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Drought Contingency Planning in the Colorado River Basin
June 07, 2018
Since February 2014 (Memo to initiate Drought Contingency Planning) the water agencies of the seven states in the Colorado River Basin have been immersed into a program called Drought Contingency Planning (DCP) and for reasons that the federal government made it very clear that failure to comply would result in a direct intervention by the Secretary of Interior. This statement occurred at the end of year 2015 (news clip). Why the 4-year delay? To various degrees, all the states have issues to work out, but the state that is dragging its feet the most, and for reasons that they have the most to lose, is Arizona. Why? To get federal authorization for the construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) in 1968, Arizona agreed to take a low priority water right because Congress was aware that the water demand for this project might incite water shortages at a future time.
Fifty years have since passed and mandatory cuts to Arizona's water supply are no longer a distant threat (graphic). Should Arizona approve the Lower Basin DCP in year 2018, a shortage declaration for the state will occur on January 1, 2019, and for the reason that preliminary discussions between the states of the lower basin have included raising the elevation for a shortage declaration at Lake Mead from elevation 1075 feet to 1090 feet. It is not unreasonble to say that Arizona will not sign the agreement until after January 1, 2019.
Incidentally, on July 31, 2018, the elevation of Lake Mead was at 1077 feet, and on June 30, 2016, the elevation of Lake Mead was at 1073 feet.
Note: According to the current guidelines, if the elevation of Lake Mead is exactly 1075 feet on January 1st of any given year between 2008 and 2026, a shortage is officially declared; to be specific, the first of three shortage tiers. The second tier is 1050 feet, and the third tier is 1025 feet. For each tier the reduction is significantly reduced. The maximum carrying capacity of the CAP aquaduct is 1.6 million acre-feet per year.
Meanwhile, the Upper Basin states are about to repeat the same mistake as Arizona with their proposed water projects that carry junior water rights, which will be discussed in more detail, below.
Note: When Lake Mead reaches elevation 1020 feet, it means Lake Powell is at or below elevation 3525 feet, which is the elevation the Upper Basin DCP hopes to maintain, even at the cost of draining the contents of upstream reservoirs, for example, Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Blue Mesa Reservoir and Navajo Reservoir.
This latest sense of urgency was not a first. In 2004 the reservoir level of Lake Powell was critically low, and to the degree that hydropower production was diminished by 40%
Then Interior Secretary Gale Norton insisted the seven states of the basin develop a shortage sharing agreement in case the situation worsened and, if they did not succeed, she promised to do it for them. Two and a half years later (2007) the states and the feds signed an agreement called Interim Guidelines. The word interim refers to the expiration of the Guidelines at 12 am on January 1, 2026. Now, some ten years later, the conditions of the reservoirs have not improved. In fact, the snow melts of 2012 and 2013 were dismally low, and the chance of shortages arriving by the end of the decade increased to 50%. Thus, the DCP process began in 2014 and 12-years before the expiration of Interim Guidelines, which was the intended action to solve the problem.
Here are three fatal flaws about 2007 Interim Guidelines, which are paraphrased and explained, as follows:
(1) The water savings stored in Lake Mead is voluntary and not mandatory, and the states will not comply until it becomes absolutely necessary. Intentional savings by the states to stabilize Lake Mead did not occur earnestly until a few years ago and with Arizona lagging behind California and Nevada. Mexico will participate, once the DCP is completed. The Native Americans have also pledged assistance, once the DCP is completed. We would agree that this new position is comforting, but we insist that was the appropriate position to take in 2007.
(2) Despite these guidelines, the reservoir supply at Lake Mead will continue to decline beyond 2026. In 2007, the Bureau of Reclamation believed the chances of shortage through 2026 was in the range of 1% to 2% (newsclip). There is a possible 65% chance that shortages will officially be declared by the Secretary of Interior in 2020 (June 2018 "stress test" presentation by USBR). Thus, Interim Guidelines has indeed proven to be a half-measure; too little and too late.
(3) Interim Guidelines allows the upper basin states to annually divert an additional 1 million acre-feet of water, which will eventually compromise water storage at Lake Powell. So far, the upper basin states have yet to develop more water diversion projects, but projects are currently in the permitting stage. They include, for example, Lake Powell Pipeline, a pipeline to Colorados Front Range, Gross Reservoir expansion, Windy Gap Firming Project, Fontenelle Reservoir expansion, Green River nuclear generating station, strip mining for oil sands and kerogen shale, solution mining for potash, and many others. Though these projects have been neutralized, for the moment, by intense campaigns from opposition movements, the hydropower units at Glen Canyon Dam are nearing a shut-down situation. For example, the goal of Drought Contingency Planning is to make sure Lake Powell never goes below elevation 3,525 feet. For the last two years, the average total amount of water above 3,525 feet was about 7 million acre-feet (MAF). According to Interim Guidelines, Lake Powell must discharge 9 MAF in 2018, which is also the most probable discharge for 2019, for a two-year total of 18 MAF. Some back-of-the-envelope arthritic can help us understand how truly dire the situation is: 18 MAF minus 7 MAF is 11 MAF, and therefore 11 MAF must enter Lake Powell next year to keep the reservoir stable. Will nature supply Lake Powell with that much needed 11 MAF? Time will tell, but for water year 2018, nature only supplied 6 MAF (this amount is included in the total volume above 3525 for water year 2018) (July 2018 presentation by USBR). Should next years inflow imitate years 2002, 2003, 2012, or 2013, the goals of the proposed DCPs will be challenged immediately.
We understand how grim this narrative presents itself. However, thinking about system failure with percentage points as high as 65% for an economy that produces 1.4 trillion dollars annually for 40 million people is not easy to dismiss. To be fair, timely leadership has emerged from Secretary of Interior, however, the states appear to be burning the furniture to stay warm.
From a fact sheet provided by Colorado River Water Conservancy District in Glenwood Springs, Colorado:
The seven Colorado River basin states and the US Bureau of Reclamation are working on a contingency plan to avoid the unacceptable consequences of the continuing drought. The Colorado River District, Southwestern Water Conservation District, Colorado Water Conservation Board, The Nature Conservancy and Front Range Water Council are jointly investigating the feasibility of a water bank. The water bank is a tool that might be used with either the contingency or insurance concepts.
There are many overlapping issues so its easy to get confused.(This FAQ answers many of the most frequent questions.
1. What is the contingency plan, and why is one needed?
3. How will extended operations of the upstream Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) units work?
4. How will the 2007 Interim Guidelines affect the contingency plan?
5. What are the chances that we will need to implement the contingency plan by 2026?
6. Why should the Upper Basin be concerned about whats happening in the Lower Basin?
7. What is meant by the Lower Basins structural deficit?
8. Is the Lower Basins structural deficit a threat to the Upper Basin?
Additional agency information
UPPER COLORADO RIVER COMMISSION
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