Upper Colorado River Basin state leaders, in a letter Friday (April 13, 2018), said the water management approach being taken by the managers of the Central Arizona Project “threaten the water supply for nearly 40 million people in the United States and Mexico, and threaten the interstate relationships and good will that must be maintained if we are to find and implement collaborative solutions” to the Colorado River’s problems.
The letter accuses CAP of “disregard(ing) the basin’s dire situation”, providing more water for Arizona at the expense of the rest of the basin. In doing so, it highlights a rift within Arizona, where an internal political feud over this and related issues has pitted CAP against the state Department of Water Resources and many of CAP’s own customers. That rift, in turn, has stalled diplomacy over efforts to develop a broad new plan to cut back water use across the Colorado River basin.
The letter, using language that is striking in the normally staid interstate diplomacy of Colorado River interstate water management, takes issue with CAP’s practice of using more water than it might otherwise – avoiding “overconserving”, in CAP’s words – in order to ensure continue big releases from Lake Powell upstream. That has the effect of expanding water use in the Lower Colorado River Basin at the expense of draining Lake Powell, the critical reservoir for protecting Upper Colorado River Basin supplies. The managers of the Central Arizona Project are “disregard(ing) the (Colorado River) basin’s dire situation at the expense of Lake Powell and all the other basin states” by using more water than they need to, the letter said.
On Twitter last week, in response to something I wrote here, Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke defended CAP’s practice, calling it wise placement of water orders under the 2007 rules governing reservoir storage on the Colorado River. Those rules attempt to even out storage between Lake Mead – which supplies the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada, and California, plus Mexico – and Lake Powell, which maintains a storage bank for the Upper Basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico (I raise my hand to declare an Upper Basin bias here) and Utah. The rules have created an incentive for the Central Arizona Project, which manages a big fraction of Arizona’s supply of Colorado River to avoid “overconserving” – again, this is CAP’s word – at a time when everyone in the Colorado River Basin is trying to use less water. The Upper Basin states (the letter was signed by the top water officials from all four) say that “attempts to maximize demands to increase releases from Lake Powell could ultimately accelerate lower reservoir conditions in both the Upper and Lower Basins and cause shortages in Lake Mead.”
The issue of the Central Arizona Project’s approach to this issue has been simmering for more than a year. Water managers have long known the rules created this incentive for the CAP’s managers, but the agency’s increasingly brazen public discussions of it have become problematic. The public version of the debate goes back to a March 2, 2017 meeting of the board of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, the agency that runs the CAP. Tony Davis at the Arizona Daily Star nicely documented the debate in this story, quoting CAP water policy director Suzanne Ticknor explaining to her board the risk to Arizona of “overconserving”.
That word echoed through the Colorado River water community at a time when other states were struggling with how to conserve more water, not worrying that they might be conserving too much.
It also highlighted an increasingly divisive breakdown within Arizona on this issue. Kathryn Sorensen, director of Phoenix’s water department, was quoted in Tony’s story criticizing CAP’s approach. “The ‘risk’ of overconserving is a Colorado River that is less vulnerable to shortages and more resilient over the long run, a river that is more protective of our economy and our quality of life,” she told Davis. Others in Arizona have become increasingly critical of CAWCD/CAP approach. “CAWCD does not speak for Arizona,” Carol Ward-Morris of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Associated tweeted this week in response to my blog post about the allegation that CAP is “gaming” Colorado River water management rules.
The full letter, which has spreading quickly through Colorado River management circles this weekend, is here: