In her inaugural speech at the 2017 Colorado River Water Users’ Association Annual Conference, Brenda Burman, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation (“Reclamation”), issued a call to action for the Lower Basin states to adopt the Drought Contingency Plan (“DCP”). Before turning to the call to action, Commissioner Burman noted the challenges facing the Colorado River system and highlighted some of the recent successes.
Challenges hinge on dry hydrology, which has led to stresses on storage levels and increasing probability of shortage. The last 18 years have been the driest 18 years for Upper Basin snowpack and runoff in 112 years of recordkeeping—and one of the driest 18-year periods in the 1,200-year paleorecord. Combined storage levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell are about half full, similar to the combined storage in 1969, when Lake Powell was starting to fill. The probability of a critical shortage (Lake Mead falling below 1,020 ft) within five years has grown three to five times, from two percent when the Interim Guidelines were adopted in 2007. (For JOW’s analysis of the Colorado River shortage risk, “Emerging Shortages in the Colorado River Basin: Is it Worse than We Think?,” JOW June 2015).
“We’ve gained valuable operational experienced over this past decade, but what have we learned?” Burman asked. “Simply put, we’ve learned the guidelines are not enough,”
While system storage stands near the level it was at when the Record of Decision for the Interim Guidelines was signed, Burman credits the success of maintaining that level of storage during a drought with extraordinary efforts that have been taken above and beyond implementation of the guidelines.
Among the successes, Burman highlighted the development of the binational cooperation process and its growth into “a full fledged partnership” that “serves as a world recognized example of trans-boundary partnerships.” This cooperation between the United States and Mexico has most recently yielded Minute 323, which succeeds Minute 319 and furthers common goals among the United States and Mexico to protect and sustain the Colorado River. (For details on Minute 323, see “Efforts to Manage the Colorado River Take Step Forward with Signing of Minute 323,” JOW Fall 2017).
Another noted milestone is the Quantification Settlement Agreement (“QSA”). Despite controversies, litigation, and challenges, the conservation and transfer program between Imperial Irrigation District and San Diego County Water Authority (“SDCWA”) continues to be fully implemented. In a step that prevented the end of the mitigation deliveries to the Salton Sea from devolving into litigation threat would have threatened the stability of the QSA, the California State Water Resources Control Board has adopted a new stipulated order that commits the state to certain actions to restore and manage the Salton Sea, including developing 10-year management plans, similar to the Phase 1 management plan that was released in March 2017. SDCWA has exercised its option to extend the QSA water transfer for 10 years through 2047, and a settlement has been reached in the San Luis Rey litigation, with parties agreeing on how to implement delivery of water conserved from canal lining projects. (For background on the QSA, “The QSA 10 Years Later,” JOW October 2013 and “Truce on the Colorado River: A Retrospective,” Water Strategist October 2003. For background on the California’s actions on the Salton Sea, see “State Water Board Takes Action to Restore and Manage the Salton Sea,” JOW Fall 2017 and “State Unveils 10-Year Plan to Address Playa Exposure at the Salton Sea,” JOW Spring 2017).
Additional actions include measures to save system water and increase storage, including system conservation programs, in which parties fund projects that conserve water for the benefit of the system. The Upper Basin System Conservation Pilot Program has raised policy questions regarding how to structure and fund a program that is flexible and adaptable to changing conditions and how to address institutional and water rights issues so that conserved water benefits Lake Powell. Despite these hard questions, the program has saved more than 21,000 AF over the last three years. The Lower Basin System Conservation Pilot Program has saved more than 117,000 AF and efforts to continue the program have been initiated. In addition, the three-year goal to put 740,000 AF of additional water in Lake Mead under a 2014 Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) was met. These conservation and storage efforts, along with storage under the Interim Guidelines, Intentionally Created Surplus (“ICS”), and deferred deliveries by Mexico, have added about 1.6 million AF—approximately 20 feet of elevation—to Lake Mead. (For details on the MOU, see “Lower Basin States Sign MOU to Stave Off Shortage,” JOW January 2015).
New contributions, such as the recent agreement in which the State of Arizona, City of Phoenix, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the Walton Family Foundation, provided funds to the Gila River Indian Community (“GRIC”) for system contribution water, will add to the efforts already in place. (For details on the agreement with GRIC, see “Gila River Indian Community Enters Agreement to Contribute Colorado River System Conservation Water,” JOW Summer 2017).
A number of actions are also in progress, including beginning discussions on the next iteration of interim guidelines and efforts to address tribal water issues. Reclamation is working with the Navajo Nation to settle water right claims in Utah. Progress continues on the Navajo–Gallup Supply Project, which is key to the Navajo Nation water rights settlement in the San Juan River Basin in New Mexico, and the Tribal Water Study, which will outline the challenges and opportunities that tribes face as they seek to meet water supply needs, is soon to be released.
Drought contingency planning remains as the final piece to meet sustainable water management needs on the Colorado River. Reclamation modeling shows that the combined effects of drought contingency efforts in both basins would protect elevations and hydropower in at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, even in a persistent drought. The Upper Basin States have released a draft Memorandum of Agreement for interim drought operations, and the Lower Basins States are nearing a point where they can execute the DCP. (For background on the DCP and its current status, see “Failure Is Not an Option: CRWUA Keynote Panel Discusses the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan and Minute 32x,” JOW Winter 2017 and “CRWUA Keynote Panel Provides Update on Status of the Lower Basin DCP,” JOW this issue).
The DCP, however, is a critical piece to meeting sustainable management of the Colorado River.
“…adoption of the DCP is needed, and it’s needed soon…it is obvious that the window for adoption [of the DCP] is closing. The probability of reaching shortage nearly triples between 2019 and 2020. 2018 provides an important opportunity to adopt the DCP before the Lower Basin has reached shortage,” said Commissioner Burman.
Written by Marta L. Weismann