Keys to Past Colorado River progress

As we watch the quivering uncertainty about the nature of the federal threat on the Colorado river, it is perhaps worth a look at past moments of progress in Colorado River governance, and also past roadblocks.

Anne Castle and I ran this stuff down for a paper we published last fall.

Some history shows a pattern – low river flows, combined with a federal threat.

2002-03 California Quantification Settlement Agreement

Low flows

The initial trigger came at the height of the 2002 drought, the worst inflow year in recorded history.

Federal threat

At a meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association in mid-December 2002, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton warned that California’s deliveries would be reduced unilaterally by the Interior unless QSA was executed by the end of the year. In fact, however, the Lower Basin states were not able to reach an agreement by the deadline, and surplus water that had previously been available to California water users was cut off. Deliveries to California water users were abruptly limited to 4.4 million acre feet (5.4 bcm) in 2003, a reduction of approximately 800,000 acre feet (1 bcm) from previous levels. Importantly for the future of water agreements in the basin, despite predictions of doom, California absorbed the reductions with only modest impact.

2007 Interim Guidelines

Low flows, federal threat

However, the drought persisted and again, in 2004, Interior officials warned that cutbacks in deliveries would be imposed unless the Basin States agreed to a drought management plan on their own. In 2005, the Secretary of the Interior directed Reclamation to develop additional Colorado River management strategies to address operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead under low reservoir conditions. After much discussion, haggling, and evaluation of alternatives, the Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead (Interim Guidelines) were adopted in 2007.

Drought Contingency Plan

Low flows

Continuation of low flows in the river system in the second decade of the 21st century resulted in the realization that the accommodations made in the 2007 Guidelines and agreements with Mexico were insufficient to balance supply with demand.

Federal threat

In 2013, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell urged the states to take immediate action and come up with a contingency plan to address the potential for lower flows caused by climate change [70]. Referencing her predecessors, she said that she would not ignore her responsibility “to act if conditions worsen and if the states can’t reach consensus on contingency actions

More low flows (and inaction)

However, by the end of 2018, while many component parts of the plan had consensus, there was still no final deal. The remaining hurdles were not disagreements about the basic components but rather the intrastate allocation of reduced supplies and desired commitments for environmental restoration efforts.
During 2018, Lake Powell dropped significantly, but the water levels in Lake Mead remained relatively stable water leaders in Arizona—the key holdout in approving the deal—saw fewer reasons for quick action
Another federal threat
The Commissioner of Reclamation Brenda Burman then warned that if the plans were not completed by 31 January 2019, the Department of the Interior would adopt a course of action prior to the following August.
There seems to have been a pattern.


  1. John

    When will everyone learn that what the feds giveth the feds taketh away either by executive order, statute, regulation, or condemnation in exchange for worthless dollars. Because water is a gift from mother nature there will come a day when there is just no water left to steal.


  2. Big Brother, is this the best source?
    Run of River may come back as an option. The natural way>
    Indications are for good snow year…Hope rings eternal?

  3. The BoR needs to start using the proper data set backing their 24-month study. Exclude the wet 90’s and include the last two dry years

  4. One inherent problem with the Federal leadership is the four year election cycle, a constraint that limits the federal system to work consistently between administrations. The Interim Guidelines we’re done in the two year window from 2005 to 2007, avoiding a change in leadership in 2008. I wonder if the intense schedule contributed to some of the flaws in the 2007 guidelines. I believe that deadlines are a positive driving force for implementing change, just maybe spending another six months on stress test type of hydrologic scenarios would have prepared the Basin for a more realistic water supply expectations.

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