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.


  1. Dear John:

    I attended the MRG Water Advocacy Group today. It was all about planning for the future. I pointed out that planning has been going on for about 120 years. An exercise in futility. Well meaning people talking to themselves. NO ONE IS LISTENING. Let the courts figure it out. But then, they don’ want to figure it out. It is just too vexing a problem and as Adrian Oglesby pointed out the Judges themselves are not hydrologists and don’t understand the issues. E.C. Robinson once said in open court to me. I am not interested in the flow of the Gila River. It has nothing to do with water rights. Judge Wechsler believes irrigation of pasture is not a beneficial use and he refused to sanction Rick Allen of the OSE when he admitted he had not read 1,347 pages of tax records in support of an irrigator in preparing his Response to a Motion for Reconsideration of a poor Wechsler ruling. I am so mad at their behavior I am considering a Criminal Complaint against the whole Cabal for violating the plain meaning of NM Contst. Art XVI. DC, Peeals Court and SC judges. My solution is let the markets figure it out. Less controversial. I am sure those who own water rights will not want some politician impose restrictions on their property. And, how long have you been following these issues on the Colorado. Let them go thirsty and get out of they way as they get out out their guns. After all the prescient Twain said water is for fighting. Their is no doubting his prescience.

  2. John, are the talks from the conference this week going to be posted at all? Or at least yours would be terrific to see for those of us that couldn’t make it. Thanks.

  3. John:

    Well I apologize. I have always heard it attributed to Twain as well as “The solution to our water problems is more rain”. The “Whiskey is for drinkin and water’s for fightin” has been around for a very long time before you wrote your most excellent book. It would be nice to think that water management in not a zero-sum game but it isn’t. It is a zero sum game and euphemists bandy it about to pull the wool over they eyes of those they threaten with planning. It is a zero sum game simply because it is water finite resource. Yes, we may improve efficiency of use and conserve waste but in the mathematical limit it costs more and more money to improve the efficiency until we must apply the Heisenberg Principle. As the population grows from 7 billion to 10 billion we will reach it sooner rather than later until finally the Le Chatllier Principle is reached. No one can put Humpty Dumpty together again. In the limit ants, cockroaches, and coelecanths will rule to earth. However, planners need a job and there are those foolish enough to spend your tax dollars in support of them to spread enough false hope to keep the four horsemen of the apocalypse at bay and the hoi poloi pacified. But they are not at bay at all. Are they? Mass shootings about one a day during the past year. Man-made climate change. Polluted air. Unextinguishable fire storms. Water shortages. Heisenberg and Le Chatlier enunciated their principles more than 100 years ago and NO ONE IS LISTENING. Hoi Poloi is ancient Greek meaning The People. And, Churchill was right “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest. Put more than eight men in a room and you will never get a decision. Perhaps we should govern ourselves as Platoists; but, who do we choose as the benevolent dictator. Will we build soylent green factories as a solution to too much flatus. Where does it end. Not in my generation! Note. None of these are my conclusions. Wiser men than I have pondered this long long ago. NO ONE IS LISTENING.

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