Colorado River DCP: “Arizona will figure it out, Episode III”

Sitting around on a Saturday night listening to WBGO and clearing out my inbox after being away most of the week.

Here, from the solution space, a proposal from Arizona’s Colorado River Indian Tribes to help Arizona reduce its use of the river’s water. The CRIT have some of the bestest most senior Colorado River water rights in the state:

Optimism, amiright?

Colorado River DCP: “Arizona will figure it out, Episode II”

Interesting letter from the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board leadership regarding Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan. Not sure what this means, seems kind of important. I guess we all need to set aside some time on Nov. 15 to find out.


I try to be an optimist. I really try.

Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan: “Arizona will figure it out.”

At Colorado Mesa University’s Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum this week in Grand Junction, a distinguished panel of the Colorado River Basin brain trust cheerfully dodged an audience question about what the basin states’ Plan B is if Arizona can’t come to the internal agreement needed to sign on to a Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan.

“Arizona will figure it out,” said Chris Harris, Executive Director of the Colorado River Board of California.

That time Lake Mead was full.

With no one from Arizona on the panel to speak for themselves, it’s probably the best answer Harris could have given to an unfair question. Clearly the representatives of the federal government and the other six Colorado River Basin states can see what the rest of us can see regarding Arizona’s difficulties in coming to agreement on how to reduce water use to meet their obligations under the DCP. And they’re smart people, which means we have to believe they’ve thought about what a six-state, Arizona-less DCP might look like. But it would be unwise at this point to talk about it publicly.

Abigail Sullivan of Indiana University and colleagues published a fascinating new paper looking at Arizona’s DCP process that sheds some light on the current situation. It helps explain why a) Arizona’s current efforts to come to an agreement on a DCP have run aground, and b) why there’s reason to be optimistic that Harris’s answer to the question during the Grand Junction conference is ultimately probably the right one, and we won’t have to worry about how Plan B might work.

Sullivan and colleagues identify a window of opportunity that opened in 2016 “tied to declining Lake Mead elevations and perceived harm associated with inaction”. At the time, Arizona was staring at a formal shortage declaration that would have forced mandatory reductions in its supply of Colorado River water. And at the time, it appeared Arizona was on board with the complex shortage-sharing provisions in the DCP, which would importantly for the first time bring California voluntarily into the “we’re all gonna use less Lower Basin water” club.

And then the snows fell, and the window of opportunity closed:

After continuing to decline throughout 2015 and 2016, increased winter precipitation in 2016–2017, combined with ongoing conservation efforts, raised Lake Mead’s elevation to 1089 feet in March 2017. After the period of increased precipitation in early 2017, evidence of short-term thinking related to the DCP emerged. In 2017, there were numerous instances of stakeholders planning or making decisions based on weather, as opposed to climate.

The quotes from Central Arizona Project board meetings in the Sullivan et al. paper are telling:

“My thought is that we leave out one element in all of this and that is – right now we’re hopeful that the weather will solve our problems at least for a couple of years – we’re looking out two years at a time, three years at a time…” Agricultural district representative, January 2017

“This wet winter has fundamentally changed the landscape.” CAP board member, February 2017.

“Today the goals as we understand them, again because the reservoir is in a better position than it was in 2015, is to avoid shortage as long as possible, again mitigating the disparate effects of DCP, having a program that reflects the changes in hydrology.” CAP staff member, August (2017).

In short, when Arizona was staring down a shortage declaration, the state’s water community seemed ready and willing to act. When a wet winter reduced the pressure, factions within the state took up old grievances and defenses of narrow interests.

Beneficial hydrologic conditions lulled stakeholders into a sense of security and short-term thinking corresponded with a retreat from the urgency of completing the DCP. Given that climate change in the Colorado River basin is projected to increase the severity and frequency of droughts (Udall and Overpeck, 2017), it is inappropriate for positive hydrologic conditions for a few months or years to influence water management and drought planning.

That is not going to last.

There’s a powerpoint slide making the rounds based on the Bureau of Reclamation’s October modeling runs suggesting that with even a modestly bad winter this year, Lake Mead could end 2019 in elevation in the 1,060-1,070 range. That’s below the shortage threshold of 1,075. But more importantly, the accompanying low flows into Lake Powell in the Upper Basin would trigger lower releases from Lake Powell, which would push Lake Mead down even further. As a result, there’s a significant risk that Lake Mead could drop into the 1,040s by the end of 2020. Down that path there be a bunch of scary dragons. If you buy the Sullivan et al. argument (and I do), Arizona will soon enough be back in the “crisis/policy window opening” mode, and we’ll get a DCP.

And if we don’t, I am confident the smart people will have a six-state, Arizona-less Plan B. Either way, we’ll get there, just with more or less chaos in the process. As a smart friend pointed out, “Optimistic or pessimistic – isn’t the answer the same? We’ll use the water nature gives us.”

The paper, highly recommended, lots more insights beyond the narrow line of argument I quoted:

Sullivan, Abigail, Dave D. White, and Michael Hanemann. “Designing collaborative governance: Insights from the drought contingency planning process for the lower Colorado River basin.Environmental Science & Policy 91 (2019): 39-49.

The Colorado River and the Last Gasp of the “Lords of Yesterday”


longer: Writing a new “afterward” for the paperback edition of Water is For Fighting Over and Other Myths About Water in the West (DID I MENTION IT’S COMING OUT IN MARCH!!!!), I’ve been spending a bunch of time reflecting on the last couple of years. Writing a book bears a more than passing similarity to parenthood. You do your utmost to prepare your offspring. You send them out into the world carrying your best intentions, and then they life a life of their own, forever connected to you yet beyond your power to do much to influence their trajectory.

Boulder Harbor, Lake Mead, December 2016, © John Fleck

In the winter of 2015, as I was completing the manuscript of Water is For Fighting Over, I was optimistic about our ability to solve the Colorado River’s problems, and I said so, in a very public way.

In the rhetoric of the basin, with declining reservoirs and enduring water allocation struggles, optimism seemed odd. Every time there was news of a new water allocation struggle, I’d get the questions: “Still optimistic, Fleck?” “Turns out water is for fighting over after all” became my standard self-deprecating joke.

I tried to make a point in the book, which in retrospect I didn’t make clearly enough, that the collaboration/negotiation/compromise framework I advocate is not without conflict.

At the scale of the entire Colorado River Basin, in the messy complex of governance that manages decisions about who gets how much of the big river’s water, we have made tremendous progress. Governments have banded together to come up with a plan to reduce California’s overuse of the river, and they’ve developed a deal with Mexico to share surpluses and shortages, and even to spare some precious water to return flows to the Colorado’s parched channel through its old Mexican delta. This was rarely easy, but it resulted in deals that benefited a spectrum of water users and community values.

Underlying both of these models of success is a willingness to recognize water problems and collaborate in solving them, often across geographic, political, and organizational boundaries. Conflict is sometimes a part of these processes, but ultimately success comes by avoiding fights over water.

But these successes have not been enough, something that can be seen most clearly in Lake Mead itself, the first great reservoir that stores the Colorado River’s water for millions of people downstream. Despite the hope offered by the success stories described above, we have not done enough. Lake Mead continues to shrink. Water users continue to take more out of the Colorado River system than nature puts in, keeping us on an unsustainable path. (emphasis added)

Arizona’s current struggles to come up with a plan to reduce its Colorado River water use is a tremendous challenge to my optimism, the latest and most bitter subject of my “water’s for fighting over after all” jokes.

But if you look closely at the lingering obstacles standing in the way of progress in the Colorado River Basin, Arizona is only the most noticeable example of a common type of problem – the last gasp of an old way of thinking about this river system we all love.

My optimism comes from the fact that this old way of thinking is dying.

The great Charles Wilkinson, in his book Crossing the Next Meridian, called them “the lords of yesterday”, an outdated set of resource extraction ideas stubbornly resistant to our new realities. The “lords” are embedded in outdated laws that allocated more water than the river has, and in outdated expectations by communities around the basin that the water promised by those laws will someday trickle through their irrigation headgates or flow from their taps.

At the scale of the Colorado River Basin, we have largely abandoned the lords, in long and difficult revisions to the old “Law of the River” rules that, if we can actually figure out how to implement them, will bring the basin’s water use more closely into line with hydrologic reality.

But we continue to face a problem I talked about in Water is For Fighting Over – importantly, in the book’s chapter about Arizona:

Within the network of state and water-agency representatives working on Colorado River Basin problems, there is a clear recognition that eventually some sort of “grand bargain” will be needed that finds a way to reduce everyone’s water allocation. To keep the system from crashing, everyone will have to give something up. But each of the participants in that core network also understands the dilemma that follows: each must then go home and sell the deal in a domestic political environment that views the river’s paper water allocations as a God-given right.

Arizona’s belligerence in the summer of 2015 was a stark reminder of the way domestic in-state politics stands in the way of real solutions to the basin’s problems. Without a change in attitude, Arizona’s belief that “water’s for fightin’ over” could become, rather than a myth, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As the next piece of the “grand bargain”, the ill-named “Drought Contingency Plan”, inches toward completion, it is again Arizona that stands in the way. Farmers in Pinal County, staggeringly uneconomical absent massive subsidies to pump Colorado River water their way, are engaged in a bitter “lords of yesterday” fight to expand their subsidies and thwart Arizona’s best efforts to come to terms with a declining Colorado River water supply.

The remaining points of friction share the “lords of yesterday” thinking, what Eric Kuhn calls “keeping the dream alive” – a pipeline to St. George, the expansion of a dam in Wyoming, or the quiet belief that one more Colorado trans-basin diversion might yet be possible.

These represent genuine conflicts. But as I write a new “afterward” to Water is For Fighting Over, I remain optimistic. These are not fundamental challenges to the new use-less-water order we are trying to build. They are instead last gasps of an old way of thinking.

Arizona’s efforts to cope with reduced Colorado River supplies, moving in reverse

Last week’s cancellation of a key meeting in Arizona to work on the state’s plan to reduce its Colorado River water use was an “oh shit, what now?” moment. (Ian James’ story on the cancellation and the current state of the discussions here.)

In the wake of the cancellation, there’s now a new letter, this time from a coalition of central Arizona cities, laying down a marker as cities push back against efforts to move municipal water to agriculture as part of the water use reduction plan.

This is super weird. Everywhere else in the Colorado River Basin, especially in the big complexity of California, finding ways to compensate agricultural communities in return for a share of their water as supplies shrink has provided a difficult but effective path forward. That’s the path Arizona seemed to be on as well, beginning with the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act. That deal provided subsidies to farmers who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford expensive Colorado River water, in return for the farmers accepting lower-priority water that would have to be curtailed if and when supplies ran short.

Now that we’re actually facing that curtailment, some in Arizona are saying the farmers should be propped up, again, by moving water from municipalities to these same farmers.

The new letter, From the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, makes clear that propping up declining Central Arizona agriculture with a transfer of water the municipalities have worked hard and paid much to secure won’t cut it:

The letter follows a similar letter a week earlier from the Gila River Indian Community. Both suggest a level of discord in Arizona that doesn’t bode well for the challenges to come.


Whither the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan?

Writing something new, I’ve been looking back at some stuff I wrote a few years ago about the Colorado River.

The solution is, in a sense, straightforward. Everyone in the Colorado River Basin has to use less water. It’s possible to apply a simple arithmetic wave of the arm and say, for example, that we could bring the system into balance if everyone used 20 percent less water than they are consuming today. We know from experience, from Yuma to Las Vegas to Albuquerque, that such reductions are possible, that water-using communities are capable of surviving and even thriving with substantially less water than they use today. But no one will voluntarily take such a step without changes in the rules governing basin water use as a whole to ensure that everyone else shares the reductions as well—that any pain is truly shared. We need new rules. Absent that, we simply end up with a tragedy of the commons.

Where do those rules come from?

From the conclusion to Water is For Fighting Over, and Other Myths About Water in the West, by me, 2016, Island Press, out in paperback spring 2019

Turns out it’s hard to write new rules.

Urban Trees and Water Use in Arid Climates: Insights from an Integrated Bioeconomic-Health Model, Jones and Fleck, 2018

Managing outdoor water use while maintaining urban tree cover is a key challenge for water managers in arid climates. Urban trees generate flows of ecosystem services in arid areas, but also require significant amounts of irrigation. In this paper, a bioeconomic-health model of trees and water use is developed to investigate management of an urban forest canopy when irrigation is costly, water has economic value, and trees provide ecosystem services. The optimal tree irrigation decision is illustrated for Albuquerque, New Mexico, an arid Southwest US city. Using a range of monetary values for water, we find that the tree irrigation decision is sensitive to the value selected. Urban deforestation is optimal when the value of water is sufficiently high, or alternatively starts low, but grows to cross a specific threshold. If, however, the value of water is sufficiently low or if the value of tree cover rises over time, then deforestation is not optimal. The threshold value of water where the switch is made between zero and partial deforestation is well within previously identified ranges on actual water values. This model can be applied generally to study the tradeoffs between urban trees and water use in arid environments.

Jones, Benjamin A., and John Fleck. “Urban Trees and Water Use in Arid Climates: Insights from an Integrated Bioeconomic-Health Model.” Water Economics and Policy (2018): 1850022.

Gila River Indian Community balks at Arizona’s latest scheme for Colorado River cutback

A new letter from Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Lewis to Arizona’s two top Colorado River negotiators complains that the latest version of the state’s plan to reduce its use of Lake Mead water would make things worse, in way that actual gives some Central Arizona farmers more water than they would get under the current Colorado River operating rules.

As a result, GRIC negotiators have been instructed to reject the latest proposal.


The latest incarnation of the Arizona Plan, Lewis charges, violates “the rules of holes”.

This is another big setback to hopes to wrap up a Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan soon.

(View the full text of the letter here.)

Colorado’s east-west water divide poses risks for completion of a Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan

tl;dr: A feud over how to implement Colorado River conservation adds another hurdle to final completion of the Colorado River Drought Conservation Plan.

longer: While Colorado River Basin folks have been paying obsessive attention to Arizona’s struggle to come up with an internal agreement to cut back on its use of Colorado River, a second within-state argument, less noticed, has emerged into public in the state of Colorado that also poses risk for getting the Colorado River’s Drought Contingency Plan signed by the end of the year.

At issue is the path Colorado takes to reducing its use of water in the event of an Upper Colorado River Basin shortage. For years, the mantra has been “voluntary, temporary, and compensated.” If there is a shortage, the mantra suggests, some water users – most likely farmers, and the most likely farmers are on Colorado’s west slope – would be paid to temporarily curtail their uses.

confluence of the Colorado River, left, and the Roaring Fork, in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Note coal train for scale.

The water would go into a new storage pool being created by the DCP, water set aside to meet the Upper Basin’s delivery obligations under the Colorado River Compact, a sort of watery savings account. It would be used, in times of bad hydrology, to make sure the Upper Basin can meet its Lee Ferry delivery obligation under the Colorado River Compact. The question of how to fill the account ahead of time, before the risk becomes too great, has been difficult. “Voluntary, temporary, and compensated” has been a guiding principle. No farmer could be forced to contribute.

But in the last month, an alternative idea that had been discussed behind the scenes has been creeping into public view – the question of whether “voluntary, temporary, and compensated” would be enough. It first appeared in a memo last month from the staff of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s primary water policy agency. One of the key questions, the memo noted, was “whether the program would be limited to temporary, voluntary, and compensated conservation activities or be expanded to include something more”.

In a report last week to the Colorado River Water Conservation District Board*, river district director Andy Mueller was blunt in describing the ensuing discussions at the CWCB meeting during which the issue was discussed:

The Front Range representatives affirmed their position … that a voluntary program was a fine goal but that they believed the state needed to roll out a program which includes rules and requirements for mandatory anticipatory curtailment. The presentation from the string of Front Range entities confirmed the River District Staff’s concerns that major water users in the state would like the Upper Basin Demand Management pool established quickly with the intent that it be filled with water from a program highly or exclusively dependent upon water contributed via uncompensated, anticipatory, mandatory curtailment of water rights in the Colorado River Basin.

This is a manifestation of Colorado’s historic east-west water divide, a source of political tension that goes back nearly a century. Growing cities in the urbanizing east covet water. The rural west has water. This tension makes solving the problem of how to fill the compact compliance pool contemplated by the DCP tough. And you should add it to your list of outstanding problems that could derail the seven state interstate agreement.

Here’s the dilemma. In addition to a package of interstate agreements, DCP seems to require federal legislation. And if you look at the documents released Oct. 10, you’ll see that one key piece of the puzzle is that the Upper Basin is insisting as part of the package on legislative authorization to create the drought storage savings account. This gives Mueller and the River District (the central governance entity looking out for West Slope water interests) the leverage to demand that “voluntary, temporary, and compensated” be built into the idea of drought storage from the beginning. From Mueller’s memo to his board (“UCRC” here is the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents the four Upper Basin states; “FRWC” is the Front Range Water Council, representing east side, largely but not entirely municipal water agencies):

We believe that if a Demand Management pool is created through federal legislation and action by the UCRC (starting with the execution of the currently contemplated DCP documents), that there will be a significant push by the members of the FRWC to move immediately to an anticipatory, non-compensated curtailment model of contribution to the pool. We respectfully, but strongly disagree with the concept that the push for federal legislation and the execution of the Upper Basin DCP documents are not inherently tied to the establishment of a demand management program within the state of Colorado. If the pool is established without a commitment to principles designed to protect Western Colorado agriculture and initially limited to the publicly vetted concept of a voluntary compensated program, Western Slope agriculture is at risk of quickly becoming the sacrifice zone.(emphasis added)

Brent Gardner Smith has been doing a nice job of covering this for Aspen Journalism:

“This just shows how important it is to get the demand-management program right, and that we don’t rush into a demand-management pool in Lake Powell before we’ve had this discussion and before we’ve agreed to a policy and principles to guide us,” said Tom Alvey, the current president of the district’s board, who represents Delta County. “From all the perspective of water users on the Western Slope, there is huge concern about this.”

And therein lies the dilemma for the seven-state DCP. It is generally accepted that federal legislation only happens if all seven states (and therefore their 14 U.S. senators) agree. If they do, we could see something after the election, in the lame duck session of Congress. But Alvey and his River District colleagues may have blocking power. If Colorado’s water users aren’t on the same page on this, there is a risk that Colorado’s senators may not go along with a DCP bill.

The CWCB’s Brent Newman tried to reassure the River District Board at last week’s meeting. Per Brent Gardner Smith’s story:

Newman … emphatically told the river district’s directors Tuesday that the state is not working on a mandatory curtailment program to avoid a call on the river system under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

“Not myself, not the CWCB staff, not our board, not the Attorney General’s Office, not the division of water resources, not the state engineer, none of us at the state are assessing or recommending any kind of mandatory anticipatory curtailment scenario,” Newman said. “That is not in our books. Yes, we’ve had some water users say that if voluntary, temporary and compensated isn’t sufficient, you may have to look at this. We are not doing that.”

So I guess add Colorado’s name below Arizona’s on your list of “places where stuff needs to be worked out before the DCP can happen.”

* Disclosure: I have worked in the past as a consultant to the River District on a study of the risks of drought and climate change to Colorado River supplies, specifically intended to answer questions about how much water might be needed to fill the kind of savings account described above. I am also currently collaborating on a book with former River District General Manager Eric Kuhn.


The draining of New Mexico’s reservoirs continues

Heron Reservoir, the first stop for central New Mexico’s imported Colorado River Basin water, dropped Oct. 10 to its lowest level since filling after it was first built in the 1970s:

draining Heron Reservoir

As I noted last month, total storage on New Mexico’s part of the Rio Grande system is at historic lows. I updated the numbers this morning, that hasn’t changed.

Here’s the obligatory picture of the Rio Grande through Albuquerque from yesterday’s bike ride. Looks pretty much like every other picture I’ve taken there this morning, though you can tell I’m not cheating by the bits of yellow beginning to decorate the cottonwoods.

Low flows on the Rio Grande, Albuquerque, October 2018