BULLHEAD CITY — Colorado River Basin states have reached landmark agreements on how to manage river allocations in response to historic drought conditions and reduce the likelihood of reservoirs declining to critical elevations.
“This had to happen,” said Mohave County Sup. Lois Wakimoto, Arizona Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee representative for Mohave County Water Authority. “Everyone has done their best to get Arizona in a place for what has to be a seven-state agreement.”
Arizona Steering Committee, made up of nearly 40 representatives of business, development, agricultural, Native American stakeholders, municipal and government sectors began work on the Arizona Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan in July.
Colorado River water supports 40 million people and 6,300 square miles of farmland in the U.S. and Mexico. After nearly two decades of drought, the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have dropped to alarmingly low levels, officials said.
The chances of a shortfall in Lake Mead are 57 percent by 2020, Bureau of Reclamation said. If that happens, mandatory cutbacks from previous agreements would hit Arizona, Nevada and Mexico first, with Arizona taking the deepest cuts.
The reservoir has never fallen low enough to trigger a shortage.
The two major components of the plans cover the Upper Basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — where most of the water originates, and the Lower Basin — composed of Arizona, California and Nevada — which uses most of the water to support people and farms.
The Lower Basin states have agreed to cut back on the amount of water they use as a way to maintain the level of Lake Mead. The draft plan calls for implementing Lower Basin programs to create or conserve 100,000 acre-feet each year in Lake Mead and other Colorado River reservoirs in the Lower Basin.
An acre-foot of water is 325,851 gallons, enough water for up to three households per year.
If Lake Mead falls below a set level, Arizona would cut back by up to 9 percent, California by up to 8 percent and Nevada by a fixed 3 percent.
Implementation of the LBDCP will trigger additional contributions from Mexico through the Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan, adopted in 2017.
Upper Basin states agreed to keep the surface of Lake Powell above 3,525 feet above sea level, keeping the reservoir 35 feet higher than the minimum required to run the hydroelectric plant and allowing excess water to be stored in reservoirs for later use, without fear it will be drained into the Lower Basin and used there.
The agreements create a collection of drought contingency plans designed to manage and minimize the effects of declining flows in the Colorado River. Some plans were made public Tuesday and Bureau of Reclamation released a final draft of the agreements on Wednesday, which noted the plans’ purpose in part is “to allow the development and testing, on an interim basis, of tools to provide additional security and certainty in the water supply of the Colorado River System for the benefit of the people served by the system.”
“This is the way things should be done,” Ted Kowalski, who leads the Colorado River Initiative for the Walton Family Foundation, told Associated Press. “It’s a much preferred method of solving water management decisions than litigation or politics.”
The Walton Family Foundation funds river restoration projects in the U.S. and Mexico.
“We’re seeing the major Colorado River basin reservoirs on the river are at essentially the lowest lows since the late 1960s,” Kowalski told the Daily News. “If we have an average or bad year next year and the reservoirs reflect this — the work that is going on around the DCP is urgently needed and you cannot fail to take this across the finish line in the next several months because Mother Nature has a schedule of her own.”
Kevin Moran, Environmental Defense Fund senior director Colorado River Program, Water for Arizona Coalition chairman and Arizona Steering Committee member, told the Daily News, “I think (the LBDCP) is fundamental to moving forward and to show that we can work together for a healthy Colorado River system. Having a DCP in place will be the foundation for more work on important water issues that are affecting communities in many parts of the state.”
The agreements are tentative and must be approved by multiple states and agencies as well as the U.S. government. In Arizona, the DCP also will require legislative approval.