Bathtub rings show how low Lake Powell levels have dropped. Photo taken in July, 2021 by Jay Huang

FEATURE: Metropolitan Water District prepares for the upcoming Colorado River negotiations

In August, the Secretary of the Interior announced the first-ever shortage declaration for the Lower Basin of the Colorado River, specifically, California, Arizona, and Nevada.  On Wednesday, the Bureau of Reclamation released updated modeling projections of major reservoir levels within the Colorado River system that show that Lake Powell is likely to reach critically-low elevation as soon as next year, with Lake Mead possibly reaching a critical low elevation by 2025. 

A complex web of agreements, laws, and treaties determine how a shortage will be distributed amongst the seven states and Mexico that share the Colorado River; as it so happens, this initial round of cutbacks does not include cuts to California, although those could come as soon as 2025.

With 25% of Southern California’s water supplies coming from the Colorado River, Metropolitan Water District remains engaged in the negotiations and an active partner in projects with stakeholders intended to keep Lake Mead from falling further into shortage conditions.  At the August meeting of Metropolitan’s Water Planning and Stewardship Committee meeting, Colorado River Manager Bill Hasencamp discussed the preparations for the upcoming negotiations.

August’s shortage declaration on the Colorado River triggered reductions in the amount of water that Arizona and Nevada may divert; California does not take shortages at this time.  The Shortage Declaration also triggers water savings contributions according to Minute 323 (a ‘minute’ in this sense refers to agreements between the lower basin states and Mexico).   At the same time,  it was announced that due to low levels at Lake Powell, 750,000 acre-feet of water less will be released next year than was released this year; that is 1.5 million acre-feet less water than was released two years ago.

That means that while a good snowpack might help out both Oroville and Powell, Lake Mead is going to be going down next year,” said Mr. Hasencamp.  “This graph shows that even with average conditions, Lake Mead is forecast to drop another 20 to 30 feet from where it is today because we already know it’s going to get drought year releases coming in from Lake Powell next year.”

I think there is a silver lining with the shortage declaration,” he continued.  “And that is that we’ve been able to go 15 years since the shortage guidelines were adopted back in 2007 an, despite some really dry years, because of our collective actions, we’ve made it 15 years before we finally got to that shortage.  But the drought these last two years was just too much to overcome. And now we’re dropping to pretty low levels. So I see this not as a short-term shortage declaration that is occurring, but I think it’s more like a reset.”

Mr. Hasencamp noted that before 2002, shortage surplus supplies were abundant every year; from 2002 until today, Colorado River supplies have been fluctuating, but still, everyone received their full allocation. 

But now that we’re in the shortage, the momentum tends to keep you in that same area, and we could be in for a shortage as a new, perhaps semi-permanent way of life on the Colorado River,” he said.

The August shortage declaration makes cuts to Arizona and Nevada of 333,000 acre-feet; in addition, the two states must contribute 200,000 acre-feet.  Mexico also has to reduce its use by 50,000 acre-feet from a shortage and another 30,000 contributions in their DCP-like agreement. These combined actions will reduce the lower basin’s water use by 613,000 acre-feet in 2022.

Even with those significant reductions, Lake Mead is still forecast to drop by 20 to 30 feet,” said Mr. Hasencamp.  “Of course, California has not taken a shortage.  And we can withdraw from ICS again next year and fill our Colorado River Aqueduct again next year, in the event of another dry year in Northern California.  This is thanks to the work on the drought contingency plan, which, had that not been in place, not only could we not take ICS out in a shortage, but even the year before shortage and 2021, our ICS could have been curtailed. But fortunately, that didn’t happen.”

Mr. Hasencamp noted that another trigger in the draft contingency plan might also be reached; there is a provision that says that ‘if any 24-month study projects Lake Mead reaching elevation 1030 in the next two years, the Secretary and the lower division states shall consult and determine what additional measures will be taken by the Secretary and the states to avoid and protect against the potential for Lake Mead to decline below elevation 1020.’

So we think these formal consultations will be triggered – perhaps this week, perhaps next month, but certainly in the next few months, it appears,” said Mr. Hasencamp.  “And in this consultation, we’ll have to figure out how we can do even more than we’re already doing under the drought contingency plan.”

Drought Response Actions

PVID System Conservation Agreement

One of Metropolitan’s drought response actions is the Palo Verde Irrigation District (PVID) System Conservation Agreement, which the Metropolitan board signed last June.  The project is funded by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Central Arizona Project, and the Bureau of Reclamation, as well as Metropolitan.  The program will allow additional fallowing within PVID of up to 60,000 acre-feet a year, in addition to Metropolitan’s existing fallowing call.

We lowered our fallowing call to 25% starting August 1, because of the amount of ICS we had in storage; That left capacity for this system conservation program within PVD. It’s a three-year program. The first year is voluntary, so we won’t get the full 60,000 acre-feet this first year. But in years two and three, we will get the full amount. And it should add about three feet to Lake Mead, or at least reduce the decline in Lake Mead by about three feet over those three years. So not a drought buster. But certainly, that can be very helpful in avoiding a future trigger.

He noted that the Metropolitan board has approved a similar agreement with Bard Water District.

Additional potential short-term actions

Increasing ICS storage space in Lake Mead:  Another short-term action that could be taken to help slow the decline of Lake Mead is to increase ICS storage space in Lake Mead through additional agricultural conservation measures in system conservation programs throughout the lower basin. 

As of today, both Arizona and Nevada ICS accounts are full, and Metropolitans account is 1.3 million acre-feet of out of 1.6 million acre-feet, so we’re not that far from being full ourselves,” said Mr. Hasencamp.  “If we fill our ICS space, there’s less incentive to put more water in Lake Mead, so if we can get that ICS space increased, we’ll have more opportunity to store water in Lake Mead to help prop it up.”

Yuma Desalting Plant: About ten years ago, Metropolitan, along with the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Central Arizona Project funded a pilot operation where the plant was successfully operated at 1/3 capacity for a year.  “Since that time, it sat idle, and we’ve been trying to encourage Reclamation to invest in operating it at some level and perhaps with some investment from Metropolitan,” he said.

Expanding conservation measures with Mexico: In minute 323, Metropolitan, IID, Southern Nevada Water Authority, and CAP are funding conservation projects in Mexico. The agreement allows that to be ramped up to a higher level. “So far, we haven’t made much progress in expanding that, but that’s something that could be done relatively quickly to add water to Lake Mead,” he said.

Provide funding for urban conservation local resources, mostly in the smaller cities that don’t have the means to do conservation measures on their own.

So those are the potential actions to prop of the elevation of Lake Mead over the next two years, while at the same time, the negotiation of the new Colorado River guidelines will begin.

Development of new Colorado River guidelines

Several existing agreements will be affected by the new guidelines:

The 2005 Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Plan:  This plan provided California Endangered Species Act and federal Endangered Species Act coverage for current and future water and power operations, most notably, all QSA transfers.  Even more transfers that were envisioned in the QSA are covered. It is a 50-year program that works by developing critical habitat for endangered species.   But it doesn’t cover adding water to Lake Mead.

2007 interim Guidelines: These overarching guidelines are effective through 2026.  The guidelines had three key provisions:  the establishment of the surplus and shortage triggers, the coordinated operations to better operate Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and the development of the Intentionally Created Surplus or ICS program.  

Back in those negotiations in 2007, Metropolitan staff focused on the ICS piece since we weren’t taking shortage and we weren’t as affected by reservoir operations,” said Mr. Hasencamp.  “That will be different next time around.”

Cooperative minutes with Mexico: Mexico was not at the table in 2007, but in subsequent years, they became a proactive partner in managing the Colorado River with Minute 318, 319, and 323.  With those minutes, Mexico is now participating in surplus and shortage, as well as storing water in Lake Mead.  And Metropolitan and other agencies are partnering with Mexico to fund conservation for the benefit of both countries.

Mexico also was very interested in environmental flows for the Colorado River Delta, which culminated in the 2014 pulse flow that connected the Colorado River, for a brief period, to the ocean, and for a few moments, the Colorado River came to life in Mexico. That was during the last drought. When it was hard to find water, we found water for that pulse flow. A pulse flow just finished this year on the Colorado River, a smaller one targeting key environmental sites within Mexico, realizing there wasn’t enough water to have the full flow back to the Colorado River.

The 2019 Drought Contingency Plan:  When it was realized that climate change was a more significant risk to the Colorado River than had been anticipated in 2007 when the interim guidelines were developed, there was additional protection needed for Lake Mead.  All three states, and later, Mexico, agreed to provide water to Lake Mead under certain Lake Mead elevation conditions.  The DCP also incentivized storage, which Metropolitan took advantage of, storing a record amount of water in both 2017 and 2019 in Lake Mead. 

California participated in those reductions. But they were not shortages; they were compelled storage,” said Mr. Hasencamp.  “If we ever get to 1045, California is compelled to store water in Lake Mead that is recoverable under certain conditions.”

Under the new guidelines, all of those agreements will be terminating, including the Mexico minutes, which will expire in 2025, except for the Multi-Species Conservation Plan, which will need to be modified.

Looking towards the new guidelines

The Department of Interior will be leading the process. They will prepare an Environmental Impact Statement through a public process followed by a record of decision. At the same time, the United States agencies will be negotiating with Mexico to have minutes that presumably will mirror the agreements that are done in the United States.

Mr. Hasencamp said there will be a suite of implementing agreements that the Metropolitan board will need to approve, and likely interstate agreements with Arizona, Nevada, and the Bureau of Reclamation. There will also be agreements within the state of California between IID, Coachella, PVID, and Needles, who will need to sign off on the package for it to move forward.

We will need to increase our compliance under the Multi-Species Conservation Plan, meaning we’ll have to work with both Sacramento and Washington in increasing ESA compliance and coverage,” he said.  “And finally, almost certainly, we will need federal legislation. Because the state of Arizona insists that if ever California takes more than 4.4 during a shortage, it requires federal legislation for that to happen.”

Mr. Hasencamp then noted some staff changes that have been made in preparation for the negotiations.  Staff will be providing regular updates to the committee and inform them of key milestones and decisions.

There is also a need to update the existing Colorado River guiding principles and develop new guiding principles.  He noted that while the current principles have served Metropolitan well, there are new policies needed.  Those include policies for things such as to what extent and under what conditions will Metropolitan share in Colorado River delivery reductions, allow interstate investments in and sharing yield from water recycling or desalination projects, pursue and share storage opportunities, and purchase agricultural land.

So the next step is to begin gathering committee input on the Colorado River policies.  Staff will also collaborate with other stakeholders on the Colorado River to develop short-term responses for the next two years.  At the same time, staff will be evaluating the options for addressing the anticipated long-term supply-demand gap and working to understand the full impact of climate change on Metropolitan’s supplies.

During the discussion period, Director Rusell Lefevre (Torrance) asked if the other stakeholders on the Colorado River are at the table.  Mr. Hasencamp noted that the Colorado River Board of California, that the Imperial Irrigation District, San Diego County, and others participate in, have developed their own similar list. In addition, the staff is meeting with the lower basin stakeholders monthly to expand the list and garner broader support.

I’m sure they have their own ideas and their own thoughts, but we all have to figure out how we’re going to respond collectively as a lower basin because the last thing we want is someone to ask us to do more cuts,” Mr. Hasencamp said.  “So we want to avoid that, and so we want to try to find other ways to add water to Lake Mead.”

As for the upper basin states, Mr. Hasencamp said, “They are more on their own tracks figuring it out as they are watching Lake Powell decline.  They have their own storage account. They’re trying to figure out how to do their demand management program in the upper basin. And we’re staying out of that for the most part.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Z-shaped canyon, Lake Powell, July, 2021.  Photo by Jay Huang.

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