How things stand now that the Arizona legislature has approved the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan

“Close is not done.” – Brenda Burman

New plan: a temporary tattoo that reads, “CLOSE IS NOT DONE.”

That was Commissioner of Reclamation Brenda Burman’s talking point during a press call this morning explaining what happens next now that we all turned into DCP-less pumpkins last night at midnight.

The Arizona legislature gave its last-minute approval late yesterday (hilariously, as I was in the middle of lecturing to UNM Water Resources Program students about DCP – went into the lecture  – no DCP vote – logged in to the Arizona Republic to check during a class break – DCP vote approved screaming headlines and excited #azwater tweetage). But with final signatures still needed from Arizona and the Imperial Irrigation District’s last-gasp effort to get the state of California to live up to its promises to protect the Salton Sea mean CLOSER IS STILL NOT DONER. Or something. My tattoo gets complicated. But it’s only gonna be a temporary one.

the background

DCP, the Drought Contingency Plan, is a voluntary effort by Nevada, California, Arizona, and sorta kinda Mexico to slow the decline of Lake Mead by reducing water use among the three U.S. states and two Mexican states as Lake Mead declines. Mead, the big reservoir that stores water for farms and cities in those five downstream states (NV, CA, AZ, Sonora, and Baja), currently is two feet lower than it was last year at this time, despite receiving surplus inflows over the past year. This is because USERS ARE TAKING TOO MUCH WATER OUT OF THE LAKE. A more empirical and value-free way of phrasing it might be USERS ARE TAKING MORE WATER OUT OF THE LAKE THAN FLOWS IN, but I’m comfortable the normative “too much” here.

DCP, at its heart, is pretty simple. It’s an agreement among the users to take less water out of the lake so it doesn’t get empty.

ah, but it is not actually that simple

Using less comes down to allocation rules, and there are two ways to set them. Down Path One, to borrow from Burman’s “fork in the path” metaphor from this morning’s press briefing, is that the users, represented by their respective state governments, agree on the terms of the deal. Path Two involves the the federal government stepping in and imposing some sort of new allocation schemed.

Path One is preferable (my normative judgment) because when everyone agrees on the steps to be taken, we have institutional stability in river management. Path Two depends on the authority granted to the Secretary of Interior under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 1963 resolving Arizona’s big lawsuit against California. What exactly is that authority? It is not entirely clear, because lawyers and participants from the various states and interests don’t agree on whether the federal government has the authority to intervene early to reduce the lake’s decline, or whether the it has to wait until it’s physically impossible to get the water through Hoover Dam because Lake Mead is functionally kinda empty.

“Not entirely clear” is a terrible way to manage a river. Down Path Two there be dragons.

Hence a widespread preference for Path One.

what happens now that we’re all DCP-less pumpkins

Interior today announced that, despite Arizona’s big step forward, we don’t have a DCP by the agency’s Jan. 31 deadline. So we’re preparing the steps that might be needed to start heading down Path Two. In particular, Burman and Interior are asking the governors of the seven U.S. basin states what they think Interior should down if it needs to head down Path Two. Importantly, Burman left Interior with an escape route to keep things on Path One. She asked for the states’ input by March 4, but said that if the final DCP signoffs are in hand by that time, she’ll rescind the request for comments and we can all think no more about Path Two.

so really we’re not all pumpkins after all

So really, the deadline is March. But close is not done, I’m still getting the temporary tattoo.

what’s the deal with the pumpkin thing?

See here.


  1. And, in AZ, what if Bowers keeps pushing the water banking bill?

    And, I warned you all, in comments on the previous post.

  2. “USERS ARE TAKING TOO MUCH WATER OUT OF THE LAKE… I’m comfortable the normative “too much” here.” Yes me too, because it’s extremely accurate and gets right to the point! This, too much taking, should have been dealt with years ago, and now the chickens are, unfortunately, coming home to roost. This was all very foreseeable, nothing was done, and, now that we’re in serious trouble, about the only action being taken is to rearrange some of the deck chairs.

    “DCP, at its heart, is pretty simple. It’s an agreement among the users to take less water out of the lake so it doesn’t get empty.” I’m not so sure this toothless agreement will ensure it doesn’t get empty! Image a company which has (somehow) been operating with an annual deficit of $1,200,000, and the CFO, to prevent going bankrupt, proposes the solution of immediately cutting back the current levels of spending by $200k. Those good at math are shouting that there will still be a $1,000,000 deficit. Yep, correct! However, the CFO then argues that the plan doesn’t just stop there, and proclaims, with a broad smile extending from ear to ear, that if things get really really bad (as if that that hasn’t already happened!), additional spending reductions will ensue. With a noticeable decrease in voice volume, it’s then explained that these supplementary cuts will top out at $600k (which, of course, still leaves $600k/yr of the original deficit). This person would, and should, be immediately fired, and told not to let the door hit his backside on the way out! Not so with the CRB. Instead the lower basin states are being pat on the back, and congratulated that they are taking action.

    I understand that the DCP cuts are not the only cuts involved, and that there are other “shortage declaration” cuts that will take place. However, with Powell below 3,575 ft. Mead will need to brace for 7.48 maf years so the deficit, on those years, will actually be much larger. Living at Mead, I experienced what happened to the reservoir five years ago during a 7.48 maf year. It was far from pretty! Should a series of them take place, and there is a good chance of it happening, it’ll require quite a bit more than the DCP, and shortage cuts, to make sure it “doesn’t get empty.”

  3. Let’s not assume that “stability in river management” includes wisdom. It can, but often doesn’t. For years now, “everyone” has agreed to chart the stable course of operating the lower basin with a very large annual deficit. This has led us down a treacherous path that might ultimately end with disaster of the utmost proportion. Stable, yes. Wise, no.

  4. It’s a zero sum game for AZ to fund Pinal Co.farmer’s conversion to groundwater pumping without legislation to protect the aquifer or a means to recharge it. The farmers get to “enjoy” a few more years of farming with the tax payers funding part of the ride. Even with a subsidy for pumping infrastructure, will the crops offset the inherent increased energy costs to pump the water? What will the lifespan of the aquifer be with all the increased withdrawals? I’d bet the financial institutions looked at lending for pumping infrastructure and it won’t cash flow; assuming 1) a twenty year payback period for the useful life span of the infrastructure, 2) values of the crops produced with the increased energy costs, 3) likelihood that the aquifer won’t support the increased withdrawals over the twenty year period. Hence the farmer’s demand that the State fund the pumping infrastructure. It’s also projected that there will be increased land subsidence from the aquifer’s withdrawals. The tax and rate payers will eventually be on the hook for repairing roads, power lines, canals, etc. Where will AZ come up with the millions to fund the pumping infrastructure, increase existing taxes, cut existing programs, or a new tax? Should AZ have also legislated that the aquifer be maintained in a sustainable manner?
    Apparently, AZ would have done well to fund an incandescent light bulb manufacturing plant. -Greg

  5. Charles –

    I’m puzzled about why you keep doing your math citing the US DCP-only rather than the cumulative reductions of DCP (including Mexico) plus BOR contributions plus the previously agreed-upon ’07 guidelines reductions.

    At elevation 1,030:

    ’07 guidelines: 487kaf
    DCP (including Mexico and BOR commitments): 801kaf

    If the US DCP 600kaf was all the plan called for, I’d agree with you. But it’s not. The whole package has to be the starting point for analyzing the risk given various inflow scenarios.

  6. Greg, sounds like ‘winger’ hypocrisy:

    “We favor cost benefit analysis … until we don’t.”

  7. @SocraticGadfly, thx. The point might be that CAP never really cash flowed. That’s why the farmers surrendered seniority to the cities to get it built. It worked for the farmers when they didn’t stand all the associated energy costs to lift the surface water in the canal system. Sustainability likely means that over half the acreage should be fallowed with cover crops and solar panels. What surface water remains should be devoted to groundwater recharge. Solar KWHs won’t offset the remaining pumping costs encountered. There’s no statue requiring cost benefit analysis to legislate, or tax. Pinal county farmers are in a race to the bottom in more ways than one. Greg

  8. John –

    My reasoning is because it just so happens that now the DCP will align with a shortage declaration. However, the DCP has been in the works for the past few years, and its original intention was to keep the lower basin away from a shortage declaration. In other words, it was designed to stand alone, and not necessarily be coupled with the shortage cuts. That didn’t work because 1) the lower basin draws too much water from Mead, and 2) there was no external pressure applied to the states to finalize it.

    However, the bigger problem, as I see it, is that the states weren’t discussing ideas about how to actually solve the core issues of over allocation, and the huge annual deficits. Instead, this was the best the states did; and has become the best many now expect of them (at least until 2026).

    We’ll see how this plays out as we move forward, but I’m very skeptical, and rather nervous. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m not at all interested in absorbing the local repercussions of Mead anywhere close to the 1,030 number you mentioned. I’m not saying it won’t happen, just that, years ago (when we all saw this unfolding), most of us would have liked to see a real plan enacted to keep Mead from dropping (or at least giving it a real shot) into shortage levels. Waiting till Mead hits 1030 ft to finally cover the deficit is, IMO, a big mistake. Let’s hope that this really is a starting point for some real analysis! However, you won’t find me holding my breath.

  9. Charles –

    Having been in the middle of these discussions for the last four years, I can assure you that your understanding of the purpose of DCP – “to keep the lower basin away from a shortage declaration” – is wrong. Its purpose, as repeatedly articulated by Deputy Secretary Mike Connor and others from the early stages of the discussions (as early as an interview with me in the spring of 2014, when I was working on my last book) was to keep Mead from approaching 1,020.

  10. What’s 10 feet of elevation among friends? It depends upon the starting point, Hence the volume, Ac/Ft, held behind the elevation. Simple raw numbers aren’t an indication of the precarity of situation.

  11. John –

    Thanks for the clarification about 1020. I should have said ‘delay as long as possible’, not ‘keep away from’. Regardless, I can assure you that most folks around Boulder City, and this part of Mead, have the same mistaken understanding. In light of these facts, I’m not certain if this is a good thing, or just makes the matter more pathetic. I mean, if 1020 is all they are trying to protect, then I’m even more certain they don’t “get it!” Does allowing Mead to drop to 1030 or 1020, but, hopefully not below, make sense to you?

    Also, I should have included USBR and Mexico’s BWSCP water into my tabulations (bringing the immediate value of 200k up to 341k). For some reason I incorrectly thought that was in the signed 2017 minute order regardless of whether DCP was approved by the LB states. As for the 100k from USBR, where does that come from? Is that from the desal plant in Yuma? I thought it was just water shifting, but it appears as though that water might end up in Mead? If so, and if they can somehow “create” water not from Powell, why haven’t they been doing it already?

  12. John –

    A very quick search through your prior (fantastic) posts on this site yielded this statement, made by you, on February 20, 2017 (link included below). “The discussions are around a new “Drought Contingency Plan” that would reduce water use in the basin, heading off the risk of 1,075”

    You go on to talk about 1025 ft being the real danger, and how fast Mead could fall from 1075 ft to 1025 ft (we are in complete agreement on this point!).

    Then you end the entry with “The thing is, the near term actions being taken in the Drought Contingency Plan to reduce the risk of a 1,075 shortage will also help establish a framework to manage much lower levels, by reducing water use by all the states of the Lower Basin.”

    It seems to me that you were saying the DCP will reduce the risk of a 1,075 shortage, and, *as a bonus*, help establish a framework to manage much lower levels.

    A search for 1020 (or 1,020) and DCP (or Drought Contingency Plan) didn’t provide any results other than very recent posts.

    Please don’t take what I have said being argumentative, that’s not my intent, and I accept what you said about 1020. I’m simply trying to point out how easy it is for a lay person to be confused about the intent of the lower basin DCP (and it doesn’t help that many of those writing the snippets, for the Las Vegas area newspapers, about area water and Mead’s water level, tend to be even more confused).

  13. Charles –

    Thanks for the helpful explanation of how I might have contributed to the confusion. I write a lot, and sometimes muddily, about this stuff.

    One of the things the DCP does, by reducing the amount of water taken from the lake at all elevations below 1,090, is reduce the risk at each elevation we talk about. So it does reduce the risk of 1,075, which is why we’ve hovered above 1,075 the last few years – because Arizona and Nevada have already been taking DCP-like cuts even though it hasn’t yet been approved. Absent those voluntary reductions, we would have already been in a 1,075 shortage for a coupe of years. It didn’t eliminate the inevitability of 1,075, but it put it off. This is one of the values of DCP – it reduces risk early by slowing Mead’s decline.

    As for your concerns about a series of 7.48 or 7.0 releases, it’s important to pay attention to the Compact and Mexican treaty allocation rules. In the long run, the law seems to require a 10-year moving average of 8.23 maf releases from Powell. That’s the risk we in the Upper Basin are trying to manage. If bad hydrology drives us there, we are concerned that we’ll need to reduce our use in some fashion to ensure we meet the 8.23maf requirement. The modeling done as part of the Upper Basin risk study led by the Colorado River District suggests the chances of that are low – not zero, but low – over the next ten to 20 years.

    The result is that, using the “stress test” hydrology that models the impact of climate change, we’ve reduced the risk of reaching elevation 1,000, the point of chaos, from about one in three between now and 2026 to about one in 25. That risk reduction is why I view DCP as a very important set of steps. That remaining risk is why I think it is only a first step, a bridge to more permanent solutions.

  14. John –

    Very true that Arizona and Nevada have done a great job with cuts, the hovering around 1075 was also due to the incredibly wet 2017 water year. Even CA didn’t use a good amount of their apportionment that year. The result was the lowest consumptive use in about 25 years.

    I get that the language of the compact is that of a 10 year moving average of 8.23 maf releases from Powell. Are you saying there can’t be a series of 7.0 to 7.48 maf years? Isn’t the average well above 8.23 at this point because of all the recent 9.0 maf releases? What am I not understanding here? What is “not zero, but low?” Is that the chance of a series of less than 8.23 maf releases from Powell? Or that there will be such bad hydrology that Powell might not be able to make an 8.23 maf average releases?

    1 in 25 is way better than 1 in 3, but my issue is more that we disagree about 1000 ft. being Mead’s “point of chaos.” I believe that, when making this determination, there are more factors to consider than just ‘can we still suck water out of the reservoir?’ Many of us who live here believe even 1050 will be a serious point of chaos.

    I hope you are correct that this will be only a first step and that there will be a bridge to more permanent solutions. Seems to me like if we just let the lower basin states do whatever they want, without any external pressure, they simply keep drawing massive amounts of water, and running up large deficits year after year.

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