The following are my most relevant columns in the Arizona Hydrological Society Newsletter. I have been writing for the AHS Newsletter since 2007, but have only include columns dating back to 2018. Most of my columns of late revolve around Colorado River issues. They explain my concerns and viewpoints clearly. It is a lot of reading, but it draws the distinction between my depth of knowledge and that of the other candidates. I hope you gain understanding as you read. I will post more as time goes on.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: TIPPING POINT
September 2, 2022
August proved to be a tumultuous month. Monsoon rains put substantial runoff into the Colorado River system, though not enough to save Lake Powell. The Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) 24-month study was released, and a Tier 2a declared shortage will be in effect on January 1, 2023. BOR walked back the threat of Federal action that the Commissioner had made in June. And the Colorado River Basin states could not agree on a plan to reduce demand on the system by volumes necessary to save Lakes Mead and Powell.
Tier 2a Declared Shortage
For a century, Arizona has held the low position in terms of priority rights to Colorado River water. Arizona refused to sign the Colorado River Compact in 1922 because it was not satisfied with its junior status and the size of its allotment (things did not improve by 1944, when Arizona finally signed). Legal arguments over the size of the Lower Basin allotments continued until 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the volumes in Arizona vs California. This paved the way for legislation enabling the construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) in 1968, although the price for California’s assenting votes was an agreement that CAP would take all Arizona shortages first before California lost one drop of Colorado River water. California continues to hold firm to that principle. No one saw a megadrought coming; no one knew how truly important to Arizona’s economy the CAP would become. But with completion of its construction, Arizona could finally take its full allotment, most of it delivered via the CAP canal.
The last time Lakes Mead and Powell were full was 1998-99. Water managers knew of the discrepancy between water entering the reservoirs and the demand for that water, particularly in the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona, and Nevada. But this structural deficit was not seen as too alarming because the long history of flows in the Colorado River seemed to indicate that sufficient water would always be present to meet demand. Besides, the Upper Basin states were not using their full allocations, and more water always seemed to be there. As the new century dawned, and drought began to impact flows, that viewpoint began to change. In 2007, shortage sharing guidelines were agreed upon by the Lower Basin states, based on a complex set of criteria involving water level elevations on both Lakes Powell and Mead as predicted in the BOR August 24-month study projections for the upcoming year. BOR approved the guidelines, which still govern reservoir operations for both lakes. Still, the tacit expectation was that the drought would end at some point.
But the drought didn’t end; it got worse, and became a megadrought. Water level elevations in Lake Mead kept dropping. By 2014 it looked as if 2015 would be the first year in which a declared shortage would force cuts in deliveries of Colorado River water in the Lower Basin. Water managers came up with various solutions, of which Intentionally Created Surplus (ICS)—meaning deliberately leaving water on Lake Mead to halt the decline in water level elevations—was perhaps the most potent. It worked, for a while. By 2018 negotiations were under way to come up with further savings to halt declines. In January 2019 the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) was signed by Lower Basin entities as an interim step to cutting demand and helping the agricultural sector to transition away from Colorado River water. More water would be left in Lake Mead. But with the megadrought approaching two decades in duration, no one doubted that the 2007 guidelines would be invoked. It was just a matter of when.
Expect the Unexpected
The 2021 August 24-month study by BOR predicted Lake Mead water level elevations would drop below the first trigger of 1075 ft by December 31. Accordingly, under the 2007 guidelines, a Tier 1 declared shortage went into effect on January 1, 2022. Only 7.48 million acre-feet (maf) would be delivered to Lake Mead from Lake Powell. And then something totally unexpected happened. BOR looked hard at what was going on Lake Powell, where water level elevations were also rapidly declining. The modeling suggested that a critical elevation of 3525 ft could be reached much sooner than expected unless more water remained in Lake Powell (Colorado River System Mid-term Projections (usbr.gov) ). So in late spring, with little warning, BOR cut water deliveries by 480,000 acre-feet.
And then, in another totally unexpected move, BOR Commissioner Camille Touton announced in June 2022 that an additional 2-4 maf would need to be saved in 2023 in order to prevent significant damage to Lakes Mead and Powell. She gave the Basin states until August 15 to come up with a plan, or else.
But they didn’t. BOR walked back the “or else” threat, and gave the Basin states an unspecified amount of time to develop an acceptable plan. It was a bad moment to reveal the lack of BOR backbone to credibly follow up a threat. Meanwhile, the 2022 August 24-month study came out. It predicted a drop in Lake Mead water levels to 1047 ft. Thus, a Tier 2a shortage will take effect on January 1, 2023. Because the DCP is still in effect, and additional 192,000 af will be left on Lake Mead by Arizona. The total cut to Arizona—to be taken by the CAP—will be 592,000 af. That is 21% of Arizona’s total allocation, and California still doesn’t lose one drop.
Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Department of Water Resources (ADWR), and Ted Cooke, the General Manager of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (which operates the CAP canal), put out a press statement on August 16 which baldly stated that Arizona, and especially CAP, cannot continue to take such huge cuts while other parties do nothing to stabilize the system. Everyone has to participate. You can read their statement here: https://library.cap-az.com/documents/departments/planning/colorado-river-programs/ADWR-CAP-PressStatement-August_24-month_Study_Statement-081622.pdf. On the same day, BOR put out its own press release describing its actions, which you can read here: Interior Department Announces Actions to Protect Colorado River System, Sets 2023 Operating Conditions for Lake Powell and Lake Mead (usbr.gov).
In a Tier2a declared shortage, the agricultural sector loses all of its CAP water. This will primarily impact Pinal County irrigation districts. Farmers saw this coming, and were willing parties to the DCP. They should by now have wells deepened sufficiently to irrigate some fields with groundwater, assuming it isn’t too brackish deeper than 500-600 ft below ground surface. Municipalities and industry (M&I sector) will lose Non-Indian Agricultural (NIA) water that was allocated to them, but this NIA water was supposed to start being delivered in 2022 and it is not clear this actually can occur. M&I basic CAP subcontracts will remain untouched. Only in Tier 2b and Tier 3 will M&I and tribal entities take serious shortages. Under the DCP even California will take some shortages at that point.
The Tier 2a shortage condition is meant to apply to all of 2023, but BOR has shown by its April actions that more cuts may come during the course of the year. BOR will evaluate its April 2023 24-month study, and if water level elevations in Lakes Mead and Powell (especially Powell) show unacceptable declines that threaten the system, BOR will take action and release even less water from Lake Powell. Lake Mead water levels could drop precipitously, and Tier 3 could begin as early as 2024. On August 24, CAP held a conference for its subcontractors, laying out what could occur in 2023. It is instructive to look at the charts showing possible water level elevations in the two reservoirs; April will be a critical month (https://library.cap-az.com/documents/public-information/stakeholder-meetings/2022-08-24-CAWCD-Annual-Water-Users-Briefing.pdf).
The reason that Lake Powell water level elevations are now the focus of so much attention is that BOR does not want those elevations to drop to 3490 ft. Indeed, they want a buffer above that of 3525 ft. BOR wants to protect Glen Canyon Dam and its eight penstocks that supply water to spin the generators. At 3490 ft, the risk of serious damage to the infrastructure is unacceptably high. The penstocks are also the only current method of moving water from Lake Powell to Lake Mead—no penstocks, no water to the Lower Basin. While there are four emergency siphons to release water, two on each side of the dam, BOR apparently does not trust these pipes to transmit large volumes of water on an ongoing basis. And they have experience—in 1983 the siphons had to be used lest water overtop Glen Canyon Dam, and the power of the release ripped the existing siphons to shreds. Repairs cost millions. At best, BOR might use two siphons intermittently. But it is the eight penstocks that are the critical piece of infrastructure to Arizona and the Lower Basin.
BOR modeling shows some probability that Lake Powell water level elevations could drop to 3490 ft by April 2023, assuming another dry winter (Colorado River System Mid-term Projections (usbr.gov). If it gets very close, BOR would likely shut down the penstocks, cease hydroelectric power generation, and stop the flow of water to Lake Mead. Without Colorado River water flowing in, and without cuts in deliveries to all of the Lower Basin, Lake Mead water level elevations would begin to increase their rate of decline, slowly at first and then more quickly. Even with a good winter, future years get very close to the edge of the precipice, absent any action from the Basin states to reduce demand.
Remember, it is not the cessation of hydroelectric power generation that is the major concern for the Lower Basin; it is the cessation of full deliveries from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, which cannot happen without those penstocks. That is why it is critical in any plan to save Lake Powell first. But where is the progress amongst all Basin states to develop a plan?
Colorado has taken the lead in the Upper Basin in condemning excessive demand in the Lower Basin, saying very directly that they will not agree to anything that involves cuts to Upper Basin states unless Lower Basin states significantly reduce their demand. Colorado has the largest allotment amongst the Upper Basin states. They are not negotiating at this time
Even within Arizona and the three-county CAP service area, cracks in a once united front are beginning to appear. The Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) has stated that they will pursue their own interests, and will not be part of any agreement. GRIC is the largest subcontractor for CAP water, and played a major role in the DCP negotiations in 2018. Yet they note that they have previously not been part of water negotiations, and the DCP was the first time they were at the table—and now maybe the last, although their absence would cripple any Arizona position.
Entities appear to be following their own self-interest, ignoring the common good. Yet only by acting in concert, with each Basin state pulling its disparate elements into line, can new agreements be reached that will save Lakes Mead and Powell, especially Powell. The Colorado River system appears to be close to system collapse.
Icebergs will never magically appear in the Sea of Cortez; the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers will never be diverted to provide cheap and plentiful water in the near future for Arizona. But other water sources do exist that can replace some CAP water should the worst occur.
Of all the potential sources of water that could replace, in part, curtailed deliveries of Colorado River water, direct potable reuse is the source that is ready to go. Every year municipal and private operators of wastewater treatment plants reclaim thousands of acre-feet of water. Much of it is Class A+, currently suitable for almost every use except drinking water. Much of the remainder is Class B, which has more restrictions. But the step up in treatment technology from Class B to Class A+ is hardly impossible, and with the passage of the new funding for the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority (not to mention the Federal billions built into the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act), the money is there now to do the upgrades.
Reclaimed water now meets a variety of non-potable needs. Some of it goes to landscaping, to golf courses, homeowner association green spaces, washing city vehicles, and other purposes. Much of it goes into the ground at Underground Storage Facilities (USFs), to be recovered later in time of need. None goes back into the treatment plants to be mixed with other sources and then delivered to customers for potable use. Yet Class A+ water is safe to drink—you can even brew beer with it.
The Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) years ago wrote rules for direct potable reuse. Adopted? However, no program to administer this readily available source of water was set up. But in the last legislative session, ADEQ was authorized to create a regulatory program for direct potable reuse. ADEQ is pursuing this mandate. Reclaimed water will always be available as long as people wash clothes and dishes, take overly long showers, and go to the bathroom. Yes, only water used inside the house can be reclaimed, as outside uses never enter the wastewater system, but inside use is about 30% of the total residential use. That’s a lot, and it is a constant supply. Some industrial and commercial entities are even better are re-using their wastewater, Intel for example.
Desalination is another concept that is floating around. It works. The Israelis have developed efficient and cost-effective desalination technologies, and they are building plants in coastal areas all around the world, even in California. Desalination of ocean water is becoming a major supply for many cities situated between the sea and the desert. It is a good and workable concept, but is it right for Arizona?
Arizona has no coastline. Advocates propose building pipelines from the Sea of Cortez to the CAP three-county service area, although the proposed location of the plant is not totally clear. Drawbacks include the cost and time needed for pipeline construction, energy requirements to get the water from sea level to elevations within the service area, and brine disposal.
There may be a less expensive route to desalination. Arizona has areas where groundwater is brackish, and not suitable for any use. Buckeye, for example, is located essentially at the drainpipe for the entire Salt River Valley. Depth to groundwater is often only ten feet. Brackish groundwater has been accumulating for millions of years. Yet the total dissolved solids content of that groundwater is still a small percentage of the salinity of seawater. Would it not be cheaper to construct a desalination plant right over the source water? Certainly the power costs would be less, and permitting would be quicker, leaving only the brine disposal problem. And nearby is the Luke salt dome, into which brine could be injected without significant transport costs. It seems possible that enough brackish water could be treated to supply much of the West Valley, replacing lost CAP water.
ADEQ and ADWR could undertake hydrologic studies to delineate areas of brackish groundwater and the feasibility of on-site desalination. Substantial volumes of brackish groundwater may be defined as suitable for desalination, at a much-reduced cost. It won’t work forever—the sea is vast, but eventually areas of brackish groundwater would be depleted—but it could render useful a resource which now sits wasted.
For years, reclaimed and CAP water have been stored underground at USFs, in preparation for the day when CAP deliveries would not be sufficient for municipal and tribal needs. That day is here. The Arizona Water Bank has stored some 3.76 maf to firm up subcontracts for CAP water. Far-sighted cities and tribes have also been storing water for their own protection. It is time to construct wells to recover that stored water. It won’t last forever, but it may tide the three-county service area over this period of curtailment to a new understanding of how much water will be available from the canal. Stored water must now be put to use.
Demand Management is the Elephant in the Room
Ultimately, the Colorado River can never supply the ever-expanding demand of the Lower Basin. It is time to face facts, and figure how to manage that demand. Demand management is often seen as synonymous with conservation, but in truth, it is not the same as conservation. It is on a higher plane. Conservation is something that all desert dwellers must do every day, without thinking; it is a way of life, a desert ethic, that enables all creatures to thrive in an arid environment where every drop is precious. Every plant and animal in the desert has methods of preserving its water. Prickly pear cactus has thorns and thick pads to minimize water loss. Mesquites have narrow leaves and deep root systems for the same reason. Rattlesnakes have fangs to take water from the rodents they eat; rodents move quickly at night; lizards burrow in the sand and stand on alternating pairs of legs. Nothing moves at noon. That is conservation.
Cities too practice conservation. Most have at least 20 Best Management Practices to ensure that water is not wasted, and are under scrutiny by ADWR to insure that delivery losses amount to no more than 10%. Woe betide the water waster in tiered rate schedules, for to miss a leak can cost thousands.
But that is not demand management. Optimizing a watering schedule for the grass is conservation; deciding not to have a lawn at all is demand management. BMPs are conservation; deciding that municipalities and tribes are the only sectors that will receive CAP water is demand management. Water conservation is the way of life for desert dwellers; demand management is the set of harsh decisions that determine who will thrive and who must wither away.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
October 1, 2022
The Colorado River is where the action is—or rather where the inaction is. Since mid-August the Basin states have been consolidating their positions and figuring out approaches to the Tier 2a shortage condition which will take effect on January 1, 2023. Also, the call for an additional set of cuts from two to four million acre-feet (maf) announced by Camille Touton, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), this last June has everyone wondering how such a huge volume of savings can be achieved. She gave the Basin states until mid-August to come up with a plan agreeable to all. And of course, they couldn’t do it in such a short timeframe. Clearly Reclamation thought that they couldn’t do it alone; they needed the support of the Basin states. So when mid-August arrived, the Reclamation threat to do something themselves, so that Lakes Powell and Mead could be stabilized, faded away. Reclamation said they would give the states more time to come up with suggestions.
There is always, always a political undercurrent in the disposition of water, particularly when that water comes from a major river system shared by multiple states (and countries, since Mexico has a significant claim recognized by treaty). The upcoming November elections promise to change the make-up of the U.S. Congress—or not. State legislatures likewise may experience shifts in political orientation, and new governors will be elected or re-elected in several states, including most of the Colorado River Basin states. Significant shifts in political power could occur, which could lead to shifts in positions on Basin-wide issues. The one certain thing is that the Reclamation call for additional cuts of two to four maf will be closely scrutinized. It is the proximity of the elections which caused Reclamation to walk back its implied threat.
There are several alternative scenarios that can be envisioned for the post-November situation. Here are a few:
The No-Action Alternative
Reclamation may decide to do nothing. Perhaps fierce winter blizzards will deposit enough precipitation to stabilize the system for one more year. Perhaps certain large states with major influence in Washington must be placated. Perhaps the modeling that demonstrated the need for up to four maf in cuts needs to be done again, with different assumptions, by different modeling groups. Why rush a decision, when you can just wait and see what might actually happen. The No-Action Alternative is always considered when government begins any major project. Government is well-practiced and quite good at doing nothing at all, and it sometimes works.
Except this time, it won’t work. The inexorable decline in water level elevations on Lake Powell and Lake Mead already has various Basin states clamoring for action of some sort. It is the lack of consensus on what actions should be implemented that impedes progress.
The Same Rights with Consequences Alternative
Arizona’s rights to Colorado River water have always been junior to those of California. Arizona’s total allocation is only 2.8 maf. If Reclamation needs 2-4 maf, California might well point to Arizona’s allocation as just the right number, and its junior status as causing the least disturbance to other right holders. In other words, take all of Arizona’s allocation and everyone else could remain the same, fat and happy. Only Arizona would be hurt. Arizona might try to litigate such a decision, but this would be futile in view of the 1963 Supreme Court decision in Arizona vs California. Unless some brand-new legal theories could be found, Arizona would have to take the entire shortage, something the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) have jointly said is an impossible burden ( https://library.cap-az.com/documents/departments/planning/colorado-river-programs/ADWR-CAP-PressStatement-August_24-month_Study_Statement-081622.pdf). To shoulder the total responsibility for saving Lakes Powell and Mead would leave the Central Arizona Project canal (operated by CAWCD) dry for decades to come, and cripple the state’s economy.
Yet California has demonstrated its political clout before. California would not assent to the 1960s legislation which authorized the construction of the CAP canal without an agreement that, in the event of shortage, Arizona would take cuts first, and the CAP canal within Arizona would go dry before California lost one drop of Colorado River water. Arizona agreed, because it needed California’s votes. California has shown no signs of giving up that agreement. California’s influence in Washington remains strong, and may sway Reclamation to make decisions favorable to California based on decades-old agreements. Still, in the gamut of alternatives, this one is unlikely to fly.
The Re-Write the Compact Alternative
The 1922 Colorado River Compact was negotiated and signed when the West was largely agricultural. The concerns of farmers for irrigation water were paramount, and in California, that meant the Imperial Irrigation District. But over the course of a century, concerns have shifted to a far more urbanized landscape. And the 15 maf of annual flow that was promoted then as the answer to everyone’s desire for water has long since been shown to be fictional; Eric Kuhn and John Fleck have written a book on how hydrology was ignored in establishing that number (https://uapress.arizona.edu/book/science-be-dammed). A more realistic number for the water in the Colorado River system would vary between 12 and 9 maf per year, depending on a variety of factors.
It is time to re-write the Colorado River Compact to shift the focus to urban and tribal needs, and allow realistic flow numbers, say a five-year rolling average, to determine how much water each state can expect annually. Then each state could establish a priority system within its annual allocation, and shortages would become simply the volume that could be expected for that year.
Re-writing the Colorado River Compact has been suggested before, only to be met with cold indifference amongst the Basin states. Too many interests have too much invested in the way things are now to rip it all up and start anew with a more realistic paradigm. This is the other extreme from the no-action alternative—totally new, a blank sheet. For that reason, this alternative is also unlikely to be pursued.
The More Bandaids on Bandaids Alternative
The most workable alternative is also the one that will take the most work to implement. Given the factors discussed above that prevail across the Basin states, only a series of compromises and agreements with specific cooperative actions can reduce demand, stabilize the reservoirs, and save the Colorado River system from total collapse. All the states and the powers within the states recognize this, with a few exceptions. For this reason, a set of agreements addressing specific situations might be the wave of the future. Given that several agreements exist now, and new initiatives would be plastered over existing compromises, this could be termed the bandaids-on-bandaids alternative.
One part of potential compromises was recently suggested by Reclamation at a conference in Santa Fe ( https://www.kunc.org/environment/2022-09-30/federal-officials-set-their-sights-on-lower-colorado-river-evaporation-to-speed-up-conservation). It turns out that the 1963 Arizona vs California decision by the Supreme Court never recognized the importance of evaporation and transpiration in the Lower Basin. Upper Basin states have had to account for evapo-transpiration for many years, but not so California, Arizona, and Nevada. Reclamation has proposed to reduce the water delivered to these states by appropriate evapo-transpiration numbers, beginning in 2024. They suggest Lower Basin states might want to come up with an implementation plan before then. Reclamation’s decision to account for such losses—up to a million acre-feet annually—would seem to be sufficient motivation for Lower Basin interests to start the compromise process. As an added incentive, accounting for evapo-transpiration would cure the “structural deficit” issue.
On August 30, Tom Buschatzke, Director of ADWR, sent a letter (https://new.azwater.gov/sites/default/files/08.30.22_Response%20to%20Aug16%20Letter.pdf) to the Department of the Interior, suggesting 13 measures to save water and stabilize the Colorado River system. He wrote in support of recommendations made by John Entsminger, General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Some suggestions were quite bold, like re-defining “beneficial use,” while others were more feasible and could be easily implemented. The proposed cooperation between Arizona and Nevada and Reclamation on facing the current crisis indicates the willingness of Lower Basin states to tackle the big (and small) issues that will make the difference in preserving the Colorado River system. If it takes another layer of bandaids over agreements already done, then by all means let us proceed.
We just can’t sit around doing nothing.
As an aside, an election looms in November. Five people will be elected to the Board of Directors of the CAWCD. I am one of 14 candidates. If you are a registered voter in Maricopa County, I request the honor of your vote. Thanks.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: THE NEW WIFA
August 4, 2022
On the very last day of the session, one of the longest in Arizona history, the Legislature passed SB 1740 with only one dissenting vote. SB 1740 is meant to be a game-changer, a new and serious effort to address water supply issues across the state. Matched in the House by HB 2873, it is a long bill, some 57 pages (see it here: https://www.azleg.gov/legtext/55leg/2R/laws/0366.pdf). Even the explanatory fact sheet for the version that was passed is long, some 32 pages of moderately clear English: https://www.azleg.gov/legtext/55leg/2R/summary/S.1740-2873NREW_ASENACTED.pdf. Governor Ducey signed it into law on July 6.
The bill resulted from the growing realization that the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan was not going to stabilize Lake Mead and would not save the state, although it did bring everyone to the table and get them used to talking with one another. Additional sources of supply would be needed. Governor Ducey’s original idea was to establish a new super-agency that would gather up water rights, build infrastructure, and own the water. But legislators did not like the idea of a new bureaucracy at all. So, the concept morphed into substantially revising an existing agency to take on new roles. And given its administrative authority over the various revolving funds, the Arizona Water Infrastructure Finance Authority (WIFA) seemed the perfect candidate.
WIFA currently handles the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Water Supply Development Fund, and provides planning technical assistance to systems (mostly smaller) that need help in project planning. Over the years WIFA has dispensed $3 billion in loans and grants for water projects. Some 40+ projects are now under construction, and over 280 SRF loans remain active. WIFA’s small staff has proven invaluable to building and upgrading water and wastewater systems across Arizona (often their sole hope of staying in compliance with ADEQ), and is seen as the go-to source of funding for providers both large and small. But new roles lie ahead.
SB 1740 requires changes in WIFA governance. The WIFA Advisory Board was formerly under the Arizona Finance Authority, along with an industrial board and a homebuyers program. WIFA will now stand separate from the old structure, with a new Board of Directors. Subcommittees are mandated: Water Supply Development Committee, Long-Term Water Augmentation Committee, Water Conservation Grant Committee. The older SRFs will continue, overseen by a Federal Water Programs Committee, but these new committees emphasize the shift in WIFA goals and purposes.
The money involved is major: $1.2 billion over three years. Much of it will be administered by WIFA in new funds: Long-Term Water Augmentation Fund, Water Conservation Grant Fund, and Water Supply Development Fund (somewhat a holdover). ADWR will act as technical support to the new WIFA, and some $3.5 million goes to ADWR for this purpose. But it is the money that is the heart of the matter, money that backs up the goals and purposes of the new WIFA, serious money.
Basically, the new law: “Requires WIFA to accomplish its purposes of helping to meet existing and future water needs of Arizona by developing or facilitating water conservation, reuse and augmentation projects.” That is a broad charge. WIFA cannot purchase, own, or operate water-related facilities itself, but it can fund their construction. WIFA can apply for permits, perform feasibility studies and investigations, and own property in order to meet the new purposes under law. Public-private partnerships are explicitly allowed, perhaps encouraged. Conservation gets a serious mandate, a big concession to obtain the support of almost all of the Legislature, and some $200 million is dedicated to improving conservation right away. Reuse will specifically include direct potable reuse, in addition to other methods. Augmentation seems focused on desalination, but other methods come to mind as well (cloud-seeding, for example). Recharge is in there. The point is to fund development of additional sources of water for the future of Arizona.
There is one big restriction: hands off the Colorado River. WIFA is forbidden to go after mainstream Colorado River supplies, with some exceptions. The Colorado River system is already too unstable to bring in another player. On the other hand, alternate sources of water from outside of Arizona are perfectly acceptable.
August will be a month with lots of news. The Bureau of Reclamation 24-month study will be out, and will determine the operating conditions for Lakes Powell and Mead. It seems clear that the Lower Basin will go into a Tier 2b declared shortage, with all the cuts to the Central Arizona Project canal that are mandated under that shortage level. Also, the requirement by the Bureau for suggested cuts in water deliveries from the Colorado River system in the range of two to four million acre-feet will come due on August 15. The Upper Basin states are calling for all or most cuts to come from the Lower Basin states. California is calling from the existing priority system to be upheld. The Secretary of the Interior may wind up telling the Basin states, all of them, what cuts they must take in order to stabilize water level elevations in Lake Powell, preserving hydropower generation. It is not at all clear where that would leave Arizona with its junior priority.
But these storm clouds cannot dim the massive achievement of the Arizona Legislature in passing SB 1740, transforming WIFA into an agency with immense supplies of money to fund conservation, reuse, and augmentation. And all in an amazingly short period of time. That’s huge. Congratulations, legislators, you have earned our respect.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: THE SLOPE STEEPENS
June 30, 2022
It is in the nature of a slippery slope that it begins with a gentle gradient that seems easy to escape. Then the slope becomes less gentle, and momentum and speed of descent increase; concern grows that escape is more difficult. With the steepening of that slope and the pickup in speed, the realization grows that the situation is serious. Finally, that slope is so steep, the slide so fast, that it dawns upon the victim that the situation is beyond control.
On June 14, 2022, Camille Touton, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), announced to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that the Colorado River system has reached a tipping point ( https://www.energy.senate.gov/services/files/6CB52BDD-57B8-4358-BF6B-72E40F86F510 ). She informed the committee that on May 3, BOR had taken two steps to temporarily halt the decline of water level elevations in Lake Powell. The first was the withholding of 480,000 acre-feet (af) from release to the Lower Basin and Lake Mead. This had previously been suggested in her April 8 letter to the various Basin state water heads (https://coyotegulch.blog/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/GCD-2022-Operations-Letter-Buschatzke.pdf). The second was the release of 500,000 af from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to the Colorado River system so that it would flow downstream over 400 miles to reach Lake Powell. The addition of almost a million acre-feet was designed to maintain Lake Powell water level elevations above 3525’. That elevation represents the buffer against falling to 3490’, the point at which hydroelectric power could no longer be generated at Glen Canyon Dam.
Glen Canyon Dam is not the linchpin of the Western grid. But it is clean, replenishable, and easily brought on-line. Plus, power sales represent $125-200 million for BOR programs each year. BOR made it clear in the April 8 letter that the infrastructure, presumably the eight massive generators and the penstocks that supply them with water, could not be allowed to suffer any damage due to low water levels. However, the implied emphasis on power cannot be ignored.
The Lower Basin is already in a Tier 1 declared shortage, which began in January 2022. With the cutback, only 7.0 maf will be released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, instead of the 7.48 maf expected for this water year. It is not entirely clear who will have to take the reduction in deliveries. How will the shortage be spread around? Will the Central Arizona Project, given its junior priority in the Lower Basin, have to take it all? It seems probable (remember that slope) that the situation will worsen in 2023, when Lake Mead water elevations likely will dictate a Tier 2 shortage condition. This will be clear in the August 2022 24-month study, containing the BOR modeling projections for the Colorado River system, which will determine how the system is to be operated in 2023. Look for this report to be a widely read and dissected document.
But the most startling thing Commissioner Touton said during the hearing was not in her prepared remarks. She stated that an additional two to four maf of conservation (presumably meaning cuts in water deliveries) will be required next year to maintain critical water level elevations in both Lakes Mead and Powell ( https://www.reviewjournal.com/news/politics-and-government/nevada/nevada-conserves-lake-mead-but-big-cuts-to-the-river-still-may-come-photos-2598538/?itm_source=parsely-api). This announcement has caught many water resources managers in the seven Basin states by surprise.
Four million acre-feet, or even two, is a massive volume of water to take out of the Colorado River system. BOR clearly thinks that is the volume that must stay in the two reservoirs to keep water level elevations from falling to critically low levels. The river was over-allocated in 1922 when the Compact was negotiated and 15 maf of flow was the accepted number to be divided up. But the Colorado River is now flowing at about 12.7 maf annually, and that number could drop to 11 maf, or even 9 maf, if projections taking climate change into account are utilized. Removing four maf annually is to take a quarter of the annual flow out of consideration; and at 9 maf, almost half. That’s huge. How is it to be done, or even can it be done? The Upper Basin states have noted for many years that they do not use their total allocation, while the Lower Basin states take as much as they can. The Central Arizona Project canal can deliver up to 1.6 maf annually, but is first in line to take cuts in Arizona; could the canal survive the magnitude of water delivery reductions in the Lower Basin that the Commissioner specified?
Which lake receives the benefit from such drastically reduced deliveries will say a lot. If the water saved is used to prop up water level elevations in Lake Powell, the implication that BOR is favoring hydropower generation and sales over the need for water in the Lower Basin. If Lake Mead receives water sufficient to keep on delivering 7.0 maf per year, or some lesser amount that would keep the Central Arizona Project canal operational, it will mean BOR has prioritized water supply over power. If somehow there is a balancing act to make both hydroelectric generation and water deliveries co-equal in priority, that would be a major achievement for BOR, but the obstacles facing BOR in the form of the 23-year megadrought are formidable. Right now the two giant reservoirs are at 28% capacity. And falling.
If deliveries from Lake Powell to Lake Mead drop well below the 7.0 maf that was imposed in the middle of the water year, the pain will be real. Over the last 15 years, some 4.6 maf of Colorado River water has been stored in Lake Mead, delaying the onset of declared shortage by six years. But it took 15 years of efforts by multiple parties to accomplish this. Now the call from BOR is to do 2-4 maf of water savings in one year, and presumably for every year thereafter. Everyone is going to feel the shortage, from irrigation districts to hydropower generation to municipalities to tribes. That slippery slope just got a lot steeper.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: BANDAIDS ON BANDAIDS
May 1, 2022
On the Colorado River, things are getting worse than expected much faster than expected. Managers are trying everything, and the fixes are getting faster. Let’s review the timeline:
In 2019 the states of the Colorado River Basin signed a Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), one for the Upper Basin and one for the Lower Basin.
The August 2021 24-month modeling report from the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) predicted that Lake Mead water level elevations would fall below 1075 ft above MSL by December 31, 2021, which happened.
Based on the BOR report, the Secretary of the Interior declared a Tier 1 shortage on the Colorado River, the first declared shortage ever.
The Lower Basin states quickly negotiated the “500+ Plan,” with the goal of parking an additional 500,000 acre-feet (af) on Lake Mead, and funded it before 2021 ended.
On April 8, 2022, the Assistant Secretary of the Interior sent a letter to the governors’ representatives for each Basin state, describing the fast decline of Lake Powell water level elevations and requesting comments on an emergency plan to withhold another 480,000 af from delivery to Lake Mead this year.
On April 21, 2022, the Upper Colorado River Commission approved the release of 500,000 af from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Lake Powell to prop up water level elevations.
On April 22, 2022, the seven Basin states agreed to the plan from Interior, noting that hydrological conditions had worsened since April 8.
What are the implications of each of these events on the system? Let’s dive in.
The Lower Basin DCP took two years to negotiate, and was considered a major achievement in 2019. And it was. Everyone agreed to give up a chunk of water to maintain water level elevations in Lake Mead above the Tier 1 shortage trigger of 1075 ft. Farmers gave up the most, but tribal entities and municipal providers transferred some water to partially mitigate the pain to the agricultural sector. Money moved, and water moved. But the commitment from cities was only three years in duration, and was meant to facilitate transition to irrigation from groundwater instead of Colorado River water delivered from the Central Arizona Project (CAP). It was a stopgap measure at best, with the goal of providing enough time to negotiate the next set of shortage sharing guidelines for the Lower Basin states by 2025 by holding Lake Mead above the 1075 line. Only slowly did managers begin to look upstream to what was happening on Lake Powell.
The August modeling report is used each year by BOR to set the operating conditions for the next calendar year for the two giant reservoirs. It is the water level elevations in the two lakes that are the measurement tools for river management. BOR presents the conclusions, along with an excellent graphic of the meaning of the water level elevations here (https://www.usbr.gov/ColoradoRiverBasin/#7.D.ReviewDraftReport). Flows from the Colorado River in the Upper Basin are stored on Lake Powell, which then releases enough water to Lake Mead to meet Lower Basin demand, all according to guidelines developed in 2007. For years the releases came to about 9 million acre-feet (maf). But winters on the watershed have been warm, and soil moisture levels have been declining, even as plants wake up and begin growing earlier each year. Thus, even though the snowpack may be near normal, far less runoff makes it to the streams that supply the Colorado River and its reservoirs. For the last two winters, runoff has been about half of average, even though snowpacks were close to average. The water goes into the ground, not the streams.
So, the 2021 BOR report predicted a water level elevation below 1075 ft in Lake Mead for December 31. The 1075 ft elevation is a bright line for the Lower Basin. Accordingly, the Secretary declared a Tier 1 shortage to begin January 1, 2022. BOR also set the releases from Lake Powell to Mead at 7.48 maf, far less than the 9.0 maf the Lower Basin states were used to seeing come out of Powell. While they were ready for the shortage, it was not welcome. Hence, they quickly negotiated the “500+ Plan” to keep an extra 0.5 maf in Lake Mead and stabilize water level elevations, which was signed in December 2021. The plan wasn’t cheap, and 200 millions of dollars were committed (https://thenevadaindependent.com/article/states-are-funding-a-plan-to-keep-colorado-river-water-in-lake-mead-what-will-it-do). But it looked like it might work over a five-year period.
Then on April 8, 2022 came the bombshell from Assistant Secretary Trujillo, a letter seeking comments from all Basin states on a plan to hold Lake Powell water level elevations above 3525 ft by not delivering 480,000 af from Lake Powell to Mead (https://coyotegulch.blog/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/GCD-2022-Operations-Letter-Buschatzke.pdf). The 3525 ft water level is even more critical on Lake Powell than the 1075 ft number on Lake Mead. No other option was presented. This is a strong letter from Interior that you should read; government warnings don’t get much more blunt than this.
Does withholding 480,000 af largely offset the savings of 500,000 af on Lake Mead? Well, yeah, pretty much. But it seemed necessary to BOR to save Lake Powell—and indeed is mandated by the DCP, which calls for consultations with the states if water level elevations in Lake Mead could drop below 1030 ft, which the BOR modeling report predicted. Also, the 500+ Plan doesn’t save all that water at once. The situation at Lake Powell is so dire that BOR simply cannot wait for the next August report.
The reason that water level elevations on Lake Powell are important (although overlooked for many years by most water managers) has to do with both water and electrical power. In the West, water and power go together like the double helix of DNA. The generators at Glen Canyon Dam produce hydroelectric power for seven states, three Canadian provinces, and part of Baja California in Mexico. The income from hydroelectric power sales is substantial. The huge penstocks also allow massive amounts of water to be transmitted downstream from Lake Powell to Mead. But they cannot take in water below elevation 3490 ft, and BOR requires a buffer of at least 35 ft above that elevation. Lake Powell is managed to maintain that buffer elevation of 3525 ft. Dropping below that water level elevation threatens both power generation and water deliveries to the Lower Basin, as well as the infrastructure. Again, read the letter.
Things turned so bad from January to April 2022 that BOR saw immediate action to stop the decline of Lake Powell by curtailing deliveries to Lake Mead as the only way to save the infrastructure. Hence the letter from Assistant Secretary Trujillo. It wasn’t just the penstocks—the sole method to release water from the dam, absent the penstocks, was to use the much smaller siphons at the sides of Glen Canyon Dam. Back in 1983, water in Lake Powell nearly overtopped the dam, and the emergency siphons had to be used. The results were disastrous; the concrete siphons were largely destroyed and huge volumes of the surrounding sandstone were ripped out by the power of the water. The siphons were replaced, and experimental floods in 1996 and later years did not seem to produce the destruction seen in 1983, but BOR has not operated those siphons full-bore for an extended period of time since 1983. They are clearly worried about the possibility of major damage, even failure. Also, it is not totally clear how much water can be delivered over the years by those smaller emergency siphons. What if one or two of them collapsed? Would the flow from even all four be sufficient to meet the demand of the Lower Basin?
On April 22, the seven Basin states collectively sent a response to Assistant Secretary Trujillo (https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/21714090-colorado-river-basin-states-letter-to-the-department-of-interior-42222). Basically, everyone agreed that immediate action was required to stabilize Lake Powell above 3525 ft. The respondents requested a few dispensations from Interior, like counting the 480,000 af as if it had actually been delivered in 2022 so that the situation on Lake Mead would not look as bad as it really is.
On April 21, 2022 the Upper Colorado River Commission approved the release of 500,000 af from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to go to Lake Powell to help stabilize water level elevations above 3525 ft (https://coloradosun.com/2022/04/21/blue-mesa-flaming-gorge-lake-powell/). It will take a while to get there, and losses will occur. Flaming Gorge will drop 17 ft. The Upper Basin has committed 661,000 af to help BOR stabilize Lake Powell, which is at the bottom of the Upper Basin. And it will help.
All of these things are band aids on a badly wounded patient. Band-Aid over band aid over band aid cannot hold forever. Realistically the only way to cure the situation is to reduce demand on a massively over-stressed river system, both in the Upper and Lower Basins. Otherwise, we will be right back here again after the next bad runoff season. Maybe sooner.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: ANNIVERSARY YEAR
In 1922 the Colorado River Compact came into being. The seven states with a stake in the Colorado River Basin agreed to split the annual flows of the Colorado River between the Upper Basin and Lower Basin. The split between Upper and Lower Basins itself was a protective mechanism for the Upper Basin against the claims of California and Arizona under the prior rights doctrine that would have left Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico out in the cold (http://www.inkstain.net/fleck/2022/04/carpenters-last-state-for-complete-state-soveignty-100-years-ago-at-the-compact-negotiations/#comments ). Those annual flows were optimistically set at 15 million acre-feet (maf) per year, and no one saw any particular problems with the validity of that number holding good for many decades into the future. States within each basin received specific allocations; within the Lower Basin, California received 4.4 maf, Arizona received 2.8 maf, and Nevada got 300,000 af per year. Later, an additional 1.5 maf annually was allocated to Mexico. The lion’s share of California’s allocation goes to the Imperial Irrigation and Drainage District (3.3 maf/year); roughly 1.6 maf of Arizona’s allocation travels to three counties via the Central Arizona Project with the remainder going to on-River users; and Nevada’s allocation is consumed by Las Vegas. These bare bones are known to all.
The remarkable thing about the Colorado River Compact has been its flexibility and capacity for change. Over a century ago individuals in seven states looked at the periodic floods on the Colorado, the current demand on its water, the projected demand. They convinced their governors that an agreement was necessary to support economic growth with a sustainable water supply. The states negotiated, made deals, and in November 1922 signed the Compact in a Denver hotel. The Compact is now just shy of counting its first century mark. Noticeably absent at the table were Native Americans; environmental groups were not a factor then.
The Compact made possible all that followed: Hoover Dam, and Lake Mead; Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, and all the other dams. Lakes Mead and Powell are the largest reservoirs on the North American continent, and act as gatekeepers for water and hydroelectric power. The last time anyone worried about huge floods on the Colorado River was in the late 1990s, when both reservoirs were full. And then came the current megadrought, beginning in 2000, and supply no longer outpaced demand. Thus in 2007 shortage-sharing guidelines were negotiated and agreed upon by the states and Federal government under the aegis of the Compact.
Now negotiations are going on again, on how to deal with shortages in the Colorado River supply. The last set of shortage sharing guidelines for the Lower Basin states set up three tiers of cutbacks based on water level elevations in Lake Mead. For several years water managers watched those elevations slowly decline, hoping all the while that something (and they tried a lot of things) would stabilize Lake Mead and that a declared shortage could be avoided. But that bullet could not be dodged. On January 1, 2022 a Tier 1 declared shortage went into effect. For impacts to water users, see the graphic at https://www.cap-az.com/water/cap-system/planning-and-processes/shortage-impacts/
Informal negotiations for a revised set of shortage guidelines appear to have started some months ago. How are they going? Perhaps not as well as might be hoped. One of the basic aspects of the process should be agreement on what volumes of water can be expected in the future. However, John Fleck has reported (http://www.inkstain.net/fleck/2022/03/colorado-river-compact-at-100-lake-powell-at-3524-42/) that attendees at the recent Stegner Symposium at the University of Utah couldn’t agree even on that number. For the last two decades the Colorado River flows have been averaging 12.3 maf per year, much less than the 15 maf originally envisioned in the 1922 Compact. Nevada is now planning on a river of 11 maf, while New Mexico still hopes for 13-14 maf. Some are suggesting 9 maf. Whatever the realistic number is, it will be the basis for planning for where the water goes in the future. The flows fill the lakes, and it is the water level elevations in the two giant reservoirs that are the measurement tools for river management.
The basic conundrum is that demand for that water has been increasing over the decades. In the past, Arizona did not take all of its allocation every year. Within the Central Arizona Project system, until recently, there was often excess water that could be distributed to those willing to pay for its delivery. Demand in the Lower Basin is now at the maximum that was built into the 1922 Compact. The water to meet that demand just isn’t there anymore. The way to meet the challenge, then, is to control the demand, to manage demand to the point where it meets the available supply.
Negotiations have apparently not gotten that far yet. Indeed, Colorado had been researching methods of demand management to stabilize Lake Powell, but recently halted such research efforts (https://coloradosun.com/2022/03/25/colorado-hard-pause-water-demand-management/). Colorado has accurately foreseen that demand management will primarily hit agriculture, driving many farmers out of business, which is not an outcome they want. Native American communities are waking up to a situation in which their own projected future demands, never considered sufficiently in 1922, may not be met. And there is an undercurrent of animosity towards Lower Basin inhabitants, who are not seen as doing their part to control demand.
That is not the case. Arizona farmers have long been leaders in efficient use of water. Laser-leveling of fields to put the needed amount of water on the plants, and no more, has been a major tool in controlling agricultural water demand. So has drip irrigation, where it can be implemented. Cities too have had to undertake demand management. Recently Scottsdale had to halt water hauling companies from supplying Rio Verde residents with Scottsdale water, in recognition of the Tier 1 cutbacks and with a clear vision of just how close Tier 2, and then Tier 3, mandatory cutbacks are. Cutbacks are built into the drought management plans for almost every municipal supplier in the CAP service area.
The next set of shortage guidelines takes effect in 2026. Negotiating positions cannot be allowed to harden to the point where no agreement is possible. The Colorado River Compact is a landmark agreement that has endured for a century, and all the Basin states must be prepared to bend it to meet the challenges of flows that are declining, water levels dropping, and demand that is not—but must.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: LATE ARRIVAL
September 4, 2021
Well, it’s finally here. The August modeling report from the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) predicted a Lake Mead water level elevation on December 31, 2021 lower than 1,075 ft. That’s the trigger. Therefore, the first shortage on the Colorado River has been declared for 2022. When it comes to surface water in Arizona, nothing is more prominent than the Colorado River.
It arrived much later than expected. In 2015 a declared shortage was seen as a distinct possibility, perhaps even likely. Cities began to contemplate what that would mean for their water portfolios; farmers wore worried looks; tribes looked to protect their rights. All this was because of the threat to the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal, which brings a major volume of Colorado River water into central and southern Arizona. Fortunately, late precipitation and careful management staved off the feared declaration for 2015, but the narrowness of the escape had everyone awake. Shortage was again expected in 2016, and again in 2017, but weather events and parking water on Lake Mead delayed the declaration each time. The Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan was negotiated through 2018, and signed in 2019. The storage arrangements and transfer agreements shored up Lake Mead (but not Lake Powell) through 2021.
But the hydrology of the Colorado River system over the last two decades cannot be denied.
Warmer, drier, with precipitation patterns that are much more variable—these descriptors define the current conditions of the Colorado River system. They may apply for several years, perhaps decades, into the future. BOR has incorporated these conditions into its “stress-test”’ modeling runs ( https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g4000/riverops/crss-5year-projections.html), but they may not have gone far enough. John Fleck and Brad Udall recently penned an editorial for Science magazine (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/372/6545/885). They recommend planning now for the worst-case scenario that could happen in just a few years, say by 2025.
For Arizona, the worst-case scenario would be a Tier 3 shortage, which BOR modeling indicates has a substantial probability of arriving by 2025. Recall that Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico take the first and deepest delivery cuts in any declared shortage, and the CAP takes most of the Arizona cuts. This was part of the 1968 political deal with California that allowed the CAP canal to be constructed. As of January 1, Arizona will be under a Tier 1 shortage, but that affects mostly agriculture irrigated with CAP water. Only in Tier 3 will the cities and the tribes find their supplies diminishing (agriculture will receive no CAP water by that time). And below Tier 3 lies uncharted territory.
We are all aware of the nexus between water and power in the West. If warmer and drier conditions prevail well past 2025, and Colorado River flows diminish, deliveries of both water and power could be curtailed. That would be a true worst-case scenario for all the states in the Colorado River Basin. Both Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams are major producers of hydroelectric power; both would be impacted if water levels in Lakes Mead and Powell continue to drop. Water levels could reach elevations sometime late in this decade below which generators cannot spin, assuming persistent low flows in the Colorado River system. Loss of hydroelectric generation from the Colorado River would leave a big hole in the Western grid. Even California gets large amounts of power from those dams. Water deliveries too would be seriously curtailed as lake levels drop further. Fleck and Udall are right—we should start planning for that scenario now.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: FALLING WATERS
September 10, 2022
For a long time, water managers in Arizona have kept close watch on water level elevations in Lake Mead, cognizant that certain elevations serve as triggers for cutbacks in Colorado River water deliveries, particularly via the Central Arizona Project canal. There is little doubt now that the August modeling report from the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) will put Lake Mead water level elevations on December 31, 2021 below the trigger point of 1075 ft above mean sea level. This means that the first declared shortage on the Colorado River will occur beginning January 1, 2022. Arizona and Nevada will undergo serious cuts in the volumes of water they can divert from the river as mandated under Tier 1 shortage conditions. Everyone knows this.
Managers in Arizona have been planning for a Tier 1, perhaps even a Tier 2, shortage for many years. The public has been told that they will feel little impact from the declared shortage. Groundwater, stored water, and even reclaimed water will replace the diminished Colorado River supply in the canal. Agricultural irrigation districts (especially those in the Pinal Active Management Area) will take the first and biggest hit. The Drought Contingency Plan offered some alternatives to the agricultural sector in the form of funding for new wells, moving some water from cities to Groundwater Savings Facilities, and other measures, but these were limited in scope and duration. The DCP was meant as a temporary stopgap to allow negotiations to proceed to bring the Colorado River system back up and out of a Tier 1 declared shortage. The public was assured that the shortage, if it should come, could be handled, and that message continues from many quarters.
One of the tacit assumptions underlying the confidence that managers felt that Arizona could withstand the challenges of Tiers 1 and 2 with minimal disruptions was the immense storage capacity of Lake Powell. Lake Powell stores water for the Upper Basin of the Colorado River for delivery to the Lower Basin, meaning Lake Mead. Most of the water in Lake Mead is released from Lake Powell, and no one really thought that Lake Powell water levels could drop very much with the entire Upper Basin contributing to water storage. With all eyes focused on Lake Mead, rapidly falling water level elevations in Lake Powell took folks by surprise. Suddenly everyone’s gaze has moved upstream, and the implications of low water levels in Lake Powell are a bit unsettling.
The critical elevation for Lake Powell is 3490 ft. At that point generation of hydroelectrical power ceases. Water level elevation dropped below 3555 a few days ago. BOR wants to maintain a 35 ft buffer above the 3490 level (3525 ft); the 20 ft difference between that buffer level and the current level isn’t much. BOR will release water from upstream reservoirs earlier than anticipated in order to maintain the 3525 ft buffer level. Only 30% of average runoff is making its way into streams and reservoirs in 2021, which may become a pattern for the future if warm and dry conditions seen in 2020 and early 2021 persist. And they might.
Lake Powell has two major purposes: storage of Upper Basin water to be released to the Lower Basin (Lake Mead) to meet demand, and generation of hydroelectrical power. That power serves much of the Western grid. Losing a major generation source would be a big problem for BOR. Between the two purposes, preservation of power generation could prove the greater motivation for BOR operations.
BOR “stress test” modeling takes into account data from the last 20 years, not the full historical record since 1906. In July, BOR reported the runs for the next five years, out to 2025. The percentage of traces at various trigger levels that define Tiers 1, 2, and 3 can be seen as predictive, and certainly as possibilities. Using “stress test” hydrology, some 38% of traces showed Tier 3 shortage conditions in Lake Mead by 2025, and water level elevations in Lake Powell dropping to 3490 ft by 2024 in 17% of traces ( https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g4000/riverops/crss-5year-projections.html). Inevitably this will mean less water released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead than in recent years, perhaps as little as 6.83 maf. No one has planned for that. Tier 3 shortages could arrive much sooner than anticipated in the Lower Basin, but hydroelectric power could continue to be generated.
John Fleck and Brad Udall recently penned an editorial for Science magazine (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/372/6545/885). They noted that “stress test” modeling is more realistic, but will not be popular with decision-makers. It is clear that there will be less water in the Colorado River system and its two giant reservoirs than in the past, but how much less is difficult to predict. They recommend planning now for the worst-case scenario that could happen in just a few years.
We live in an era where science is increasingly distrusted. It is vital that scientists, including hydrologists, not shy away from the grim possibility that Colorado River water may not be as major a piece of Arizona’s future water supply portfolio as it has been to date. As Fleck and Udall point out, we must plan for the worst-case scenario, and hope it never arrives. And we must be clear that what we have planned for to date is much less severe than the possibilities that are suggested now by rapidly falling water levels in Lake Powell.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: EXPERTISE NEEDED
May 5, 2019
One of the most important pieces of the puzzle needed to get Pinal County agriculture to support the Drought Contingency Plan was mitigation of the impact of the sudden loss of Central Arizona Project water in a declared shortage. Key to the mitigation was the promise of infrastructure for Pinal County irrigation districts—mostly new wells. The goal accepted by all in order to get agricultural votes in the Legislature was 70,000 acre-feet from new wells by 2023. Combined with other transfers of water from Maricopa and Pima Counties to Pinal, farmers would be able to keep on farming with non-CAP water, although some acreage would be fallowed.
Lawyers and politicians tend to think that once a deal is inked and the votes cast, the game is over. Done is done. Throughout the negotiations on the DCP implementation framework for Arizona, and the mitigation of impacts on Pinal County irrigation, at no time did anyone question if drilling enough wells to produce 70,000 acre-feet within three years was practical. No one asked the drillers, the consultants, or anyone familiar with bringing a working well on-line to serve specific purposes. I see some issues.
Central Arizona Project has pledged $5 million towards mitigation costs for Pinal County, to be funneled through the “Central Arizona Regional Irrigation Efficiency and Conservation Project,” or CARIECP. Even the nimblest water buffalo will stumble over that acronym. Irrigation districts are contributing $5 million of their own money. Arizona Water Company has committed to $1 million. Groundwater withdrawal fees ($8 million) from the Pinal AMA will be directed to the cause. ADWR has $9 million available, and the Legislature may allocate $20 million in the as-yet unfinished state budget.
CAP will retain control over its money, but the rest will go into an Arizona system conservation fund established in the DCP legislation (SB 1227). Apparently, funds will then be split amongst the various qualified irrigation districts. They will be responsible for preparing their own infrastructure plans, including well design requirements.
Everyone has their eyes on a matching Federal grant through the US Department of Agriculture, although no grant applications have yet been drafted. The ultimate goal is $50 million. However, it is not clear who is writing the grant proposal (itself somewhat an art), how the money will be disbursed (assuming success in a competitive environment), and when it all gets done. From the outside, the process is murky at best. Who is running this show?
Well Design and Permitting
Assuming there is absolutely no problem in obtaining a well site or access to it, time for an appropriate well design is still needed. Well construction permits must also be approved. Well impact analyses will be necessary in many instances, although replacement wells may skirt this requirement. If waivers from impacted well owners are needed, that amount of time needs to be included. Who will wind up owning these wells?
These new wells are being pitched as recovery wells, to eventually be used for tribal firming as well as by municipal and private providers for brand-new subdivisions expected to blanket Pinal County at some point in the future. If any “recovered” water is to be used for potable purposes, water quality issues will need to be addressed in the well design, and there may be a lot of water quality problems after a century of irrigation. Pilot holes and zonal sampling may be needed prior to designing the production well. All this takes time.
Drillers are in Demand
Municipal supply wells (the end use of many of these mitigation wells) tend to be equipped with turbine pumps, which require a nice straight hole to accommodate the shaft. A quick check of a few Pinal County well records in the ADWR database reveal that total depths can go to 1500 ft. Water levels within the last decade hover around 500 ft below land surface, with considerable variation over time. Realistically, deep holes are often drilled via rotary, reverse rotary, or even air rotary methods, because they are faster. Cable tool rigs can complete a straight hole, but require substantially longer construction times. Drilling firms need an Arizona license for the right technique, the correct license from the Arizona Registrar of Contractors, and a working rig or two. So are there enough Arizona drilling firms licensed by ADWR, licensed by the ROC, and possessing the right rigs in good shape?
Well, that number may not be so big. Of the 234 driller licenses ready for annual renewal, maybe 100 are really still active, meaning that also have the correct ROC license and the correct equipment for their technique. Many of these drillers specialize in domestic or stock wells, not major production wells. Most drilling firms that typically construct big supply wells, around a dozen or so, already have a backlog of orders out 18 months or more, as drilling activity picks up. Therefore, availability of the right drilling firms is an issue.
To produce 70,000 acre-feet by 2023 from new wells that must also accommodate future recovery uses will not be easy. Politicians and lawyers can’t handle the task. The membership of the Arizona Hydrological Society includes many drillers experienced in constructing major wells, and many consultants knowledgeable in well design and permitting. If mitigation by well construction is to be a success by 2023, AHS members will necessarily be involved.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: YOU CAN'T PRINT WATER
SEPTEMBER 5, 2018
The August modeling runs are now out from the Bureau of Reclamation, along with revisions to the probabilities of declared shortage on the Colorado River. No surprises—things look worse than they did in April. The probability of Lake Mead water level elevations dropping below 1075 ft on January 1, 2020, which is the trigger for a Tier 1 shortage, is now pegged at 57%. There just isn’t much time left to complete the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (LBDCP), and stabilize the lake before much deeper cuts are triggered.
The LBDCP Steering Committee chaired by ADWR and CAWCD is facing four major issues in order to achieve a consensus that will pave the way for the Legislature to grant authority to the ADWR Director to sign on to the LBDCP. Recall that under LBDCP, Arizona will feel harsher cuts more quickly, and agriculture will be hit first and hardest. The first issue then is how to provide water sufficient to allow Pinal County agriculture to avoid an abrupt and devastating loss of all irrigation under LBDCP guidelines. Pinal County irrigation farmers would like all of the water loss to be mitigated, resulting in no change in demand. Many interests have supported this idea of full mitigation.
Solutions have been identified. CAWCD has about 200,000 acre-feet of storage space in Lake Pleasant, and will send 50,000 acre-feet of water to Pinal County to mitigate the impacts of shortage. Another method would be voluntary reductions in high priority water use (by cities and tribes) with a genuine history of use. This latter term may be defined as excluding recharge activities, which the cities will not accept. Additional methods include forbearance activities for compensation, imported groundwater, short-term leasing of high priority water, and well development. All of this will cost someone money and water. The use of existing CAWCD Intentionally Created Surplus on Lake Mead has been suggested—but how is moving water off Lake Mead supposed to leave water on Lake Mead in order to stabilize water levels?
And with Arizona eyes fixed firmly on Colorado River supplies, New Mexico picks now as the time to pick up the pace on their plan to divert water from the Upper Gila River. In 2004, New Mexico was granted 14,000 acre-feet of Gila River water as part of the Arizona Water Settlement Act. They elected to build a series of diversion structures in order to irrigate farmlands. New Mexico dithered, and now only has until 2019 to complete the Environmental Impact Statement and receive a favorable Record of Decision from Interior, or lose funding. A scoping document with public comments was to be completed in August, followed by a draft EIS in January 2019. It is hoped that the final EIS will be delivered in the summer of 2019, with the ROD slightly later. To me, this schedule seems overly optimistic, but that is the plan.
The 14,000 acre-feet of Gila River water would normally flow into Arizona. In recognition of the loss of this water, downstream parties in Arizona could take 14,000 acre-feet off the CAP canal as compensation. This seemed distant in 2004, but looks fairly imminent now. It is a demand seemingly not planned for in the LBDCP. Mostly these paper water deals do not address demand.
The insistent request for full mitigation by Pinal County agriculture is symptomatic of the way several interests on the Steering Committee feel about the LBDCP. The concept, not articulated but apparently underlying positions of many interests, appears to be that LBDCP will solve all problems, and life will go on as before with no change in demand and no real shortages for anyone. But where is the water going to come from for all these deals? There is only so much, and that volume will be reduced under LBDCP.
The truth is that LBDCP will result in less water coming down the CAP canal, in order to stabilize Lake Mead water level elevations and prevent ever more damaging cuts. ADWR and CAWCD totally understand this, as seen here: http://www.cap-az.com/public/blog/843-is-the-dcp-designed-to-avert-a-declaration-of-shortage. Moving paper water around does not change the fact that demands will not be satisfied and life will not be the same. Stabilization is not the same as stasis. Demand must be reduced somewhere, substantially, soon.
The Federal government can print money to address a deficit situation, but not so for the structural deficit on the Colorado River. You can’t print water. And you can’t spend what you don’t have. The Steering Committee must face that unpleasant fact, or fail.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: A NEW BEGINNING
And it begins.
On July 26, ADWR and CAWCD co-hosted a meeting on the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan or LBDCP (new acronym, same concept). Tom Buschatzke (ADWR Director) and Ted Cooke (CAWCD General Manager) are co-chairs of a 40 member steering committee charged with coming up with a way to implement LBDCP in Arizona. The opening meeting was relatively benign and calm, with Ted and Tom outlining the process and the ultimate goal: achieving consensus on a plan for Arizona that the Legislature could approve in the upcoming session, allowing Tom to sign on to the LBDCP agreement for Arizona. That’s a lot for a very short time period; this needs to be wrapped up by December 2018. You can see their slides here.
Forty members make an unwieldy steering committee. Each represents its own organization, and the hope of the co-chairs is that they represent their respective sectors as well. Accordingly, the various sectors laid out their opening positions. The tribes want the existing priorities for CAP deliveries to stay in place. Agriculture — meaning mostly Pinal County — wants water to mitigate the immediate impacts of the LBDCP, which right now looks like a huge cut to irrigation. The cities want the LBDCP to be approved but are wary of being asked to give up major volumes of water and money. Developers want CAGRD to survive the disappearance of excess water. Environmentalists are disappointed to have little representation on the Committee. Ted and Tom will have their hands full herding this collection of large cats, none of which has yet bared their teeth.
The important participants are legislators, both Democrat and Republican, but especially Representative Rusty Bowers and Senator Gail Griffin. They are the two committee chairs that must move any legislation. The Legislature proved in the last session that nothing water-related will see the light of day without the support of these two leaders. This time, no leader will be left in the dark.
The big issues that the Steering Committee must face right away are three-fold. Tribal Intentionally Created Surplus is necessary for stabilizing water levels on Lake Mead, but how is this to be administered — and paid for? Pinal County agriculture is truly facing disaster under shortage conditions, and needs “mitigation” water — but where is that water to come from? And excess water on the CAP system will be a vital tool to any plan — but who controls it, and what does that mean for CAGRD? These are not easy questions, but everyone on the Steering Committee knows that acceptable answers must be found.
The August modeling report is due out from the Bureau of Reclamation shortly. Probabilities of water level elevations on Lake Mead falling below trigger levels for a declared shortage on the Colorado River may rise above the current 52% for 2020. There really isn’t much time left. This new beginning may be Arizona’s last best hope.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: THE FUTURE AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE…
On June 28, the Bureau of Reclamation, ADWR, and CAWCD cohosted a meeting on the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan. While other Basin states have been getting their act together, Arizona has not made substantive progress on its internal plan, DCP Plus (a term that was barely mentioned during the presentations). That is about to change. Apparently ADWR and CAWCD have concluded a truce, because Tom Buschatzke (Director) and Ted Cooke (General Manager) did a tag-team style hosting of the presenters. They touted the meeting as a seminal event in Arizona water history, equivalent to the signing of the 2007 Shortage Sharing Guidelines. But I am not going into what they said; I will cover only the strong message I heard from the Bureau of Reclamation.
Recall the basics of the 2007 agreement. Tiered shortage levels are tied to falling water level elevations in Lake Mead. Shortage is declared at 1075 feet, Tier 2 starts at 1050 feet, and Tier 3 at 1025 feet. Of the Lower Basin states, Arizona is cut the most — all from the CAP canal. California never takes a cut under these criteria. And no one knows what happens below 1000 feet.
Terry Fulp of the Bureau of Reclamation presented the results of recent modeling runs. Two sets of runs were made, the first based on known historical hydrologic conditions since 1906, with an average annual flow of 14.8 million acre-feet (MAF). The second covered only the period 1988–2015, with an average annual flow of 13.2 MAF. He described this set of runs as the “stress test” case, in which abnormally high flows from the early part of the 20th Century and the large flows of the 1980s were avoided to give a more accurate picture of conditions in the near future, through 2026. Some 3,850 runs or traces produce predictions of conditions in Lakes Mead and Powell over the following 5 years. These runs yield risk percentages for Lake Mead, falling within one of the three shortage tiers defined in 2007. You can see Terry Fulp’s presentation at http://www.cap-az.com/documents/departments/planning/colorado-river-programs/LBDCP-Master-Presentation.pdf. Take a good look at the graphs of predicted water level elevations, and remember that the dashed lines are median values — so half of the runs fall above these lines and half fall below. Then take a look at the graphs of risk of falling below a given trigger level elevation. The risk percentages of shortage are bad enough under the historical flow conditions, but spike significantly under stress test assumptions. His entire presentation emphasized the growing risk of shortage, and soon. Hydrology is driving his directness.
The risk is real. Variability is increasing. Time grows short to get an internal Arizona consensus that will allow participation in the DCP along with the other Lower Basin states. It is clear to me that CAWCD and ADWR both recognize this truth, presented forcefully by Reclamation, and that is why, on this issue, they are in collaboration rather than conflict mode.
Reclamation’s final comments came from the new Commissioner, Brenda Burman. The conservative approach is to take action now. Hope is not a plan. California is close to resolving its internal differences and concluding agreements, as are other Basin states. Promises made by California for the DCP (conservation, participating in shortage) could evaporate if Arizona cannot achieve consensus. And if we don’t participate in the Lower Basin DCP, extreme pressure will be forthcoming from all other Basin states on the Secretary of the Interior to curtail Arizona deliveries from the Colorado River and leave the state to its own devices. The Secretary will be unlikely to ignore such pressure. He will act under his broad powers as Water Master of the Lower Basin. That is the iron fist in the velvet glove. That is what CAWCD and ADWR are listening to. They get it.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: THE BIG SLEEP
“Don’t do something—just stand there!” This call for inaction is often an appropriate dictum when faced with overly complex situations. Especially when passing law.
In the last month I have attended at least three meetings in which the last session of the Arizona Legislature was analyzed. Experienced lobbyists, powerful legislative leaders, and observant Capitol reporters all offered insights as to why absolutely nothing happened with respect to water legislation despite the expectations created by the Governor’s Water Discussions. Each had a different viewpoint into the process, but several commonalities emerged that are instructive.
Lesson #1: Don’t poke the bear. When the Governor’s Water Discussions convened in 2017, it was in the context of the feud that had erupted between ADWR and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD). Because the Governor’s staff was heading up the effort, it became clear that they intended to exercise considerable control over CAWCD and its claims to authority over Colorado River issues. And they were supported by many stakeholders at the table. Once they saw the direction being taken, CAWCD staff determined to protect what they saw as their prerogatives, and they quietly began a lobbying campaign with key legislators that eventually undercut the ADWR position. The Governor’s Water Discussions should have been a forum to diplomatically resolve the issues between CAWCD and ADWR, out of sight of all, but it wasn’t.
Lesson #2: Never leave key leaders alone in the dark. The two chairs of the House and Senate committees that hear water-related bills were never included in the Governor’s Water Discussions. CAWCD noted their absence, and convinced them that it was all a governance issue. It was no surprise, then, when they did not support the concepts that emerged, and instead came up with their own bills that did not address groundwater or Colorado River issues. Everyone commented on this lack of inclusion as a major failure. Now Representative Rusty Bowers and Senator Gail Griffin are traveling the state holding public meetings on water, a move that many legislators applaud for its outreach. Major stakeholders are missing it, but this inclusion effort is led by those who should have been included earlier, but were not.
Lesson #3: Don’t try to push complex subjects too quickly. No one in the Legislature is a water expert. When faced with complex issues with multiple implications that are often incomprehensible, most legislators would rather do nothing. And, in truth, this may be the right course at that moment. Legislators are often scared that they might be rushed into doing the wrong thing, which would haunt Arizona for decades to come. If you can’t understand what you are doing, prudence demands inaction. Water issues are not easily explained, and if cast in another light (such as governance, or rural vs. urban), comprehension may never dawn. In this session water issues were advancing early on and way too fast. Education is a slow process, but legislators are open to gaining understanding before they vote. One of the successes of the session was the number of bad bills killed.
Lesson #4: Once craziness descends, all bets are off. The Don Shooter expulsion roiled the Legislature, and normality vanished. Then masses of teachers in red shirts descended on the Capitol demanding immediate action, and a scramble to meet the urgency of the situation consumed everyone. Agendas were wrecked. Water was lost in the confusion. Sine die was a relief. Lobbyists, legislators, and reporters alike agreed that they had not ever seen a session this crazy.
So what does this mean for 2019? Inclusion and education must lead the list of goals for the Legislature, and all stakeholders must contribute time to the process. And that means the process cannot be pushed too fast, or be done in secrecy. Good water legislation takes time and preparation. Above all, the feud between CAWCD and ADWR must somehow be brought to an end.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: THE CONFLICT SPREADS
The Central Arizona Water Conservation District’s conflicts, once confined within Arizona, have now spilled across state boundaries into the Upper Colorado River Basin. The collaborative structure of the entire Colorado River Basin — the Law of the River, developed over a century of quiet agreements and respect for the concerns of all — is now in danger of collapse.
CAWCD has been aiming for a “sweet spot” in which 9 million acre-feet must be released to Lake Mead from Lake Powell, while Lake Mead water levels hover just above the trigger level for a declared shortage. CAWCD would get all of the Colorado River water it needs — at the expense of the Upper Basin. Lake Powell might drop as much as 30 feet in 2019. This would betray the efforts of the Upper Basin users who have been trying to maintain its water level elevations through a System Conservation Pilot Program. This program compensates users for forbearance of the use of their water in order to support water level elevations in Lake Powell, and the money comes from Denver and Pueblo, amongst others.
On April 13, the water representatives of the Upper Colorado River Basin states and the Upper Colorado River Commission penned a letter to ADWR accusing CAWCD of ignoring the Basin’s dire situation and manipulating water orders to gain more water for itself “at the expense of Lake Powell and all the other Basin states.” These are harsh words for the water world and indicate a depth of distrust for CAWCD never seen before.
On April 16, Denver Water followed up with a letter to CAWCD threatening to terminate its funding for the System Conservation Pilot Program. The letter said that CAWCD must “verifiably establish it has ceased all actions to manipulate demands and is fully participating in aggressive conservation measures along with other entities in Arizona.” That’s pretty blunt. A few days later, the City of Pueblo actually did pull all their funding from the System Conservation Pilot Program, washing their hands of any pretense of cooperation with CAWCD.
Finally, CAWCD sensed that it was burning bridges in all directions. Therefore, on April 30, the CAWCD met with the Upper Basin representatives and apologized for its rhetoric, promising to be more respectful and cooperative on Colorado River issues, and to work on the drought contingency plan for the Lower Basin. But the CAWCD press release did not say that it would cease manipulating water orders to maximize releases from Lake Powell. It is not yet clear how the other Basin states — and, indeed, the rest of Arizona — will view the CAWCD position, or more importantly, its future actions. Notably, some water managers are talking openly of the need for Federal intervention, a concept that, before now, has been anathema amongst Western states.
Good articles on the situation, with in-depth explanations of positions, can be found here:
Four states that also get Colorado River water say CAP keeps too much for Arizona
Colorado and three states accuse Arizona of manipulating Colorado River supply and demand
State Colorado River Managers Cry Foul Over Arizona’s Attempted Water Shuffle
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: THE WHEELS COME OFF
Salvo and counter-salvo; battle is joined and every interest is defending its own water. The wheels have come off the Arizona wagon of cooperation on water issues. The Drought Contingency Plan looks dead.
The Governor’s water discussions in 2017 focused, in part, on the lack of State authority over programs that Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) had already initiated on the Colorado River. When the Governor says that Arizona must speak with one voice, it is the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) he has in mind, not CAWCD. ADWR was floating a legislative proposal to gain the authority to forbear the use of Colorado River water that is not consumptively used by a contractor — a power now held by the CAWCD. This is also related to the issue of sovereign immunity, which CAWCD has claimed.
On March 29, the Arizona Legislative Council sent a memo to Senator Gail Griffin and Representative Rusty Bowers concerning the constitutionality of granting forbearance authority to ADWR. The Legislative Council said that introducing a new party into the contract between the U.S. and CAWCD would change the contractual authority of CAWCD to manage excess water (now broadly defined), and thus would violate the Contracts Clause of the Arizona Constitution. Forbearance is a major tool to control water level elevations in Lake Mead by controlling demand. CAWCD has run forbearance programs over the last few years that have apparently been successful, along with other programs, in preventing a declared shortage on the Colorado River, triggered by a fall in Lake Mead water level elevations below 1,075 ft. The memo seems to be a clear victory for CAWCD, which has hands-down won every encounter this legislative session.
On April 4, ADWR responded with its own legal memo countering the position of the Arizona Legislative Council. The memo says that the State has the sovereign right under the 1944 Contract to forbear delivery of the State’s Colorado River water conserved by Arizona contractors, and that exercising that right would not infringe on any contractual rights held by CAWCD. Nor has the Legislature delegated CAWCD, a municipal corporation, authority over Colorado River water or given up its own powers to amend statutes defining CAWCD responsibilities. CAWCD is not immune to state law. CAWCD is not sovereign.
This issue has agricultural interests across Arizona upset, especially in Yuma. CAWCD appears to be laying claim to all water in the Colorado River not ordered by a contractor as excess water. On March 23, in a packed “learning tour” meeting chaired by Griffin and Bowers, the two water leaders of the Legislature got an earful of comment from farmers about how CAWCD was coming for their water. ADWR also spoke. Most comments were tied to CAWCD’s claim of sovereign immunity, which in turn underlies its claim to sole authority over forbearance programs. Another such meeting is planned for April 27 in Safford.
GOVERNMENT GOINGS-ON: THE SHADE OF WATER
“Shade” is an old term signifying a ghostly suggestion of a former living presence. The shade of the Colorado River may wander the Lower Basin for decades, absent real action to shorten demand.
SB 1507 and the shadow House version, HB 2512, have moved out of committee. SB 1507 has passed the Committee of the Whole process and is approaching the Third Read in the Senate. HB 2512 passed out of the House a couple of weeks back. This grand legislative package does absolutely nothing to address the declining water level elevations on Lake Mead. And apparently some unseen presence wants it that way.
It is now increasingly obvious that there is no way to avoid a declared shortage on the Colorado River. Demand continues as it always has. Yet snowfall across the entire Colorado River Basin is much less than the historic annual mean, and warming temperatures produce less useful runoff. Salt River Project is calling this winter the third driest in recorded history — and that is just on the Salt-Verde watershed. Absent a significant reversal of meteorological trends of the last 18 years, streamflow and reservoir storage must inevitably decline. January’s modeling runs by the Bureau of Reclamation for the Lower Colorado River Basin show a 17% probability for declared shortage in 2019, and 49% by 2020. We are playing Russian roulette with half the chambers loaded.
If we look ahead at Arizona’s Colorado River supply for the next few years, and assume that a Tier 1 shortage occurs in 2020, a Tier 2 shortage could occur by 2023. A Tier 3 shortage might occur by 2025 or 2026. This is based on a 10–12 ft/yr drop in Lake Mead water level elevations. Such declines are a response to the constant demands for the water from the Lower Colorado River Basin states. Only a small fraction of this decline is caused by lake evaporation, and that percentage decreases as water levels drop and the lake’s surface area decreases. Demand is the key; if demand does not decline with the declining supply, there is no halting the depletion of Lake Mead.
This is what the Drought Contingency Plan and its Arizona sibling, the DCP Plus, were designed to address. Major reductions in demand shared by all would keep some water flowing to all during a declared shortage. The suffering would be shared amongst the Lower Basin states and Mexico. All the schemes of entities that want to control access to Colorado River water — forbearance, use of excess water, transfers from Mohave County, gaming the system of water levels — will not keep some water flowing to all. We need that water. Without DCP and DCP Plus, Arizona will face a brutally rough awakening when Lake Mead water levels drop to dead pool at elevation 895 feet. This is what the Legislature should have addressed.