Secretary Jewell Orders Actions to Address Historic Colorado River Drought

On January 18th, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell issued Order 3344 for the Assistant Secretary for Water and Science and the Commission of the Bureau of Reclamation to take specified actions to address imminent shortages on the Colorado River. Worsening water supply conditions triggered the action due to “the worst 17-year period of drought in modern recorded history, and one of the very worst in the last 1,200 years, as established by reconstructed paleohydrology.” “There is the strong probability that, for the first time, the Lower Basin will face water reductions from the Colorado River, perhaps as soon as January 1, 2018, and it is possible that shortage conditions may persist for an extended period of time. Current management rules in place for operation of Hoover Dam (Lake Mead) and Glen Canyon Dam (Lake Powell)…may prove insufficient to prevent Lake Mead from declining to critical elevations that would threaten catastrophic reduction to water service in broad areas of the Lower Basin.”

Despite severe hydrologic conditions, U.S. interests proved incapable of finalizing the Drought Contingency Plan and adopting of Minute 32x by the end of the Obama Administration. This leaves significant “unfinished business” for the Trump Administration. Secretary Jewell’s order provides guidance on continuing efforts during the transfer of power from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration. 

Build on Existing Collaborative Efforts 

Secretary Jewell noted the collaborative efforts over the past two decades to address water problems, including:

  • 2003: Colorado River Water Delivery Agreement (Federal Quantification Settlement Agreement)
  • 2005: Lower Colorado River Basin Multi-Species Conservation Program
  • 2007: Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead
  • 2010: US/Mexico treaty Minutes 316, 317 and 318 regarding binational cooperation on the Colorado River
  • 2012: US/Mexico treaty Minute 319 Interim International Cooperative Measures in the Colorado River Basin through 2017
  • 2014: System Conservation Pilot Agreement
  • 2014: Memorandum of Understanding for Pilot Drought Response Actions
  • 2016: Memorandum of Understanding between Department of the Interior and California Natural Resources Agency regarding Salton Sea activities
  • 2016: Record of Decision on Glen Canyon Dam Long-Term Experimental and Management Plan

The order also lists twelve Indian water right settlements approved by Congress since 2000. Secretary Jewell noted that several of the successful initiatives were developed over the course of successive administrations (Clinton, Bush, Obama). The discussions today can build on these earlier successes.

Actions Taken Concurrent with Order 

Secretary Jewell approved two actions under the order:

  1. Finalizing an agreement with the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona to conserve water to reduce shortage risk. Reclamation is providing $6 million of FY 2017 funding to immediately acquire water.
  2. Signing an addendum to its 2016 Memorandum of Understanding with California’s Natural Resources Agency regarding coordination of activities to manage the Salton Sea. The efforts address anticipated changes in the Salton Sea’s elevation from changing climate and resource constraints.

Direction to Continue Ongoing Actions 

Secretary Jewell directed Reclamation to continue Ongoing Activities:

  • Support Governors’ Representatives of the Seven Basin States and key principals of several water agencies to finalize the Drought Contingency Plan and work with the State of Arizona, affected Indian Tribes and other entities in support of ongoing “DCP+ Plan” efforts within Arizona.
  • Work with U.S. and Mexican Sections of the International Boundary and Water Commission (“IBWC”), representatives of the Seven Basin States and non-governmental organizations to finalize and adopt Minute 32x, the successor to Minute 319 which expires on December 31, 2017.
  • Support ongoing efforts of Governors’ Representatives of the Seven Basin States and key principals of water agencies and other stakeholders to develop an Upper Basin Memorandum of Agreement to protect water delivery and power production in future years.
  • Consult with affected Indian tribes as Drought Response Actions proceed.

Given the “significant progress” to date on these matters, Secretary Jewell stated a “very high probability” that the work will be completed in the first half of 2017. However, if there is significant risk of not being completed, Reclamation will prepare for President Trump’s Secretary of Interior no later than June 30, 2017 the following:

  • Status report of each Drought Response Action and prospects for completing in 2017.
  • Updated assessment of hydrology and projected risk of reaching critical elevations in Lake Powell and Lake Mead during 2018-2026 and the potential for additional depletions in the Upper Basin in coming decades.
  • An evaluation of specific Federal actions that could be initiated or implemented, at the Secretary’s discretion, to minimize the risk of reaching critical elevations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, including:
    • Working with the IBWC to engage Mexico for “comparable actions” taken on both sides of the border should it be likely that the Lower Colorado Basin will be in a shortage condition on or after January 1, 2018;
    • Engage parties to increase voluntary water conservation under existing MOUs and consider operation of the Yuma Desalting Plant;
    • Review the Secretary’s authorities under the Law of the River to implement policies to reduce depletions in the Lower Basin;
    • Formally initiate, under the 2007 Interim Guidelines, evaluation of the risk of Lake Powell and Lake Mead reaching critical levels and alternatives to minimize risk;
    • Any other appropriate action developed by Reclamation in consultation with the Seven Basin States and other parties in the Colorado River Basin.

Secretary Jewel made the Order effective immediately. It remains in effect until its provisions are completed, amended, superseded or revoked. The Order terminates on August 1, 2017.

Consequences of Success 

The Order notes that the declining elevations reflect the growing use of Colorado River water in the face of declining flows. Successful implementation of all plans can reduce the risk of shortages in the Lower Basin. Without implementation, the probability of shortage reaches about 15% by the mid-2020s (based on the full hydrologic record) and over 30% (based on the last 25 years of historical hydrology). With implementation, the probability of shortage falls below 5% (based on the full hydrologic record)—the Order does not provide an estimate based on the last 25 years of historical hydrology.

What Portends for 2017?

Necessity is often the Mother of invention. The risk of impending shortage is real and broadly understood. Given the impressive record of past collaborative actions, the prospect for success in 2017 seems attractive. Despite recent storms, Mother Nature will not bail out the parties. In fact, risk of shortages is far worse than we think (see “Emerging Shortages in the Colorado River Basin: Is it Worse than We Think?Journal of Water, June 2015).


Written by Rodney T. Smith, Ph.D.