Opinion: It’s going to be tough work to make the Colorado River more sustainable. Better to focus on where Arizona stands now.
Hoover Dam and Lake Mead on March 17, 2019. A high-water mark or “bathtub ring” is visible on the shoreline. (Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)
Arizona, California and Nevada have not used this little Colorado River water in more than three decades.
The three states that rely on Lake Mead used a little more than 6.5 million acre-feet in 2019, according to a recent Bureau of Reclamation report, almost a million acre-feet less than they are legally allotted.
The newly passed Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) spurred additional conservation and left more water in the lake. An unusually wet year also helped, because it allowed states to fall back on other supplies.
But the fundamental problem remains: The river still isn’t producing the amount of water we use in a typical year. We’re still draining the mighty Colorado.
This is called a structural deficit, and it’s something that DCP never was meant to fix. The agreement was a Band-Aid to slow, not stop, the level of decline, so the lake didn’t suddenly crash on us. It was simply meant to buy us time, so the seven basin states could more fully address this imbalance and put the river on a more sustainable path.
Why guiding principles matter
That’s where we are now.
The 2007 guidelines that govern how the river operates in drier conditions will expire in 2026, and once a federal review is completed later this year, states will begin meeting to renegotiate the terms.
It’s expected to be a long and arduous process.
Luckily, Arizona is ahead of the game. It has reconvened the public steering committee it used to work through DCP, and in its first meeting, a set of guiding principles were proposed.
Looking for the other side of the story?Subscribe today for access to even more opinions.
I know. This probably sounds boring and inconsequential, but it’s not. Guiding principles helped focus the discussion during DCP, because everyone knew what was on the table and what was not.
Setting these parameters early – and sticking with them – will help keep the debate on track, especially as it drags on. Because make no mistake: This is going to drag on for years, with a lot of hurry up and wait as Arizona negotiates with other states.
That’s the big difference between this and DCP: By the time the steering committee was convened, the regional deal was mostly worked out. The committee was tasked to decide how Arizona would implement its cuts internally.
It was largely a parochial task.
Every state enters this with baggage
This time, the discussion will be much broader than whether (and if so, how much) to mitigate the cuts that will likely be deeper and for longer than anything in DCP.
It’s going to require a unified voice to speak for the state’s – not cities’, farmers’ or industries’ – best interests. Which is why those guiding principles matter.
Some may read like “duh” statements, such as the admonitions not to leave lawmakers or Mexico out of this process. But others may be more difficult to accept – if not in Arizona, then in other states that view the Colorado River with vastly different eyes than we do.
Remember: This river has about a century of litigation tied up with it. Even if states are far more collegial now than in the early days, when Arizona sent troops to guard the river from California, old feuds die hard. Each state brings a lot of baggage to the negotiating table, and it’s important we understand those nuances.
In that case, it’s kind of a big deal to say we intend to “seek basin-wide solutions with burdens shared across the basin, not just by Arizona.” Arizona has junior rights to Colorado River water during shortages, which means if no one else wants to take cuts, they’d legally fall to us first.
Sounds good, but it’s not at all simple
Granted, California agreed to share them under DCP, though Arizona still shouldered more than any other state. And depending on the scope of a new round of cuts, Arizona could be cut to the bone and still not fix the imbalance. It would be better to share the pain of conservation and of finding new supplies to augment what the river produces.
But how that happens, and by how much, is very much up in the air.
Ditto for the principle that Arizona will “respect existing ‘law of the river’ framework, including existing rights, contracts and priorities.” Most people agree that now is not the time to throw out a century of rulings and precedents that make up this “law of the river” – mostly, because of the can of worms that is sure to reopen.
But while we may not abandon them, there has been plenty of talk about how we might need to rethink some elements that no longer reflect the drier reality we face.
There is tension, too, within some of the principles, such as insisting that “Arizona tribes are a vital component within the Arizona discussion” while also committing to “no marketing of unused water” and “no marketing of Arizona water out of state” – points that conflict with the water marketing priorities proposed by the Ten Tribes Partnership and others.
What do we stand for? Let’s decide
No one said working out the details behind these principles will be easy. It’s going to require a level of compromise far beyond anything we saw with DCP. No one’s going to get what they want. In fact, some may have to compromise their personal best interests to speak for the best interests of the state.
That’s going to be hard. It’s going to test Arizona’s resolve.
That’s why it’s smart to lay the foundation now, to decide as a state what we stand for and what we’re willing to let slide.
Reach Allhands at email@example.com. On Twitter: @joannaallhands.
If you love this content (or love to hate it – hey, no judging), why not subscribe to get more?
Read or Share this story: https://www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/op-ed/joannaallhands/2020/08/01/fixing-colorado-river-tough-arizona-reconsultation-guiding-principles/5532451002/