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Conservation accord is progress toward much-needed Colorado River deal

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Last week, the state of Arizona, city of Phoenix, Walton Family Foundation, and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation signed an agreement with the Gila River Indian Community to conserve 40,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water and dedicate that supply to protecting Lake Mead’s water levels. The agreement among this diverse group is another step in an ongoing program to conserve water and delay the onset of a declared shortage condition on the Colorado River – shortages that would hit Arizona first and hardest under operating rules set in place in 2007.

Overall, the agreement represents incremental progress – but even more significant may be the much-needed spark it provides to re-energize drought contingency discussions within Arizona and across the entire Colorado River Basin.

Mike Connor

Mike Connor

As a threshold matter, it’s important to note that even with this year’s high levels of precipitation in the basin, water supply projections have decreased over recent months. In March, the forecasted runoff from the Upper Basin was 145 percent of average. As of June, it is now projected to be about 116 percent of average – still good, but not the drought buster previously projected. And even though there will be no lower basin shortages in 2018 (as recently as January 2017, a 50/50 proposition), the official probability of a declared shortage in 2019 is still above 30 percent.

This is not to suggest panic, but rather a simple reality-check that calls for using the additional time and opportunity provided by Mother Nature this year to continue aggressive efforts to delay shortages and continue to better prepare for their eventual arrival. The drought contingency planning process among a wide range of stakeholders (including the seven Colorado River Basin states, tribes, cities, agricultural and environmental interests, and the Bureau of Reclamation), represents the best prospect for reducing uncertainty with respect to water supplies which support the economies of the seven basin states – and which make up 19 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.

Fortunately, Arizona, with the most at stake, is well-situated to lead the way. The Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR), Central Arizona Water Conservation District, and other water management agencies in the state have been vocal in supporting the need for increased levels in Lake Mead. This agreement makes clear there is broad support and leadership amongst diverse constituencies to participate in aggressive conservation actions for the benefit of everyone. Of note, this is the second conservation agreement that the Gila River Indian Community has put in place this year, demonstrating the community’s important role in Arizona’s water future. Governor Doug Ducey and the Legislature have also been supportive, authorizing ADWR to take the actions needed to finalize a new agreement with Mexico, which is a critical piece of the basin-wide drought-planning effort.

And not to be overlooked, Congress recently stepped up to the plate by providing significant resources to invest in drought response measures. In doing so, Congress demonstrated its understanding that this year’s above-average level of precipitation, while welcome, does not mitigate the need for sustained and ongoing actions to build drought resiliency through conservation and infrastructure improvements that promote flexible water management strategies. A portion of the drought response funding helped make this week’s system conservation agreement possible.

With this momentum, and broad support within the state, what’s needed now is a multi-year intra-Arizona drought plan that demonstrates Arizona’s commitment to delay the serious impacts of shortages within the state.

Overall, the groundwork laid in Arizona will set the stage for a broader set of basin-wide solutions that will help address the water supply and demand imbalance in the Colorado River Basin.  The river is an incredible resource, key to many economic, environmental, social, and cultural values. But the over-allocation of its finite water supply calls into question whether it is capable of sustaining these important values.

Simply put, the Colorado River needs help if it is to continue adequately supporting healthy economies, environments, and communities in the seven-state region. Hopefully, Arizona’s focus and leadership will motivate six other states and the federal government to finalize negotiations among themselves, and with Mexico, to bring stability, reliability, and sustainability in the use of the Colorado River for the benefit of the nearly 40 million people who rely on its water.

— Mike Connor is an environment program fellow with the Walton Family Foundation and the former deputy secretary of the Interior and commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation.

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