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Then & Now: Shortage on the Colorado River

Water resource issues are inherently long-term. In Then & Now, JOW periodically looks back at major issues and compares the analyses, assessments and predictions made in Water Strategist (“WS”) with the state of the issue today. In this installment, JOW looks at the issue of shortage on the Colorado River.

In October 1991, WS examined the Bureau of Reclamation’s (“Reclamation”) proposed regulations for administering entitlements in the Lower Colorado River Basin. Reclamation expected that future requests for water would exceed the Lower Basin’s 7.5 MAF annual entitlement and proposed a policy that would establish a system for investigating whether entitlements were being put to beneficial use. WS predicted that the draft regulations, if implemented in that form, would lead to a reallocation of Colorado River water from agricultural use to municipal use via regulatory fiat, rather than voluntary market transfers.

By the beginning of 1994, the draft regulations were still pending, and a proposed critical habitat designation would have impacted virtually the entire Colorado River system. WS published a two-part series in January 1994 and April 1994 examining the stress on the Colorado River and the implications of the pending federal actions.  Indices measuring natural flows and tree-ring studies were showing that the river was over-apportioned. Consumptive use of water was rapidly increasing, especially in the Lower Basin, and a newly-enacted policy in Arizona was expected to increase the state’s use of Colorado River water bringing it in line with its entitlement. In addition, the proposed critical habitat designation would further restrict available water supplies. An informational draft of the proposed regulations for administering Lower Basin entitlements was a significant improvement over the original proposal, but WS did highlight ambiguities and questions that could spell trouble in the long run.

Coming forward, the late 1990s was a raucous time for Colorado River management. But parties eventually found common ground and developed the now-celebrated spirit of cooperation that led to the execution of the Quantification Settlement Agreement (“QSA”) in 2003, the Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages in 2007, and ancillary agreements that provide for flexibility in the management of water resources and address water supply issues. These additions to the Law of the River provided a new level of certainty regarding Colorado River water resources. Yet, the adage proved true: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Reclamation’s 2012 Water Supply and Demand Study (“Basin Study”) identified a 1.2 MAF per year structural deficit—along with drought, population growth and climate change—as stressors on the Colorado River. The Bureau’s 24-Month Studies point to the increasing risk of a declared shortage in the near-term, and as JOW explained in June, the problem may be worse than originally thought. JOW is not the only one seeing potential problems; a coalition of scholars has recommended National Academy of Sciences review of certain Colorado River Basin studies and actions taken by Reclamation due to what they believe to be potential flaws in those studies in actions.

Written by Marta L. Weismann