4 Take Aways from Saturday’s revelation of “contingency plans” for Colorado River water

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Four Take Aways from Saturday’s revelation of “contingency plans”
April 22, 2016

Arizona Department of Water Resources director Tom Buschatzke detailed in an oped in Saturday's Arizona Republic the on-going, highly sensitive efforts to strike a three-state deal to leave a portion of the states’ Colorado River allocations in Lake Mead in order to keep the lake above critical levels.

Director Buschatzke's opinion piece in the Republic was followed by a report in Sunday's Arizona Daily Star in Tucson about those three-state negotiations.

Here are four big-picture take-aways from those reports:

  1. Many reports on the negotiations to protect Lake Mead refer to “three-state negotiations,” implying that the discussions about leaving allocated water in the lake are strictly between Arizona, California and Nevada. In fact, the negotiations involve a multitude of stakeholders. In addition to the states, the federal Bureau of Reclamation – which oversees the river – is deeply involved. So, too, is Mexico. Discussions become truly complicated, however, within the states, where stakeholders include agriculture, municipal governments, Native American tribes and industrial water users.
  2. The potential allocation cuts are the result of 16 years of unprecedented drought in the Southwest. But they are not just because of the drought. By some estimates, the Colorado River has been over-allocated for many years by as much as 1.2 million acre-feet of water per year. Combined with climate-related stresses such as a diminished snow pack in the Rockies, drought-induced early spring thaws and increased evaporation prompted by higher relative temperatures, less water has been flowing into the great Western reservoir. But because of over-allocation, some analysts contend that allocation shortfalls may have become inevitable even without the effects of drought.
  3. By existing law, California is not obliged to take any cuts in its allocations. Ever. Even the planned allocation reductions negotiated in 2007 – also an effort to help stabilize Lake Mead – would have required nothing from the Golden State. The plan under negotiation now, however, for the first time would include voluntary reductions in California’s 4.4 million acre-foot annual delivery of Colorado River water. That would constitute an unprecedented breakthrough in burden sharing.
  4. Despite the increasing possibility of a shortfall in Colorado River water deliveries on the Central Arizona Project canal, perhaps as soon as 2017, Arizona is prepared. Millions of acre feet already have been stored underground in anticipation of just such a situation as the current drought conditions present. By some estimates, more than two years’ worth of Arizona’s entire CAP allocation has been banked underground. All Southwestern states are challenged by the drought. But Arizona’s preparedness is the key difference between facing a challenge and facing a crisis.