This Central Arizona Project infographic has been a bit of a “WTF” moment in the Colorado River Basin management community:
Kudos to whoever designed this. I’ve struggled to find ways to explain this. First posted to the Internet, then apparently taken down, it’s a solid explanation of the tricky way the Central Arizona Project has been managing its use of Lake Mead water – call for and use enough water early in the year to drop Lake Mead far enough to trigger a big release from Lake Powell, then crank back the orders later in the year to put the brakes on and keep Lake Mead from dropping so far that it’ll slip below elevation 1,075 and trigger a shortage declaration.
That this would happen should be no surprise. It would be weird for Arizona to not try to use the rules, negotiated by all, to best advantage. What’s awkward right now is the brazenly public way CAP has been talking about this, managing Mead’s “sweet spot” by not over-conserving water. You can see displeasure with this even in Arizona in today’s blog post by Warren Tenney of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association.
In fact, folks in the Upper Basin have long been aware of the risk and reality that Lower Basin water users, especially CAP, might manage their reservoir this way. The problem with CAP being so blatant about it is the optics. This heightens basin-to-basin tensions that don’t need to be heightened right now. Folks in the Upper Basin are working hard to come up with water management tools to reduce water use, and/or to fight off efforts to increase water use. In doing so, we run into a consistent argument: “Why should I cut back my use, or my aspirations, to prop up levels in Lake Powell just to benefit the Lower Basin?” The answer to that has to be that each basin benefits when the other cuts its use. But CAP’s very public “we don’t want to overconserve, lest we lose access to the big 9 million acre foot releases from Lake Powell” makes it a lot harder to persuade Upper Basin users to cut back as part of a “we’re all in this together” argument.
I don’t understand the politics here. CAP’s very public “sweet spot” discussion suggests CAP’s desire to win a political fight within Arizona outweighs any broader interest of Arizona as a state in being a cooperative participant in basin-wide diplomacy. Or maybe I do understand the politics. In my book, I opened the chapter about Arizona thus:
In the struggle to share the Colorado River, Arizona has always been its own worst enemy.