Completed drought plan have put Water Managers on pause over Colorado River Negotiations

By on December 22, 2019
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The annual conference of the Colorado River Water Users Association held on December 11 – 13 saw the completion of Upper and Lower basin states Drought Contingency Plans(DCP).

A very different message was delivered to nearly every native American tribe, environmental groups, municipal water agencies, and irrigation districts, by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, than had been delivered at last year’s conference. Burman praised the group on a task well done in getting the DCP’s completed and signed but followed with that they are not the final solution. The implementation of those plans now needs to start.

The Lower Basin states, Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico, must take less water from Lake Mead, the river’s largest reservoir in 2020. No small task since these states are already conserving above the plan requirements. The Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico DCP’s focus more on aerial cloud seeding and reservoir operations. Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, also addressed the group at the conference, stating that for the DCP’s to be successful there must be a public buy-in and that there is a strong need to get consumer feedback on how best to incentivize users during crises. Questions as to how exactly all of this would work are still on the table. As one of the water manager puts it, this plan has a six years shelf life that gives the basins a chance to avoid disaster.

The next task before the conference group was to hammer out the details of the upcoming renegotiation of the river’s operating guidelines, which is set to start by the end of 2020. Within the basin, there is a lot of disagreement as to what the focus should be for renegotiation. One group thinks just a small overview that would take steps at managing the river operation imbalances or the other half of the group wants to approach this as more of a broad base approach about the realities of climate change and the basin drying out. Jennifer Pitt, the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River program director, said the real trick is that we are planning for the weather, and we are not sure what to expect. Pit said, going into a new round of talks, it’s in the basin’s best interest to have different perspectives at the table so that all sides are represented.

Among the list of things to be figured out by this conference group are who will be responsible for delivering Mexico’s allocation of the river’s water, Upper Basin states want to see the risks of climate change more evenly spread across the basin, California wants a resolution to the Salton Sea crisis, where the island is sinking and causing health concerns for man and wildlife from the toxic beaches, and a water cap for the Upper basin and the Colorado River’s long-standing imbalances.

Bergman, in response to such a request, said simply the time is not now to address river treaty imbalances stating that better use of resources is to uncover what was in the 2007 study and then adapt accordingly.