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Drought contingency plan evokes astonishment, buys time

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When Congress passed legislation on April 8 authorizing the secretary of the Interior to sign the Drought Contingency Plan crafted by the Colorado River Basin states, the immediate reaction from nearly everyone could fairly be described as “astonishment.”

Astonishment at the speed with which the federal legislation flew through Congress. At the rare bipartisan comity that enveloped the proceedings in both the House and Senate.  At the waves of support for the DCP that flowed from nearly every group of stakeholders – from cities, agriculture and tribes to environmental advocates and business and political leaders.

Yes, the DCP experience in Washington, D.C., was indeed a whirlwind. Introduced in congressional hearings on March 27. Delivered to the president for his signature on April 8. And signed into law on April 16. By any standard of lawmaking, that is at the speed of political light.

But, by our minds, the truly important phenomenon – the one that put the DCP effort into overdrive on Capitol Hill – was the universal sense of urgency that every stakeholder came to feel about getting to the DCP finish line.

We had to get this done. And we had to do it now. The integrity of the Colorado River system, upon which 40 million people in two nations rely, depended on us getting it done.

It was that unified sense of urgency that brought representatives of the governors of the seven Colorado River Basin states together on March 19 to sign a letter asking Congress to take the federal action needed to implement the DCP. As noted, on April 8, Congress did just that. The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act was ably ushered along by Sen. Martha McSally, Rep. Raul Grijalva and, in fact, the entire Arizona congressional delegation.

The governors’ representatives of the seven basin states now are prepared to sign the system-wide DCP with the secretary of the Interior. We can safely declare that our years-long work on the plan to help stabilize our vital river system really is effectively done – and just in time, as 2020 is now beginning to come into focus.

February and March brought the Colorado River Basin an interesting twist of fate with a very wet winter that produced a deep snowpack in the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Based on the recently released 24-Month Study of Colorado River conditions by the Bureau of Reclamation, it looks like this almost certainly will be enough to stave off a Tier 1 shortage declaration in the Lower Basin of the system in 2020. Surface levels at Lake Mead now are projected to finish 2019 at least nine or 10 feet above the critical Tier 1 1,075-foot level.

However, that doesn’t mean we won’t be in shortage. DCP puts in place a new Tier Zero shortage level that begins at Lake Mead elevation 1,090 feet. This Tier Zero shortage will likely be our new reality starting in 2020.

What does that mean? While we probably won’t be taking the dramatic Tier 1 cuts to the delivery of Colorado River through the Central Arizona Project Canal, Arizona will still be taking a Tier Zero reduction of 192,000 acre feet to its CAP deliveries. That water will stay in Lake Mead, in much the same way we have been voluntarily leaving water in the lake for the past several years. The difference is that this reduction will now be mandatory.

This is all part of what we agreed to do – water users in Arizona, as well as our basin states partners, took the long view that working collectively to protect our shared resources benefits us all. It is difficult to overstate the significance of the willingness of the seven basin states to work together. We collaborated not just with parochial interests in mind, but with the best interests of the 40 million people relying on the Colorado River in mind.

Nor can we overstate the astonishing enthusiasm that greeted the seven governors’ representatives when they turned to Congress for the legislation necessary to authorize the Interior secretary to finalize the DCP with the states.

But in terms of taking long-term steps to protect the most important source of water in the Southwest, the job is never really done.

We certainly are not done taking action to protect both Lake Mead and Lake Powell from the effects of ongoing, historic drought. One winter of above-average snowpack does not change the fact that the Southwest remains one or two dry winters away from once again teetering toward a shortage declaration.

As recently as 2011, remember, Lake Mead elevation rose from about 1,080 feet to above 1,130 feet in a single year, thanks largely to a 2010 winter snowpack that was well above average. Just a few years later, by 2014, Lake Mead levels were again sinking toward a shortage declaration.

Vital as it is, the DCP is not a “solution” to anything. It is simply a tool for reducing the risk of Lake Mead falling to dangerously low levels.

The DCP creates a safe haven for the re-negotiation of the 2007 guidelines, which expire, along with the DCP, in 2026. In short, it buys us time. We finish the DCP and almost immediately turn around to begin working on the new set of guidelines, which will become the basin’s reality in 2027. We’re water managers and that’s what we do – and what we will continue to do to ensure reliable water supplies into the future.

Those are the realities that put the work we’ve done into perspective, but they certainly don’t diminish the enormity of what we’ve accomplished.

Without a DCP in place, the odds of Lake Mead crashing in the coming 2020 Water Year had risen to better than 50-50 before the winter’s improved hydrology pushed us back from the precipice.

With the DCP, on the other hand, the risk of shortage begins to decline toward more manageable single digits.

Accomplishing that goal is, in itself, something the basin states should consider a job not just “done,” but done well.

— Tom Buschatzke is director of the Department of Water Resources and is the representative of Gov. Doug Ducey’s Drought Contingency Plan.

— Ted Cooke is general manager of the Central Arizona Project.

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