What happened in Vegas? When it comes to water, this doesn’t stay in Vegas

Feds don’t want to gamble on risky water future—and give new urgency to complete the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan.

Coming off the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas, southwest states have been issued a new deadline to complete the Drought Contingency Plan; otherwise, the federal government will step in.

Remember, this Drought Contingency Plan is a suite of agreements detailing proactive actions designed to reduce water use to stave off precipitous declines in water levels in the reservoirs on the Colorado River.

The Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), Brenda Burman, said that Arizona and the other lower basin states have until January 31, 2019 to approve their respective commitments to the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). After that, the Feds say they will act by opening up a notice in the Federal Register, where they will solicit comments from the seven Colorado River Basin states on what federal actions can best reduce the “unacceptably high” risk to Lakes Mead and Powell and the Colorado River. The comment period will be open for 30 days. After that, USBR will determine how it will protect the system ahead of their August 24-month study (where USBR determines what the following year’s water operations will be—namely what level of shortage Lake Mead is likely to be in, and the cuts each state will receive).

While Arizona and California may be close to the completion of DCP, Burman commented “close isn’t done” and “only done will protect this Basin.” She elaborated with sobering statistics on the bad hydrology, and the need for action in the form of DCP completion. This push for action by our federal government is a big deal.

As the Arizona Legislature opens up its 2019 session on January 14, there is much work to accomplish in a short amount of time. The Arizona Legislature must authorize the Arizona Department of Water Resource’s participation in the DCP.

Jennifer Pitt, National Audubon Society’s Colorado River Program Director, recently stated, “The Drought Contingency Plan is the key to avoiding really catastrophic problems for people and wildlife and birds in the Colorado River Basin.”

Audubon supports the passage of the DCP because it builds on a collaborative framework decided by the affected water stakeholders and it gives us a chance to adapt to these long-term changes in our water supply. If the collaborative approach fails, decisions on how to manage Colorado River water could become more disruptive, potentially decided through the courts or by federal officials.  The DCP is key to avoid more catastrophic shortages in Lake Mead if the hydrology continues on its current trajectory.

The current way that Arizona envisions engaging in the DCP is through what Arizona stakeholders are calling the Implementation Plan. In general, the Implementation Plan allows for certain water users to be mitigated for the losses they would experience under DCP’s water cuts by temporarily providing them with water that has been stored in Lake Mead. This mitigation, delivering actual water to lower priority water users, is what Central Arizona water stakeholders have asked for in return for accepting the DCP. Should the states not meet the January 31 deadline, as water master in the Lower Colorado River Basin, the Feds could mandate shortage volumes without this kind of "soft landing" deal for water users.

Lake Mead is at its lowest point since the Hoover Dam was built, meaning there is less water to go around. To reduce water withdrawals from the Lake, as part of Arizona’s Implementation Plan, water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin would be financially compensated to reduce their water use. The water they don’t use will remain in Lake Mead, ensuring we contribute more water to the Lake than we take out. That reduces the chances the Lake declines beyond the point it can deliver water. Given the state of our hydrology, this is currently the best bet to avoid the risk of catastrophic water shortages that impact people and birds across the entire river basin.

Stay tuned as the deal comes together and start of the Arizona Legislative session nears.