A Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Is in Place—Now What?

Audubon charts a course for conservation on the Colorado River.

The Colorado River has been in the news a lot lately. This “hardest working river” just got a lifeline with the recent adoption of a seven state agreement called the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). In the midst of a two-decade drought, the DCP creates new rules for water sharing in times of shortage. While this is an extremely positive step forward, the DCP safety net is not permanent and it foreshadows the hard work ahead as westerners work to live within our means—to live with less water.

Audubon’s mission and focus is on birds—not only because they bring us joy but they also are good indicators for the health of the larger western landscape—our communities, economies, recreation, and quality of life. Audubon prioritized the Colorado River Basin in our national conservation strategy because this basin encompasses thousands of miles of riparian (or riverside) habitat important to birds, and includes important ecosystems like the Colorado River Delta and the Salton Sea.   

Dams, diversions, and demand for water have devastated cottonwood-willow forests and other native riparian habitat which support 40 percent of the bird species in America’s Southwest. Our 2017 Water and Birds in the Arid West report revealed the interconnectedness of western waterways for birds. Birds like the Yellow Warbler and Summer Tanager, once familiar sights along the Colorado River, have experienced significant regional declines. The outlook for the Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Southwestern Willow Flycatcher—all listed as federally endangered—is especially bleak if current trends continue.

Audubon is unique as the only conservation NGO working with a birds-eye view of the whole Colorado River basin ecosystem. Audubon is working strategically throughout the basin and at the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake. The Western Water team consists of on-the-ground staff on the West Slope of Colorado, Ft. Collins and Boulder, Colorado; Phoenix, Arizona; Salt Lake City, Utah; Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico; and California in Sacramento, San Francisco, and the Coachella Valley where the Salton Sea is located. From restoration projects and coalition building, to bird-friendly business and beer collaborations, and building relationships with local, state and federal elected leaders, Audubon is working to protect water in the West. The Western Water team also works closely with Audubon’s policy and science experts to research and support our work across the Colorado River Basin.

Audubon has also prioritized conservation of the Salton Sea, which is fed by Colorado River water—it is an unsung hero that birds like the American Avocet and Eared Grebe depend on for survival. We’ve taken a hard look at our dual priorities of a sustainable Colorado River—through steps like the DCP—and a sustainable Salton Sea. And we don’t shy away from these tough conservation challenges.  

What is the DCP?

The DCP and Minute 323, the companion drought agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, are both agreements that represent a bridge strategy between the old ways of doing business on the Colorado River and the new ways that water users must adopt as the drought continues and the climate warms. The DCP is made up of a series of agreements amongst water districts, states, tribes, and the federal government that manage Colorado River water in both the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin. The DCP imposes new operating rules for reduced water use in times of shortage and authorizes storage of conserved water in the main reservoirs.

While these agreements are critical to ensure the framework for water conservation, work on the Colorado River and the Salton Sea is not done. Policy, funding and management actions are still needed in Congress, in the federal agencies that oversee our natural resources, and in every one of the seven Colorado River Basin states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Implementing the DCP is an urgent call to action.

The DCP and the Salton Sea

Birds tell us about the health of our surroundings— so we’ve known for quite a while that the Salton Sea was in trouble. As the sea shrinks impacts to people and wildlife grow, with air quality worsening and important bird habitat disappearing. Because Audubon is committed to working all across the Colorado River Basin, including investing significant resources in the protection of the Salton Sea, we have a unique lens on what the building blocks of success look like. In recent weeks, some have asked whether the DCP creates more harm than good—especially as it relates to the Salton Sea.

It is true that the DCP doesn’t fix the Sea. The DCP doesn’t direct the State of California or any of the water or wildlife agencies to take immediate actions needed at the Sea to address its decline. California has instituted the 10-year Salton Sea Management Program, which is intended to meet the state’s obligation to manage the Salton Sea. Unfortunately, despite more than 15 years of study and planning, the state has yet to complete a habitat project on exposed shoreline to address the crisis. Audubon spent years urging the prior administration to take action. We remain hopeful that Governor Newsom will make good on his promise to make progress at the Salton Sea.

Audubon will continue to urge the California agencies, water districts, local leaders, and federal partners to face this challenge. By working together creatively and constructively, we can overcome the obstacles that have slowed progress in implementing the Salton Sea Management Program and ensuring ample funding for projects that will make a difference for people and the environment at the Salton Sea. 

Priority Actions for DCP Implementation:

The DCP opens a window of opportunity to truly adapt water policy and water supply expectations to the reality of having less Colorado River water. With stability and commitments to water conservation across the basin through 2026, DCP is an incentive for stakeholder cooperation in multi-benefit projects and flexible water management.

Next step actions to implement DCP include:

Federal Policy:

Federal programs and funding are needed to implement conservation solutions, including the DCP, on the Colorado River and at the Salton Sea. Implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill and partnerships with federal agencies can ensure current and future funding goes to high priority projects on the ground. Federal appropriations for water conservation, drought relief, and restoration must be maintained or increased, including programs run by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, funding is needed to support the implementation of the Arizona drought contingency agreement, matching funds for Salton Sea mitigation projects, and to fulfill commitments under the Minute 323 agreement.

Mexico/Colorado River Delta:

Robust implementation of Minute 323 through binational collaboration with U.S. and Mexico federal partners and NGOs remains a high priority. The work must focus on restoring and sustaining the Colorado River Delta and wetlands while also investing in binational water conservation projects and exploring improvements to Colorado River salinity management at the border. Read more.


Decision-makers must focus on practical solutions that reduce water use. Arizona must holistically assess a sustainable water supply and ensure that DCP implementation does not weaken existing groundwater protections or harm important habitat.

Arizona’s in-state agreements adopted to comply with the DCP are a first step towards improving the resilience of Arizona’s water supply. However, some Arizona farmers who have pre-existing rights to pump groundwater will be subsidized to rehabilitate their wells. In the short term, this will allow those farmers to endure the loss of their Colorado River supply. Without a doubt, that groundwater is not a sustainable supply. Over time those farmers – with support from government – will need to reduce their dependence on groundwater to prevent the inevitable rising cost of pumping ever deeper, as well as land subsidence that accompanies groundwater depletion. Fortunately, policy changes in the 2018 Farm Bill and Watershed Act make funding more accessible for water conservation activities on working lands in the West. Read more.


State, local, and federal partners must focus on accelerated implementation of a well-managed Salton Sea Management Program with dust mitigation and habitat restoration project development, sufficient state staffing, and increased funding for a sustainable Salton Sea. Now. These partners need to resolve outstanding barriers to project implementation including securing necessary easements and exploring master permitting efforts. In addition, they need to complete restoration at Red Hill Bay and expedite the Species Habitat Conservation projects led by California’s Department of Water Resources. Ensuring that existing funding from California’s Proposition 1 and Proposition 68 are spent to advance sustainable solutions at the Sea and that the State identifies an additional $10 million per year needed for ongoing operations and maintenance is also high priority. And stakeholders should be brought into planning discussions early in the process. Read more.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming:

With the adoption of the DCP, the four states that share the Upper Colorado River Basin have an unprecedented opportunity to develop a Lake Powell water bank to build their resilience to extended droughts by increasing water conservation and storing saved water. Done right, this program can also protect and restore streamflow in the Upper Basin’s rivers for the benefit of hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife that depend on them. To achieve these results, we will need increased funding from federal and state governments as well as water users and private sources and an implementation plan that strengthens communities that depend on agriculture as their economic base. 

Within each of the four Upper Basin states, there are additional opportunities to build resilience for water users and protect and restore rivers. For example, for the recently-adopted Colorado Water Plan needs increased funding to implement key conservation elements including infrastructure to increase agricultural efficiency, municipal conservation and reuse, and projects to improve river health and river-based recreational opportunities. And in Utah, the state recently took steps to collaborate on flexible water management through water banking that could benefit both people and birds. Read more.

NGO Partners Are Vital to Success

From the headwaters of the Colorado River to the Salton Sea and the Delta, Audubon has worked over decades with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the seven Colorado River Basin states, tribes, and water providers and users throughout the basin to find solutions that work for both people and nature. We will continue to advocate for the policies and programs listed above. In addition, NGOs like Audubon will need to remain strong partners in DCP implementation and as a resource for solutions that set the stage for the future water-sharing agreements.

We look forward to working with all Colorado River water users, agencies, and NGO partners to continue the work needed to adapt to a shrinking water supply in the Colorado River Basin. We must approach water conservation in a manner that enables rural and urban communities to thrive and ensures the sustainability of important bird habitats.