Colorado River Shortage Proposal: Conservation Before Shortage

Published: July 7, 2006

A multi-year drought has had a tremendous impact on storage in the Colorado River basin.

The surface elevation of Lake Mead dropped more than 85 feet between March 2000 and March 2006. There is a real possibility that, for the first time, the Secretary of the Interior will declare an actual shortage on the lower Colorado River in the near future.

The Pacific Institute and several other NGOs with interest and expertise in Colorado River issues began meeting in early 2005 to develop a shortage proposal. These meetings led to the development of an approach to the management of shortages in the Lower Colorado through the implementation of a tiered conservation program — known as Conservation Before Shortage — that is tied to the surface elevation of Lake Mead. This approach is summarized in the Conservation Before Shortage (CBS) (PDF) proposal. CBSII incorporates some of the states’ proposals, including intentionally created surplus (ICS).

Conservation Before Shortage is founded on the principle that the Secretary should take greater responsibility to operate the Colorado River in a manner that minimizes shortages in the Lower Basin and avoids the risk of curtailment in the Upper Basin through conservation, more efficient reservoir operations, and increased flexibility in the management of river resources, while protecting or enhancing environmental values associated with the Colorado River.

Three elements of CBS II highlight this principle:

  1. Voluntary, market-based water conservation as an alternative to and mitigation mechanism against involuntary, uncompensated shortages on the Lower Colorado River;
  2. Voluntary, market-based mechanisms to protect or enhance flow dependent environmental values, in close alignment with applying such mechanisms to mitigate against involuntary, uncompensated shortages; and
  3. Potential expansion of ICS programs (pending appropriate diplomatic consultations) to include water users in Mexico and to improve the management of Colorado River water supplies in both countries.

On April 30, 2007 we submitted extensive comments (PDF) on the Bureau of Reclamation’s draft Environmental Impact Statement on Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead (external link). In these comments, we note that the current NEPA process represents a potentially significant turning point in the history of the Law of the River, one which offers significant opportunities for both water users and environmental values on the River–but which also carries significant economic, environmental, and diplomatic risks. The Basin States Alternative, like the Seven States Agreement upon which it is built, represents a significant potential step forward for water management in the Lower Basin. However, in isolation teh Basin States Alternative does not do enough to ensure the protection of environmental values in the Lower Basin and Mexico or assist the development of an international agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, which will be necessary to implement the States’ proposed shortage policy.

Two components of CBS, the expansion of the intentionally created surplus program to other users in the U.S. and Mexico, and the provision of a voluntary, compensated mechanism for shortage mitigation, are particularly critical in this regard. We believe the analysis conducted to date strongly bears out the importance of these mechanisms. We strongly urge Reclamation to adopt these elements as a part of the preferred alternative in the Final EIS.

Read the Pacific Institute’s comments on the Bureau of Reclamation’s draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Colorado River.