The path to Colorado River collaboration is narrow, but we remain on it

Amid the Sturm und Drang of Arizona’s struggle to find a path to reduce its Colorado River water use in the face of a federal ultimatum, I lost sight of an important point.

With last week’s legislative approval, Arizona has now agreed to a plan that could eventually reduce the Central Arizona Project’s flow of Colorado River water into the valleys of Tucson and Phoenix by nearly half from current levels. Voluntarily. Without litigation. Without even reaching the first mandatory shortage declaration.

A clam, stranded by Lake Mead’s decline.

There’s still important stuff remaining, most notably some sort of a Salton Sea fix to ensure that the communities around the lake are less burdened by the externalities associated with water use reductions there. So yes, close isn’t done, and Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman is right to keep the pressure on, but there’s stuff in the current version of close that we shouldn’t lose sight of.

A reporter asked me last week, before the Arizona vote, whether I still believed the optimistic message of my 2016 book Water is For Fighting Over: and Other Myths About Water in the West – that we were on a path of collaboration rather than litigation, of sharing rather than fighting over water.

The problems we face in the Colorado River Basin remain huge, both hydrologic and institutional. I’m in the midst of a project with a colleague looking at the impact of a shrinking Salton Sea, and I remain very concerned about that, and sympathetic to the needs of the communities of Imperial County as we put the last pieces of the DCP in place. They’ve already made a significant contribution to addressing Colorado River Basin problems, cutting their use of irrigation water by half a million acre feet per year. This is something they’ve already done, and they deserve our support in making sure they don’t bear the brunt of the resulting problems as the Salton Sea shrinks.

But if you buy the near-term goal over the next five to ten years of dealing with a 1.2 million acre foot per year “structural deficit” in the Lower Colorado River Basin, to keep Mead from plunging toward elevation 1,020 without a plan (“protecting 1,020,” as Estevan López explained DCP’s goal at the 2016 Colorado River Water Users Association meeting) we appear to be on the brink of a set of agreements to voluntarily reduce use by more than 1.2 million acre feet per year as Lake Mead drops to critical levels. No litigation.

Is 1.2 million acre feet the right goal? One of the points Eric Kuhn made as we were finishing up our new book (Science be Dammed, U of AZ Press, fall 2019!) is that we don’t really know where the bottom is for the Colorado River, hydrologically speaking. We need to be realistic about what the science of climate change is telling us in that regard, and we need evolving water management institutions to help us manage the downside risk.

But a set of agreements – did I mention without litigation? – did I mention voluntarily? – to reduce Lower Basin water use by 1.5 million acre feet per year as Mead approaches critical levels is a pretty big fucking deal.

Collaborating around this stuff is hard, but it remains the preferred path. Which is why, narrow as it is right now, we seem to still be on it. As I wrote in my last book (out in paperback, March 19): “When people have less water, they use less water.”

4 Comments

  1. Well … semi-voluntarily. Who knows what would have happened by last Thursday without BuRec’s announcement several months past.

    And, didn’t somebody say just on Friday: “Closer is not doner”?

    That person mentioned something about allocation rules. All these issues currently only cover the lower basin and say nothing about whether the larger original compact remains a good idea or not.

  2. No, IMO, 1.2 maf isn’t the right goal. It’s a starting point as the original allocation amounts have been proven to be in error. However, if (here/now) we only discuss the 1.2 maf structural deficit, it assumes an 8.23 maf annual delivery from the Glen Canyon. By the time we get to a 1.2 maf reduction, Mead will have dropped to 1,035 feet, and by then Glen Canyon’s annual delivery will probably be between 7.0 maf and 7.48 maf. This would mean the deficit would have grown by, at least, 750 kaf.

    Furthermore, it’s my belief that the 1020 number, as the extreme danger target, is utterly ridiculous! If the reservoir is allowed to drop that low we’ll all be in real trouble. Talk about a BFD, we’ll really have one on our hands then. And, I can assure you it won’t be a celebrated event.

    SG –
    On the mark about DOI’s pressure. Also, a direct hit with questioning the original compact allocation amounts (that the DCP does nothing to address). Sure this is better than nothing (okay, much better), but, I believe, there’s still an awful long way to go. If there isn’t continued pressure, and, if the target remains at 1020, things can get real bad real quick.

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