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No 2016 Shortage Declaration on the Colorado River: You Can’t Simply “Blame it on the Rain…”

| 3 min read
Former Counsel
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by Karlene Martorana

According to the 24-month study released August 17, 2015 by the United States Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), despite earlier predictions to the contrary, a shortage will not be declared on the Colorado River for 2016.

Under the 2007 Record of Decision on Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the Secretary of Interior will declare a shortage if the water elevation in Lake Mead is predicted to drop below 1,075 feet the following January. Last August, when Reclamation issued its 24-month study, there was a high likelihood that drought would be declared on the Colorado River for 2016. In May of this year, the elevation at Lake Mead dropped below 1,075 feet. Even into June, we were all bracing for a shortage to be declared. However, Reclamation’s recent study shows that the anticipated level in Lake Mead on January 1, 2016 will be 1,082 feet above sea level, more than seven feet above the 1,075 foot level that would trigger a shortage declaration.   Thus, a shortage was not declared for 2016.

Avoiding a shortage declaration has been attributed to “Miracle May” and a wet June. These rain events undoubtedly contributed to the increase in water levels at Lake Mead. However, Arizona’s water managers made prudent conservation decisions to leave water on Lake Mead. These prescient efforts also contributed to avoiding a shortage in 2016.

One such conservation measure was a multi-state pilot program agreement entered into on July 30, 2014 among Reclamation, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD), the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), Denver Water and the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). The agreement established a pilot program that would compensate Colorado River water users for voluntary reductions in water use. The parties agreed to make monetary contributions to implement the pilot program and fund conservation programs.

Then, in December of 2014, Reclamation, CAWCD, MWD, SNWA, the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the Colorado River Board of California, and the Colorado River Commission of Nevada entered into a Memorandum of Understanding for Pilot Drought Response Action. CAWCD’s goal set forth in the MOU is to generate 345,000 acre-feet of water savings—water that would stay on Lake Mead. The combined goals of all the parties would leave 740,000 acre-feet of water on Lake Mead.

To meets its goal in the MOU, CAWCD created a variety of programs. For example, it created the Ag Pool Forbearance Program, whereby irrigation districts with a CAP subcontract for agricultural water would forbear a percentage of their allocation (leaving that water on Lake Mead).

In addition, CAWCD and Phoenix established an alternative delivery program allowing CAWCD to deliver 15,000 acre-feet of water stored at Roosevelt Lake to replace delivery of 15,000 acre-feet of Phoenix’s non-Indian agricultural priority water.

While the above-average precipitation in May and June were welcome events for the entire Lower Basin, significant conservation efforts should not be overlooked (nor should the long-term efforts of Arizona’s water managers who have well-positioned Arizona for when a shortage is declared).

Arizona’s cooperation with other basin states and its creative problem solving appears to have contributed to keeping the water level at Lake Mead above the elevation that would have triggered a shortage declaration. Despite the good advice from Milli Vanilli, the good news in Reclamation’s 24-month study cannot be blamed solely on the rain.