Progress on the Drought Contingency Plan

Don't pop the champagne yet, there’s still more to do.

For two decades, I’ve been fixated on the fact that for most years in the last half-century, no water has flowed out of the Colorado River into its natural end at the Upper Gulf of California. Extended drought and climate change are taking a toll on an already over-allocated river, and after a few more very dry years we could be looking at reservoirs so empty they physically cannot release water.  That fact alone is enough to tell us that something’s out of balance, that demand for the Colorado’s water exceeds the supply.

That’s why I’m celebrating the announcement that state leaders have made it to the home stretch in adopting Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans. Under these plans, Arizona, Nevada, and California, as well as Mexico (by a previous agreement, Minute 323), would play by new rules, reducing water use to keep more in the reservoirs and reduce the risk of catastrophic shortages. 

The Drought Contingency Plans also include incentives for Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – the other states that share the Colorado River – to reduce water usage and save it in Lake Powell. Building consensus for these plans among water leaders has been no easy task, and I’m grateful for the many professionals who dedicated days and nights over many years to get to this point.

But I’m not quite ready to pop the champagne bottles. There’s more to do to keep urban and rural communities safe from unmanageable water shortages. And there’s more to do if we want to keep our rivers and other natural areas healthy for the hundreds of bird species that depend on them. I see four key places where these goals – protecting people and nature – are aligned. But if the dry weather continues, then time is short.

1. The Drought Contingency Plans are not done. They will not be fully adopted until all seven states approve them. In six of the seven states, we are assured that agreements are close, but in Arizona the agreement remains controversial. Moreover, in Arizona the legislature is needed for final approval (the only state requiring this step). Thankfully, Colorado River water management does not turn on conventional politics, so there’s a decent chance Arizona’s lawmakers will move quickly when they meet in January 2019. In the meantime, everyone in Arizona who cares about their state’s economy and environment should weigh in with their representatives. Audubon’s Western Rivers Action Network has long focused on the need for sustainable water management, and we will be loud and clear until Arizona gets the Drought Contingency Plans over the finish line. Once the Drought Contingency Plans are in place, the chances go up that Audubon can make progress on the reliability of water supplies for communities and birds in places like the Gila River, where smart effluent management can be a boon for Western Yellow-billed cuckoos and Southwestern Willow Flycatchers.

2. As difficult as it is to get the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans in place, surrounding challenges will still exist. Take California, where the Salton Sea, a large inland lake, is inextricably linked to Colorado River management. Birds have been telling us for quite some time that something is wrong at the Sea—bird populations have plummeted and as the drying lake-bed is exposed it contributes to poor air quality in the nearby low-income and primarily Latino community. The Drought Contingency Plans do not solve these problems, and in the most severe Colorado River shortages California’s water users may need to further reduce water uses. Meanwhile, California’s state government moves at a worryingly slow pace on its commitments to mitigate dust and habitat impacts at the Salton Sea. If the State can’t speed things up, California’s water users may have a hard time continuing their conservation programs if dry years persist.

3. The United States and Mexico need to continue collaboration to enable implementation in Mexico. Once the Drought Contingency Plans are in place, Mexico will receive less Colorado River water, thanks to Minute 323, a 2017 binational treaty agreement. The agreement also calls for the United States and Mexico to implement water conservation projects. The faster the two countries can get these projects on the ground the better – they can prevent more economic hardship in a poor, rural community dependent on irrigated agriculture. Moreover, the agreement relies on these projects to supply water for the environment where the river stopped flowing all those years ago in its delta. Audubon is part of a coalition that has restored more than 1000 acres of rare freshwater habitat in along the final miles of the Colorado River’s course, and the both the abundance and diversity of birds have shown marked improvements. Binational water conservation projects are needed to sustain this success.

4. For Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, the Drought Contingency Plans pave the way for creation of a water storage account in Lake Powell, the reservoir linked to Colorado River water management together with Lake Mead.  But a storage account is not going to help until the states define how it will work, including how to make sure water conserved upstream flows all the way down to the reservoir. System Conservation Pilots (water conservation projects funded with federal and local dollars) over the past few years have proven successful in saving water.  The four Upper Basin states have at times lamented the location of Lake Powell, their big reservoir, at the downstream end of their share of the Colorado River, but in the end it may be the salvation of their rivers and the $17 billion annual recreational economy that relies on them. The four states acknowledge there’s more work ahead, and they should to proceed with urgency to stem further decline at Lake Powell.

Finally, these efforts across the Colorado River Basin require funding. As water managers innovate to make the declining Colorado River water supply stretch to support nearly 40 million people, they will need funds to invest in water conservation at an unprecedented scale. Federal dollars allocated in recent years have helped but these dollars need to be matched or leveraged and federal funding for conservation efforts is never certain. Making the Colorado River sustainable needs a belt and suspenders approach.  Some places that use Colorado River water realize this – Phoenix created a water resiliency fund, and California recently passed Prop 68, a $4 billion statewide bond initiatives to pay for water and parks projects, and has another water bond on the ballot in November. We have only just begun to conserve Colorado River water, meaning there is vast potential to do more with less. We don’t often think about what we pay for water. Paying a little more will be critical to safeguard the economies of western communities both urban and rural, and protecting the western landscapes we love.

Having the Drought Contingency Plans in place means a more reliable water supply for the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River, and it also means that we can focus on programs that increase water supply for the Colorado River Delta, break more ground on projects to mitigate and restore the Salton Sea, and protect groundwater-dependent rivers and other important habitats that birds need.

The Colorado River is our lifeline in the arid West – it’s time to treat it like our lives and livelihoods depend on it.