A crisis brews on the Colorado

With water supplies dwindling, states getan order to share the pain

  • Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell in May 2003. The white ring indicates the reservoir's maximum elevation; today, the reservoir is 40 feet lower than the level shown

    James W. Kay

For the first time since the federal Bureau of Reclamation began its massive dam-building program on the Colorado River in 1933, the seven states that depend on the river for drinking and irrigation water are bracing for a shortage. As the Colorado River Basin enters the sixth year of the worst drought in a century, Lake Mead is now at 56 percent of capacity; Lake Powell is at 36 percent. Together, the two reservoirs represent the Colorado River Basin’s water bank account, and the balance is dropping.

The secretary of the Interior could declare an official "shortage" as early as 2007, cutting off states’ water in ascending order of priority, irrigation-ditch style. But amazingly, the Interior Department still has no formal criteria for declaring a shortage, or for dealing with one. The Bureau of Reclamation’s river-management models are based on recorded streamflows going back to 1906, rather than on paleoclimate data from the past several hundred years that show more severe droughts, and those models didn’t predict that the reservoirs would go this low this soon.

"People thought they had a whole lot more time to deal with the issue," says Patricia Mulroy, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies water to Las Vegas.

In an effort to avoid the cuts that would come with an official shortage, on Dec. 17, Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles gave the seven Colorado River Basin states until April to develop their own alternative to manage the dwindling water supply.

It’s a hugely contentious mandate, but the states are motivated by a shared desire to avoid a fight in court, which would be expensive, time-consuming, and a crapshoot. And many water managers say that tightening down water diversions now could help stretch supplies in the Colorado River and turn the "sudden death" of an official shortage into a series of more manageable crises, at least for a couple more years.

To address the drought long-term, states may finally have to start thinking as a basin, rather than just looking out for themselves. The states’ effort will center on finding flexible ways to manage Lake Mead, which serves as a drought-year bank account for the Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — and Lake Powell, which is essentially an account for the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico (HCN, 11/10/97: Drain Lake Powell? Democracy and science finally come West). If both accounts can be kept from bottoming out for as long as possible, all seven states may be able to avoid an official shortage.

But getting some states to look out for anyone but themselves will be tough. The Central Arizona Project (CAP), which supplies water to Phoenix and Tucson as well as to farmers, has the worst water rights on the river, so if a shortage is declared, it will take the first cut. To guard against such a calamity, Arizona has been drawing its full allocation from the Colorado and "banking" unused water underground as its own, in-state, drought-protection policy. "The only way we’re going to get through those shortages is to use what we’ve banked," says CAP deputy general manager Larry Dozier.

But that strategy has raised the hackles of the other basin states, which are asking why, six years into the drought, Arizona is still siphoning water from the Colorado into its drought bank, rather than pulling water out of that bank.

"That has the effect of driving down the (entire Colorado River) system," says Jim Lochhead, a Glenwood Springs, Colo.-based attorney who represents a coalition of Colorado cities and irrigation districts. Because Arizona’s strategy lowers Lake Mead, says Lochhead, it creates more pressure on the Upper Basin to release water from Lake Powell.

The secretary of the Interior currently requires Upper Basin states to release 8.23 million acre-feet annually downstream to Lake Mead. An agreement between the states to share shortages proportionally, at least temporarily, would help spread the pain. If Arizona reduced its diversions, that would take some of the pressure off Lake Mead, and the Upper Basin states could ask the Interior secretary to reduce the amount of water they’re required to send downstream.

The Upper Basin states are likely to propose reducing their "delivery obligation" to 7.5 million acre-feet. But that, too, raises huge questions, because the U.S. is required to deliver 1.5 million acre-feet a year to Mexico, half of which now comes out of the Upper Basin. Although any "extraordinary" drought shortages are supposed to be shared by the two countries, just what extraordinary drought is, or how to deal with it, is something else that has never been defined.

An April review of water conditions in the Colorado River Basin will provide a clearer picture of options for this year. In the meantime, negotiations are sure to be delicate.

"The alternative" to a state-driven compromise, says Mulroy, "is going to be 15 to 20 protracted years in court, and abrogating our responsibilities as water managers to a judge."

The author is HCN associate editor.

High Country News Classifieds
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....