Colorado River: January 31 Drought Contingency Plan Deadline Looming-And the Shutdown Isn’t Helping

By Tarah Bailey, GWC Graduate Fellow

The last two decades marked the longest period of drought in the Colorado River’s recorded history, and water demands in the last decade exceeded available supply.  With thirty-five to forty million people in the U.S. currently relying on water from the Colorado River Basin, its waters are over allocated at a rate above mother nature’s ability to replenish.  As such, water supplies are steadily dwindling.  Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country and an important emergency reserve supply, is now only 38% full and Lake Powell is just 43% full.

The water users of the Colorado River Basin include seven states – Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Utah (the Upper Basin states) and Arizona and California (the Lower Basin states) – and Mexico. The river is managed under numerous compacts, federal laws, court decisions and decrees, contracts, and regulatory guidelines collectively known as the “Law of the River.”  Under the Law of the River, the Upper Basin states must deliver a certain amount of water to the Lower Basin states each year. Due to the drought in the last couple decades, water users have relied on Lake Mead and Lake Powell to compensate for water shortages and to maintain the water delivery requirements the Law of the River demands. But with Lake Mead and Lake Powell steadily depleting, the basin state users must curb consumption and figure out a way to limit usage. 

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation (“Reclamation”) oversees the Colorado River and enforces the Law of the River. Reclamation has spent more than three years urging the states to adopt plans that would reduce water consumption.  According to Anne Castle, former Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the U.S. Department of the Interior and Senior Fellow at the GWC, the 2007 Interim Guidelines – which control the amount of water released from the Glen Canyon Dam (Lake Powell) – “are not sufficient to deal with the reality of the current extended drought, the possibility of further reductions of flows, over appropriation of the basin in general, and structural deficit in the lower basin.”  To address these ongoing issues, the basin states have been developing Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) in response to the ongoing historic drought and to manage Lake Powell and Lake Mead in a more sustainable manner.

In December 2018, Reclamation’s Commissioner Brenda Burman called on the seven basin states and water entitlement holders in the Lower Basin to finalize and execute their DCPs by January 31, 2019. The DCPs would require some users to reduce their use – something seemingly impossible to the many farmers and irrigators reliant on the river’s waters in the region.  Because 70% of the river’s water is used by and for the basin’s irrigators, curtailing consumption must come at a price.

In Arizona, a desert state that has consumed beyond its allotted amount for years, farmers in Pinal County are not happy. The January 31 deadline is rapidly approaching and Arizona still does not have an approved plan.  Arizona is the only state where the DCP must be approved by legislation.  Although the DCP has been a top priority since legislators reconvened on January 14, they have only three weeks to approve it.  Out of the seven basin states, Arizona is struggling the most to figure out which water users should see cutbacks first and by how much. Farmers, cities, homebuilders, and tribes are all fighting for more.

The DCP will determine how Arizona’s water users will share the cut of at least 512,000 acre-feet of water out of the 2.8 million they use per year.  But to offset these cutbacks, funding for groundwater infrastructure is required. Arizona Gov.  Doug Ducey and the Central Arizona Project board, which oversees the 336-mile long water delivery system in central Arizona, have each pledged $5M to help fund groundwater infrastructure for Pinal County farmers.

Another issue holding up Arizona lawmakers is the current federal government shutdown.  While Reclamation remains funded through the shutdown (because of its involvement with energy and water appropriation), some of its legal counsel were furloughed. So local Reclamation managers in Arizona are trying to move forward without their counsel – a difficult feat due to the complexities involved.  But Reclamation recently reached an agreement with the Department of Interior to pay for a few of the solicitors and lawyers to come back to work to help hash things out.  With their lawyers on hand, hopefully Arizona’s DCP will be approved in time.

As for the other basin states, all other DCPs are approved.  Arizona remains the lone holdout.  If Arizona misses the January 31 deadline, Reclamation has stated it will step in and take control of matters to prop up Lake Powell.  What that means for the states is that they would lose control over the destiny of their Colorado River waters.  No one wants that.  

As the January 31 deadline looms, the fate of the Colorado River remains uncertain and the pressure is on Arizona lawmakers to make quick decisions.

Tarah Bailey (Colorado Law ’18) is a Graduate Fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment