California’s water policy failings on display, but is there a lesson of success here as well?

tl;dr While Northern California flounders, Southern California’s drought planning kicks in as Met taps into its Lake Mead water savings bank

California Poppies

California Poppies

Brett Walton, writing about President Obama’s visit to California’s drought-stricken Central Valley, captured that state’s water policy dilemma:

“It can’t just be a matter of there’s going to be less and less water so I’m going to grab more and more of a shrinking share of water,” Obama continued. “Instead what we have to do is all come together and figure out how we all are going to make sure that agricultural needs, urban needs, industrial needs, environmental and conservation concerns are all addressed.”

That is a tall order, requiring a radical reinvention both of California’s water supply hardware and its operation – changes that politicians, environmentalists, and farmers have fought over for decades. Indeed, the drought has catalyzed a consensus that something should be done, but there is little agreement about the details.

Yes, but… To the south, the fruits of some years of wrestling over these issues has left a more orderly process for dealing with the current mess.

The Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, approved in 2007, allowed Lower Colorado River Basin users to take a variety of steps to conserve or otherwise increase water supply, banking the resulting savings in Lake Mead for use when needed:

The primary purposes of ICS are to: (a) encourage the efficient use and management of Colorado River water; and to increase the water supply in Colorado River System reservoirs, through the creation, delivery and use of ICS; (b) help minimize or avoid shortages to water users in the Lower Basin; (c) benefit storage of water in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead; (d) increase the surface elevations of both Lake Powell and Lake Mead to higher levels than would have otherwise occurred; and (f) assure any Contractor that invests in conservation or augmentation to create ICS that no other Contractor will claim the ICS created by the Contractor pursuant to an approved plan by the Secretary.

We don’t have the final 2013 accounting yet, but at the end of 2012 the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California had banked 579,786 acre feet of water in Lake Mead. Overall, the Lower Basin water contractors as a whole had banked 1.2 million acre feet in Mead (p. 44 here, pdf).

This year, with California State Water Project deliveries reduced to a trickle (is “zero” a “trickle”?), MWD has said it plans on tapping into some of its ICS water in Lake Mead, to the tune of about 200,000 acre feet (though a final decision has not been made). The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation granted MWD approval to store more ICS water in Mead this year, but according to a staff report to MWD’s board last week (pdf) that appears unlikely:

Due to dry conditions in California, however, it is unlikely Metropolitan will store water in Lake Mead this year, and has initially planned to withdraw water from its storage account in Lake Mead.

I’ve argued that a century of fighting over the Colorado River has created a robust framework for water management decisions on the Lower Colorado that makes it much less difficult to handle trouble in times like this.