Failure is Not an Option: CRWUA Keynote Panel Discusses the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan and Minute 32x

In December, the Colorado River Water Users Association (“CRWUA”) held its 2016 annual conference, Forge the Future: Collaborate, Innovate and Communicate, at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. The keynote panel began with the premise that we are entering a year of transition. Among the transitions mentioned was the change in presidential administration—which brings uncertainty over what will happen with work in progress, and as a result, there was a call to move things as far along as possible before Inauguration Day. But foremost to those who manage Colorado River water supplies are anticipated changes in the principles that guide management of those supplies, which would come in the form of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (“DCP”) and Minute 32x.

The DCP builds on the successes of two pilot programs implemented over the last few years to address declining water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the Pilot System Conservation Agreement (“PSCA”) and the Lower Basin Pilot Drought Response Actions Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”). Under the PSCA, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (“Reclamation”), Central Arizona Project (“CAP”), Southern Nevada Water Authority (“SNWA”), Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (“MWD”) and Denver Water allocated funding for voluntary water conservation projects that increase system storage—meaning they increased water levels without accounting the water to the benefit or use of any one water user. The PSCA was divided into two phases, with Phase 1 providing $11 million and Phase 2 providing $7.5 million. PSCA-funded projects have conserved about 75,000 AF and preserved about one foot of elevation in Lake Mead. The MOU brought Reclamation, CAP, MWD and SNWA together to conserve a total of 740,000 AF between 2014 and 2017, which will preserve about 9 feet of elevation in Lake Mead. (For more on the MOU, see “Lower Basin States Sign MOU to Stave off Shortage,” JOW January 2015).

Over the course of 2016, the DCP moved from discussions of broad principles to a defined plan that agency managers could present to their boards of directors. It was described in an Arizona stakeholder meeting as “an ‘insurance policy’ to provide more certainty and greater protection of Colorado River supplies.” A few key terms have been highlighted in multiple venues:

  • Arizona and Nevada would take deeper cuts sooner, and California would take cuts in its allocation at the lower Lake Mead elevations (see table below);
  • There would be commitment to “protect 1020”—i.e. keep Lake Mead from falling below 1,020 feet, which ensures that water levels stay sufficiently above the level needed for Hoover Dam power generation;
  • Conservation of 100,000 AF by the federal government during shortage operations would help preserve the elevation of Lake Mead.


Comparison of Reductions Under the Interim Guidelines and the DCP

Elevation (feet) 2007 Interim Guidelines DCP* 
At or below 1,090 and above 1,075 Normal operations AZ reduction = 192,000 AF

NV reduction = 8,000 AF

CA reduction = none


At or below 1,075 and at or above 1,050 AZ reduction = 320,000 AF

NV reduction = 13,000 AF

CA reduction = none

AZ reduction = 512,000 AF

NV reduction = 21,000 AF

CA reduction = none


Below 1,050 and above 1,045 AZ reduction = 400,000 AF

NV reduction = 17,000 AF

CA reduction = none

AZ reduction = 592,000 AF

NV reduction = 25,000 AF

CA reduction = none


At or below 1,045 and above 1,040 Same as above AZ reduction = 640,000 AF

NV reduction = 27,000 AF

CA reduction = 200,000 AF


At or below 1,040 and above 1,035 Same as above AZ reduction = 640,000 AF

NV reduction = 27,000 AF

CA reduction = 250,000 AF


At or below 1,035 and above 1,030 Same as above AZ reduction = 640,000 AF

NV reduction = 27,000 AF

CA reduction = 300,000 AF


At or below 1,030 and at or above 1,025 Same as above AZ reduction = 640,000 AF

NV reduction = 27,000 AF

CA reduction = 350,000 AF


Below 1,025 AZ reduction = 480,000 AF

NV reduction = 20,000 AF

CA reduction = none

AZ reduction = 720,000 AF

NV reduction = 30,000 AF

CA reduction = 350,000 AF


*While the DCP overlays the 2007 Interim Guidelines and specifies additional reductions, the amounts shown here are the total reductions that would occur at the noted trigger elevations.

The allocation reductions would be accounted as storage amounts in Lake Mead, and terms of the DCP would govern when and how those storage amounts could be accessed. Additional terms would allow for interstate water banking at Lake Mead elevations above 1,045 feet. At elevations above 1,025 feet, parties could recover Intentionally Created Surplus (“ICS”) or engage in binational exchanges.

Binational cooperation with Mexico has become a critical component of Colorado River water management. Mexico is being asked to participate in DCP-type reductions through Minute 32x. Minute 32x is the successor to Minute 319, the interim treaty minute between the United States and Mexico that provided for Colorado River shortage and surplus sharing, conservation projects, environmental flows and salinity management. Minute 319 expires at the end of 2017. A draft of Minute 32x has been prepared and is currently under diplomatic embargo from the U.S. State Department. A delegation from Mexico, however, presented the primary principles at the 2016 CRWUA annual conference.

Relative to Minute 319, Minute 32x would have a longer term, expiring in 2026 commensurate with the 2007 Interim Guidelines, and would continue or expand significant water management components. There would be additional salinity management; environmental flows would continue; and conservation projects would be expanded and would include a study of binational desalination. There would also be terms to continue Colorado River surplus and shortage sharing—with additional reductions during shortages, similar to the DCP.

Execution of Minute 32x will need to happen in sync with execution of a number of domestic agreements that would provide funding for conservation projects and would govern implementation and operations under the treaty minute.

The DCP and Minute 32x each can work as stand-alone plans. But to foster political goodwill and to realize the full suite of potential benefits, they are being considered as a package.

Despite the benefits of preventing a drop to dangerously low levels at Lake Mead and providing flexibility and certainty, Imperial Irrigation District (“IID”) and MWD are withholding their approval. IID General Manager Kevin Kelley said that no agency is in a better position than IID to assist at Lake Mead, and he emphasized that IID has long had interest in storage at Lake Mead. But of foremost concern to his agency right now is the Salton Sea. In order to make up for the reduction in runoff to the Salton Sea, the transfer of water from IID to San Diego required the delivery of mitigation water through the end of this year. With the deliveries ending, more of the lakebed will be exposed, and more toxic dust will be released. Because of that threat, Kelley said, “If there is no going forward at the Salton Sea, then IID cannot help at Lake Mead.”

Likewise, MWD General Manager Jeff Kightlinger communicated his agency’s message that they will not move forward on the Colorado River until matters are resolved at the Bay-Delta. Kightlinger explained that MWD’s supplies from Northern California are threatened by drought and uncertainty at the Bay-Delta. If MWD gets no water from either the Colorado River or Northern California, then Southern California goes belly up. He stated their “conditions preceding” are clear direction from the federal government about what is going to happen in the Bay-Delta and, in solidarity with his colleague from IID, direction from the state and federal government on the Salton Sea. “If we can make these work, then California can get to work on the DCP,” Kightlinger concluded.

Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources (“ADWR”), said he understands California’s issues. On the Salton Sea, he said, “the prevailing winds blow from west to east,” meaning they are concerned that dust from the Salton Sea could make its way into Arizona. On the Bay-Delta, he acknowledged that incentivizing storage is moot if there is no water to store. He also said that because of conservation and water banking, Arizona is in good shape to handle moderate shortages, but the deep shortages at the lower elevations would be devastating. He further noted that the DCP is Governor Doug Ducey’s number one water issue and stated, “Failure is not an option.”

John Powell, Jr., President of the Coachella Valley Water District Board of Directors, and SNWA General Manager John Entsminger also participated on the keynote panel at the CRWUA annual conference. Both kept their comments brief and focused on their agency’s successes with conservation and infrastructure investments that have allowed them to adapt to land use changes or serve a growing population without expanding their water supplies.


Written by Marta L. Weismann