Janet Wilson had a helpful story yesterday in the Desert Sun about California’s negotiations over its piece of the looming Colorado River cutbacks. Its bottom line is that California – the state with the largest Colorado River allocation – is talking about kicking in 500,000 acre feet of water. Or maybe it’s really just 400,000 acre feet of water – as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Bill Hasencamp told her, paraphrased, the negotiations are fluid and numbers could change.
A reminder of what Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told senators just seven weeks ago:
In the Colorado River Basin more conservation and demand management are needed in addition to the actions already underway. Between 2 and 4 million acre feet of additional conservation is needed just to protect critical elevations in 2023. (emphasis added)
4 million acre feet is obviously out of reach. It always was.
But if Wilson’s numbers about California’s contributions are right – and she’s a good reporter, we have every reason to believe they’re in the ballpark – 2 million acre feet of additional conservation is beyond the grasp of a voluntary deal as well.
The arithmetic is straightforward.
The Upper Basin has said “not our problem“.
Nevada’s share of the river is so tiny that its contribution is couch cushion change, a rounding error.
That leaves, in round numbers, 1.5 million acre feet of water to come out of Arizona just to get to Touton’s bottom line number for additional conservation. That would require completely drying up the Central Arizona Project canal. (CAP is taking 1.031maf this year, and averaged ~1.4maf over the previous fives years). I’m frequently surprised by Arizona, but it seems unlikely that they’ll agree to a voluntary deal that dries up the CAP canal. If that’s where we end up, Arizona’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement will be to just make the feds do it, make them take the heat. (Worth noting that FiveThirtyEight has Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly slightly favored to hold his seat. Water politics is high stakes politics.)
Combine that with the reality that Arizona’s Native American communities, major water rights holders, have complained that they’ve been cut out of this entire process, according to a July 22 letter just surfaced.
I can imagine creative accounting that might allow everyone to grin through their teeth and count water moved down to Lake Powell from Flaming Gorge and other Upper Basin reservoirs as part of the 2 million. That’s pretty clearly not what Touton called for in June. It’s not “additional conservation”. But it might create some space for a face-saving deal.
Whether that would be enough to protect us from dead pool is another question.
A reminder of the stakes
The Bureau of Reclamation’s most recent “minimum probable” model runs show Lake Powell dropping below power pool – unable to generate electricity, and forced to move water through bypass tubes that Reclamation has made clear it does not trust – by October 2023.
Under that same scenario, Lake Mead drops to elevation 992 feet above sea level over the next 24 months.
(Trust me, having to type a Lake Mead elevation level without having to use a comma made me clench.)
At that point, a lack of water will make massive cuts a self-executing reality. We’ve drained our buffer. You can’t use water that doesn’t exist.