August 16, 2021
A Q&A with Pacific Institute Senior Researcher Michael Cohen and Dr. Amanda Bielawski, Pacific Institute Director of Communications and Outreach
Today, the US Secretary of the Interior declared a first-ever Shortage Condition for the Lower Colorado River Basin. After more than 21 years of drought in the western United States intensified by human-caused climate change, the Bureau of Reclamation has released a study projecting that the elevation of Lake Mead will be below an elevation triggering a Tier 1 Shortage Condition that will reduce water access to some users starting in January 2022. It’s a historic move sending reverberations throughout the water policy world — both within the United States and globally.
What does this Shortage Declaration mean for Native American Tribes, the seven U.S. states, and communities in Mexico downstream? What does the situation tell us about climate-intensifying droughts in other river Basins around the world? And, in the face of climate change, how can we envision and build water resilient infrastructure moving forward to safeguard communities from water scarcity into the future?
To tackle these questions and others, we spoke with Michael Cohen, a Pacific Institute Senior Researcher who has worked on water use issues in the Colorado River Basin and delta region since 1998.
The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the West.
AB: You’ve worked on water policy issues in the Colorado River Basin for more than two decades, spanning the entire period of this 22-year drought. What is the significance of today’s official Shortage Declaration and who will be impacted?
MC: The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the West, providing water for more than 40 million people, including 29 federally recognized Native American Tribes, and irrigating almost six million acres of land in the U.S. and Mexico. Although the Colorado River roils and rages in the nation’s imagination, the reality is far more prosaic. The river is tightly managed and controlled, captured and caged by 10 massive dams along its length. Its use is regulated by treaty, inter-state compacts, state and federal laws, and a host of judicial decisions and decrees. These treaties, compacts, and laws allocate more water from the river than flows even in an average year, an imbalance shown by the ever-expanding “bathtub ring” highlighting Lake Mead’s fall.
Today, the Bureau of Reclamation released a study projecting that Lake Mead’s elevation at the end of this year will be below 1075 feet – almost 150 feet below its elevation 22 years ago. This projection triggers a declaration by the Secretary of the Interior of a “Level 1 Shortage Condition” for Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico (but not for California) in 2022. Central Arizona water users – primarily farmers – will bear the brunt of this shortage, reducing their use by more than half a million acre-feet of water – almost a third of the capacity of the Central Arizona Project’s aqueduct. Fortunately, water users have had years to plan and prepare for this, mitigating the impacts of this signal event. Some users will shift to groundwater, tapping into water recharged for this purpose.
The shortage declaration follows rules finalized in 2007, providing predictability for water users. The shortage condition will not affect water users in California, though declining inflows into and releases from Lake Powell will cause Lake Mead’s elevation to continue to fall next year, threatening a 200,000 acre-foot reduction for California in 2024 and even larger reductions in subsequent years if conditions do not improve dramatically.
If there’s a silver lining to today’s shortage declaration, it’s that it reflects a cooperative effort among a broad range of stakeholders who developed innovative mechanisms to store water in Lake Mead, mechanisms that have delayed this shortage declaration for several years and reduced the finger-pointing and risk of litigation so common in other Basins. However, these innovative mechanisms have not been enough to address the extremely dry and hot conditions desiccating the Basin and will not be sufficient to prevent a very rapid draining of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, as shown by the Bureau of Reclamation’s very sobering projections, in which Mead’s elevation could plummet another 40 feet in the next two years.
It’s shocking to think that people in the U.S. do not have reliable access to drinking water, but that’s the grim reality in far too many Native American communities.
AB: Indigenous communities in the Colorado River Basin — and throughout the United States— are disproportionately impacted by water insecurity. How will today’s Shortage Declaration impact Native American communities in the Colorado River Basin?
MC: It’s shocking to think that people in the U.S. do not have reliable access to drinking water, but that’s the grim reality in far too many Native American communities. The baseline is already intolerable. The continuing drought exacerbates these existing challenges.
Several Tribes, notably the Gila River Indian Community, have already reduced their use of Colorado River water in a collaborative effort to delay the declaration of shortage and to mitigate the impacts on other users. Although Tribes in the Basin have very senior water rights on paper, in practice many still lack access to the water reserved for them by treaties dating back more than a century. Fortunately, many in the Basin have begun to recognize that addressing the river’s current and future challenges requires consultation with the sovereign Tribes.
The study released today clearly shows the accelerating rate of decline of the Colorado River’s massive reservoirs, underscoring the need for urgent action to mitigate much larger reductions in the near future.
AB: While the focus today is on the Colorado River Basin, there are many Basins in the United States and around the world facing severe drought exacerbated by human-caused climate change. What are some of the other Basins facing similar concerns? Is this a microcosm?
MC: Last week’s U.S. Drought Monitor shows 95.4% of the West suffering from some level of drought, including more than 25% in exceptional drought, the most severe category. Much of Brazil continues to experience drought. And it wasn’t many years ago that Cape Town, South Africa, was counting the days until it ran out of water.
While transformational drought has affected many arid and semi-arid Basins around the world, there are several practices within the Colorado River Basin that offer good models for how to address such challenges. Over the past 20-plus years, stakeholders in the Basin have worked together to craft innovative approaches to address declining reservoir elevations and diminishing supply. Water conservation and efficiency have become the standard for most of the growing cities using Colorado River water, enabling economic and population growth while using less water overall. Many farmers have improved their water use efficiency, using less water to irrigate the same amount of land. Water users have invested in system efficiencies throughout the Basin, lining canals, building regulatory reservoirs, and improving operations to conserve water now stored in Lake Mead. Perhaps most surprising is that the U.S. and Mexico have executed a series of agreements enabling U.S.interests to invest in system improvements in Mexico, enabling Mexico to store water in Lake Mead, and providing for dedicated environmental flows to the desiccated Colorado River delta. These are positive steps in the right direction.
Credible science and modeling, a network of bold and innovative thinkers from a variety of sectors, and a willingness to (slowly) enlarge the negotiating table made these changes possible. Without these creative changes and the cooperation demonstrated by Basin stakeholders, today’s shortage declaration would have occurred two or three years earlier, amid litigation and paralysis. The pressing question now is whether Basin stakeholders will again find solutions sufficient to meet the growing challenges posed by a drier and more volatile climate. The study released today clearly shows the accelerating rate of decline of the Colorado River’s massive reservoirs, underscoring the need for urgent action to mitigate much larger reductions in the near future.
Climate change is water change.
AB: Although the western United States is naturally an arid region, it’s clear the current 22-year drought has been intensified by human-caused climate change. What are future projections for the Colorado River Basin based upon the newly released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in August?
MC: Climate change is water change. The Colorado River Basin manifests these changes in dramatic and sobering ways. Although precipitation in the Basin is about 72% of average this water year, runoff has been only about 32% of average due to very dry soil conditions and higher temperatures – reflecting the “hot drought” and the strong climate signal Peter Gleick anticipated 30 years ago. Average Colorado River flows over the past 22 years are down more than 2.5 million acre-feet – about 18% – relative to average annual flows prior to the current drought. Continued climate change impacts could reduce Colorado River flows by 50% by the end of the century.
The new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report projects the very changes we’re already seeing in the Basin. Rain falling on forest fire burn scars has caused disruptive mudslides, closing Interstate 70 several times in the past month and generating localized flooding in many areas. The intensity of some of these storms is incredible. On July 25th, parts of Boulder, Colorado experienced 2.25 inches of rain in 90 minutes.
Perhaps today’s dire projections will compel water users to confront climate change and press their legislators to take meaningful action to reduce carbon emissions, and not just rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship.
AB: Amid climate change and population growth, what does today’s Shortage Declaration suggest about whether the water infrastructure built during the 20th century can serve the water needs of the U.S. West into the 21st century? Is a transformational change in the way we approach water infrastructure needed?
MC: In 1893, John Wesley Powell observed that there was not enough water to supply western lands. We still haven’t learned that lesson. While many cities now use much less water than they did twenty and thirty years ago despite significant economic and population growth, others spin wild schemes to further deplete the dwindling Colorado River. Perhaps today’s dire projections will compel water users to confront climate change and press their legislators to take meaningful action to reduce carbon emissions, and not just rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship.
AB: What are the next steps to watch for in the Colorado Basin? Are there future steps that make you feel hopeful?
MC: The next major action in the Basin will be the renegotiation of the 2007 interim guidelines. The current operating guidelines expire at the end of 2026, providing a needed deadline for developing and finalizing the next set of shortage criteria for the Basin. The good news is that the Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Reclamation now have confirmed people in key leadership positions – people who are very familiar with Colorado River operations – enabling the new negotiations to commence.
One item in today’s study that should receive more attention is the Bureau of Reclamation’s projection of “minimum probable inflows.” This minimum probable inflow projection shows that the elevation of Lake Mead could fall below 1,030 feet in July 2023, triggering a consultation between the Secretary of the Interior and representatives of Arizona, California, and Nevada “to determine what additional measures will be taken … to avoid and protect against the potential for Lake Mead to decline below 1,020 feet.” This new consultation is a positive step, forcing consideration of additional necessary conservation measures. I’m hopeful that the Secretary and Reclamation will expand the table to include the sovereign Native American Tribes, Mexico, and stakeholders such as conservation organizations, to ensure that these additional measures are equitable and do not sacrifice the environment or other interests.
Learn more about drought in the Colorado River Basin and throughout the Western US in this “Drought in the American West”briefing produced in partnership with Circle of Blue.Pacific Institute Director of Research Heather Cooley discusses the history of water infrastructure development in the US West and innovative water efficiency and reuse strategies.Pacific Institute President Emeritus Dr. Peter Gleick discusses the need for water resilience moving forward. In Gleick’s words, “We can build water systems that are truly water resilient. Let’s turn the current crisis into action.”