It’s getting warm out here. Anyone who lives in the broad swath of the American West between Denver and San Diego—where Colorado River water comes out of the tap—has surely noticed the weather in recent years. Record highs have been recorded throughout the region, and too often, reports of catastrophic wildfire echo through the summer and into the fall. Even with above average snowfall in the Rockies this year, one wet winter will not offset the warming trend or change the fact that the West is becoming increasingly arid.
These warming temperatures are also depleting the Colorado River’s flow and draining Lakes Powell and Mead, the massive reservoirs built to turn the river into a reliable water supply. The reservoirs are now more than half-empty, with water levels hovering around 40 percent of total capacity. The Colorado River’s federal managers have projected that if dry conditions continue, they could be unable to deliver any water at all to downstream users (including Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Diego) within five years.
That’s the doomsday scenario that has led the Colorado River’s water managers and users to the cusp of adopting the Drought Contingency Plan, a temporary yet broad agreement to reduce water use and ensure that the reservoirs continue to provide a reliable water supply. The Plan is meant to last through 2026, when the federal government will issue new operating guidelines for the Colorado River.
Notably, the Drought Contingency Plan is the product of collaboration between the parties that would adopt it. In working together, the seven Colorado River Basin states (and Mexico, which is brought into this collaboration once adoption of the Plan triggers provisions in a 2017 treaty agreement) collectively agree to use less water. In the context of Western Water law, legendary for requiring some users to cut off all water use while allowing others to continue unabated, the attitude that “we’re all in it together” is remarkable. This kind of collaboration was only possible because the prospect of facing the next decade without a plan that prevents extreme shortages was untenable. Imagine the lawsuits that would follow if Phoenix and Las Vegas were allowed to lose their entire Colorado River water supply.
In recent weeks, some have asked whether the Drought Contingency Plan creates more harm than good, pointing to new agreements within Arizona that will enable farmers to endure the loss of their Colorado River supply by returning to pumping groundwater. Without a doubt, that groundwater is not a sustainable supply. Over time those farmers – with support from government – will need to adopt measures to prevent the inexorable 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.
In the meantime, protecting the people and wildlife that depend on Colorado River flows is urgent. This region cannot afford disruptions to both rural and urban economies that would result from catastrophic water shortages. The future of several bird species, including some protected by the Endangered Species Act— Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Yuma Ridgway’s Rail—is tied to the health of rivers of the Colorado River basin. The Drought Contingency Plan does not solve every water problem, and may even create some new ones. But the region faces enormous risks without it and we hope to see this Plan cross the final finish line soon.