Shortage on the Colorado River is Imminent, but a Catastrophic One is Not

Parties in Arizona must keep pushing to leave more water in Lake Mead.

The new Lake Mead forecast is out… and it isn’t pretty. The Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) now predicts a 57% likelihood that Lake Mead will drop below 1,075 feet in 2020. The risk has grown an additional 5% since the last update.

This means there is nearly a 3 in 5 chance there will be mandatory reductions in Colorado River water for farmers in Central Arizona, and less water for the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD), which uses “excess” water, when available, to offset groundwater pumping for specific housing developments. Stated a different way, this could affect Arizona’s economy.  Elsewhere in the Lower Colorado River Basin, specifically in Mexico, other water users will have less water to use as well. But because of deals and compromises that Arizona negotiated in the past, water users in California and Nevada won't feel the impact of the shortages to the same degree.

Imminent shortage looms as the Steering Committee charged with securing Arizona’s commitment to a new statewide deal to reduce Colorado River water use slogs on. Through all of these negotiations, we cannot forget that Arizona faces incredible risk.  Under current rules Arizona is exposed to bearing the brunt of Colorado River shortages, which could be catastrophic.  In the event of extended drought, central Arizona could lose its entire Colorado River water supply in the next 5 years.

The solution on the table, the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), would engage California and Nevada to share the pain of reducing water use along with Arizona, and would trigger an agreement already in place with Mexico to conserve even more.  (It’s important to remember that the U.S. – Mexico agreement adopted in 2017 that commits Mexico to more water conservation also commits the two countries to habitat restoration in the Colorado River Delta.) Moreover, under the DCP’s rules water users would conserve water more frequently, but in smaller volumes. The DCP is effectively an insurance policy that engages many to make relatively small cuts in water use so it’s less likely anyone (read: Arizona) is hit with catastrophic cuts.  

We understand these can sound like fighting words to water users asked to sign on to a new deal for something that may not appear, on the surface, to bring immediate relief from water shortages. Indeed, the DCP cannot create new water. But it does establish a broader base to share in reducing water use. And by starting water conservation requirements earlier than is currently required, it reduces the probability of Lake Mead sinking so low that no water can be released at all. If Arizona stakeholders can rally themselves to agreement, the DCP will buy the state some time and engage Mexico, California, and Nevada in their commitments to leave more water in Lake Mead. We need them.

It is up to Arizona’s Colorado River water stakeholders—tribes, cities, farmers, homebuilders, businesses, non-governmental organizations, and residents—to keep pushing each other towards consensus on the deals within Arizona that make using less Colorado River palatable (we didn’t say enjoyable) to water users.

That means:

  1. Reasonable mitigation for Central Arizona Project agriculture in return for their commitment to use less Colorado River water
  2. Permission for Arizona’s tribes to leave more water in Lake Mead on a voluntary basis
  3. Recognition of the limits of Colorado River water supplies to support future growth in Central Arizona
  4. Coordination among parties to sustainably manage Arizona’s Colorado River supplies  
  5. Maintaining Arizona’s legacy of groundwater management statewide, ensuring the reliability of regulations already in place

The problem is clear, and one significant step toward a solution, the DCP, is teed up for Arizona to embrace. People, birds, and Arizona’s sustainability depend on it.

Haley Paul contributed to this article.