal changes are needed.
Drought has been the ongoing story in the Colorado River Basin since 2000. Despite a couple years of average and above-average precipitation and runoff, the statistics are sobering:
- 2000-2013 was the driest 14-year period in the 100-year historical record for the Colorado River Basin.
- Tree-ring reconstructions show more severe droughts have occurred over the past 1200 years (e.g., drought in the mid-1100s).
- Combined storage in Lakes Powell and Mead was 95 percent of capacity in 2000; it’s about 50 percent today.
- As of mid-2013, Lake Mead’s elevation was 1,105 feet above sea level; should the lake drop to 1,075 feet, a “first-ever” shortage condition as delineated by the 2007 Guidelines would be declared in the Lower Basin, reducing Arizona’s and Nevada’s annual allocation.
• The declining reservoir levels and inflow into Lake Powell in 2013 (July 2013 was only 13 percent of “normal”) required a reduction in deliveries from Lake Powell to the Lower Basin (and Lake Mead) in 2014, under the provisions of the 2007 Guidelines.
Reclamation officials say the chance of a shortage determination in the Lower Basin is low in the very short term – with a 0 percent chance in 2014. If drought conditions continue, there is a slightly higher chance (0 to 3 percent) in 2015; but, if conditions don’t improve, the chance increases to between 31 to 47 percent in 2016 and 51 to 57 percent in 2017-2018.
“What we’re seeing is that the chance of a shortage grows extremely rapidly over the next couple years,” said Carly Jerla, Reclamation’s co-study manager for the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study released in December 2012. “We go from virtually no chance or a negligible chance by the end of next year [water year 2014: Oct. 1, 2013 to Sept. 30, 2014] to the order of 50 percent moving into 2016 and it’s even higher if we do actually realize a 7.48 million acre-feet release again in the next  water year.”
The 2007 Record of Decision (ROD) for the “Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead” established shortage criteria whereby cutbacks in deliveries to Arizona and Southern Nevada are linked to certain elevations in Lake Mead. Arizona has known since the 1960s that its annual allocation would be reduced if the Secretary of the Department of the Interior (Interior) were to declare a shortage in the Lower Basin and the state established a groundwater storage bank in 1996, in part to bank water for future use in the event of a shortage.
“We’re the first ones to take the biggest shortage. I’m not complaining about it, I’m just saying that is our reality so we have to respond. We don’t have a choice but to respond,” said Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Sandy Fabritz-Whitney. “Arizona has had to think about that for a very long time. It’s not something new with the new release out of Lake Powell.”
The 2007 ROD also created a formula related to reservoir storage and release schedules for Lake Powell (formed by Glen Canyon Dam) and Lake Mead (formed by Hoover Dam). Under those guidelines, Powell released its normal 8.23 million acre-feet to Mead in 2013. But for the 2014 water year, water delivery from Lake Powell to Lake Mead will be cut about 9 percent to 7.48 million acre-feet.
While this reduction would not result in an immediate shortage declaration, it does emphasize the need for long-term planning, the goal of the Basin Study, which was jointly funded and prepared by Reclamation and the seven Colorado River Basin states. The study projects water supply and demand imbalances throughout the Basin and adjacent areas over the next 50 years. In comparing the median water supply projections to the median water demand projections in the Colorado River Basin, the median imbalance is projected to be about 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060. The Study does not recommend any specific actions to address this gap, but in mid-2013 federal officials announced the creation of several “next steps working groups” comprised of various interests in the Basin.
“The Basin Study program convenes the stakeholders in the Basin to come together around the projections of supplies and demands and development of options and strategies. That’s part of [Interior’s] convening role. It’s an important role and I think will continue to be an important role,” said Anne Castle, Interior’s assistant secretary for water and science. “Another role that Interior will play is providing tools and assessments and as happened in the Basin Study, establishing a common foundation of facts from which we then have those next step conversations.”
Stakeholders have identified water conservation as a major method to help close the supply-demand gap. Other ideas include more water banking and transfers. And water agencies in the Lower Basin already have begun conserving and storing Intentionally Created Surplus (ICS) water in Lake Mead, water that will help maintain its elevation and push back a potential shortage declaration. Similarly, a 2012 agreement between the U.S. and Mexico (Minute 319) includes, among other things, provisions for Mexico to leave some of its unused treaty apportionment in U.S. reservoirs – helping to maintain the elevation of Lake Mead and other reservoir systems.
All of these developments reflect the overall change in the Colorado River Basin in which the parties are more focused on trying to find win-win solutions to issues through a variety of venues that includes a much broader set of players than historically at the table, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which are often environmental groups.
“On the federally organized effort, the good news is that the table really has been set more inclusively than it has been in the past. We have representatives from tribes and conservation organizations and recreational river users included in the effort to define our path forward. And that’s new,” said Jennifer Pitt, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Colorado River Project. “Notably, because of this federally organized effort, we have two studies that we might not have seen in a past effort like this. Number one, a study with the tribes to look at how tribal water rights fit into the Basin and Basin water uses in the future. And number two, an effort to look for solutions to the critical problems that we anticipate in keeping the Basin’s rivers healthy and able to support the many businesses that depend on them.”
James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), agreed. “We have an opportunity to continue to evolve. The Law of the River is capable of and has shown itself willing to shift from traditional parochial positions to more system management solutions,” he said. “The states are all-in doing that and doing that as quickly as possible. You have water time, which is measured in decades, and the hydrology that we are facing. [That hydrology has] been described throughout the conference [and] is such that we have to be working in real time. And that’s a paradigm shift for the water community across the Basin and within Colorado.”
This issue of Western Water examines how the various stakeholders have begun working together to meet the planning challenges for the Colorado River Basin, including agreements with Mexico, increased use of conservation and water marketing, and the goal of accomplishing binational environmental restoration and water-sharing programs. Much of the content for this issue of Western Water came from the in-depth panel discussions at the Symposium, “An Era of New Partnerships on the Colorado River.” The Foundation will publish the full proceedings of the Symposium in 2014.
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The Plague of Drought
In rainy Ireland a couple of years ago, I saw a headline in a church bulletin that said, “Pray for rain – to stop.” I thought of that headline recently when I saw the headline in my local newspaper, “Roman Catholic bishops encourage prayers for rain.”
As I write this letter to you, the water situation in California and on the Colorado River in the West is dire. And I don’t think it is altogether inappropriate to beseech a higher power to bless us with life-giving rain. Of course, it will take more than relying on prayer to weather this situation. After all, as the saying goes, God helps those who help themselves.
Indeed much progress has been made in recent years by urban and agricultural water users to use water more efficiently. But with a situation that is now rivaling the historic 1976-77 drought in California, strong conservation measures will be needed – even if we get a March miracle rain.
And as the surface supply tightens, there will be more dependence on our groundwater supplies. Many people don’t realize that we depend on the water below ground for many of our cities and farms. At least one-third of all water used in California is groundwater. In drought years, and in years where the supply is regulated for environmental reasons, groundwater use drastically increases.
We are now facing severe groundwater overdraft, especially in the California’s Central Valley. Currently there are legislative and legal suggestions to monitor and better manage the groundwater supply, which are highlighted in this article by Writer Gary Pitzer.
Groundwater and surface water topics will be the focus of the Foundation’s annual Executive Briefing, March 27 in Sacramento. Also on the agenda is the discussion of a state water bond on the 2014 ballot.
California Gov. Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, also thinks about water in religious terms. He has referred to the Old Testament bible story of Joseph and the seven year cycle of feast and famine. He has urged Californians to think about this story and live within our water means. And in the bishops’ prayers, they asked all of us to seek the wisdom and charity to be good stewards of the precious gift of water. And they wisely added, “May our political leaders seek the common good as we learn to share God’s gift of water for the good of all.” To that, I would add Amen.