Photo of Colorado River at very low level

I was asked to contribute an article about approaches to managing disaster response in the water management sector. I want to first acknowledge that we, my water management colleagues across the west and myself, work in a dynamic and challenging environment.

We grapple with climate impacts to our water resources, plus regulatory and financial constraints. We serve vital and vibrant communities with a broad spectrum of resources, ranging from small Native American communities to huge urban centers. We serve these communities a critical resource: a reliable water supply to meet the health, safety, and economic needs for more than 40 million people in the Colorado River Basin. I want to be clear—the work that I and the other water management professionals involved in Colorado River issues do on a daily basis is not disaster management. My colleagues and I strive to avoid a water crisis through planning, innovation, and collaboration.

Throughout the past number of months, you may have seen headlines in the media citing the “West’s water woes” as a crisis. To me, a crisis is in large part defined by the inability or failure to adequately plan or adapt. I often use personal health as an example. It’s one thing to opt for a minimally invasive elective procedure in order to avoid a possible emergency surgery in the future. It doesn’t mean the pain of surgery will be any less severe, but at least you have time to plan for it.

Conversely, the drought and Colorado River water issues we’re experiencing in the West—especially here in Arizona—have been unfolding since the early 2000s. We have had time to prepare and respond, implementing proactive measures to build resiliency in our system so we can continue to provide water for the health, safety, and economic benefit of the communities we serve.

And these issues are ever-changing. Even from last May when I agreed to contribute an article to now when you are reading it, circumstances related to the Colorado River are quite different, and I would expect that level of change to continue into the future. This is why adaptability and flexibility—the very definition of resiliency—are vital to the future of water management in the West.

The Colorado River: Serving 40 Million People

To help put our situation into context, here is some key information you need to understand about the source of our water. The Colorado River serves seven states, 29 tribal nations, and the Republic of Mexico. It supplies water to 40 million people, irrigates approximately five million acres of farmland, and provides millions of megawatt hours of clean hydropower annually. This hard-working river also supports essential environmental resources, including national parks, wildlife refuges, and critical habitats.

Notably, the Colorado River system includes an enormous amount of water storage capacity in Lake Powell and Lake Mead—the nation’s two largest man-made reservoirs. Lake Powell serves the Upper Colorado River Basin, which is Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming; and Lake Mead serves the Lower Colorado River Basin, which is Arizona, California, Nevada, and by treaty, the Republic of Mexico.

In Arizona, water is used by some of the most senior water rights holders in the system along the state’s western border, and the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal carries water 336 miles across the desert into the central and southern regions where 80 percent of the state’s population lives. The water that CAP delivers is then used by cities, industry, agricultural districts, and tribal communities.

Today we find ourselves at a critical point in the Colorado River’s history. We are experiencing two decades of drought and increasing demands for its supply.

The projections for snowpack and runoff in the Colorado River system have been on the decline, and the reservoirs are getting progressively lower. We have less water to work with than we did before. As a result, in August, the U.S. secretary of the interior declared the first-ever shortage on the Colorado River to start on January 1, 2022. Let me explain how we got here.

Decades of Drought: Treading Water above the Shortage Line

The current drought we’re experiencing began around 2000. Recognizing the change in hydrology, parties from throughout the Colorado River Basin and the federal government (and later, Mexico) came together to develop the “Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” what is now referred to as the 2007 Guidelines. These guidelines detail how the system would be operated in a way that would help protect it from shortage over the next 20 years. Procedures were put in place that require the two major reservoirs be managed conjunctively. Tiers of shortage reductions were established based on the elevation, as measure of water storage, in Lake Mead, requiring water uses to be curtailed as the water level drops in the lake. The concept is relatively simple: as supplies dwindle, uses are reduced.

But as the drought persisted, we realized that shortages under the 2007 Guidelines might be triggered earlier than originally anticipated and might not be sufficient to protect the system to the degree expected.

In the 1900s, droughts were punctuated by high inflow years to replenish storage in the reservoirs. This drought is different because of the sustained low inflows to reservoirs over two decades. In addition, water users in the three Lower Basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) have expanded into their full contract amounts over the same period of time. Water managers began to acknowledge that a structural deficit existed, meaning there is an imbalance between how much water is available for use in the system and how much has been allocated, even without a drought. The drought had amplified the impacts of the imbalance by further reducing the amount of water available.

That was a critical point in time for water users. We openly recognized that the Colorado River was heading for a crisis absent innovation, additional planning, and a spirit of cooperation.

So, our collective mission was to create new agreements and projects to reduce water uses in order to prop up the level of Lake Mead.

Easier said than done, but we came together in 2014, and took collective action along with our partners—the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Denver Water, and other agencies in the Colorado River Basin. We jointly initiated and funded large-scale, voluntary water conservation efforts throughout the Colorado River Basin. These steps were innovative and helped protect the Colorado River system by giving us new water conservation programs and tools.

While there are many complex mechanisms and technical terms involved, the simple explanation is that the Central Arizona Project and its Arizona and interstate partners provided incentives and tools for leaving water behind in Lake Mead rather than taking our full allocations. By working together in Arizona and throughout the Basin, we helped to stabilize the lake level, creating a more resilient system and buying us time to develop better protections against declining reservoirs. Collaboration kept us treading water to avoid shortage for as long as we did.

Drought Contingency Plan: Planning for the Specifics of Shortage

During these years we could see that despite our best efforts the drought continued unabated, the decline in the lake level was accelerating, and voluntary actions would not be enough. It was time to do more, and that led to the development of the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP).

The DCP, passed by Congress in 2019, was an overlay to the 2007 Guidelines and further defined the process for how shortages on the Colorado River works. It’s actually made up of several agreements:

  • One set of agreements for the Lower Basin defining new levels of cuts and contributions to protect the elevation of Lake Mead. These agreements increased the elevation at which reductions would occur and increased the amount of the reductions for the tiers established in the 2007 Guidelines. In addition, the DCP included an adaptive measure called the 1030’ Consultation that requires a new collaboration when Lake Mead’s projected elevation hits a new low. That provision has recently been triggered, to be developed and implemented concurrently with the established tier reductions.
  • Another set of agreements for the Upper Basin concentrating on how to operate the infrastructure, including demand management and augmentation.
  • An overarching agreement that ties them all together.
  • A companion agreement with Mexico.

Within Arizona, specifically, I can tell you that this effort—jointly led by the Central Arizona Project and the Arizona Department of Water Resources—represented the best of Arizona water management, collaboration, cooperation, and innovation. Arizona’s DCP Steering Committee included about 40 representatives of tribes, cities, agriculture, developers, environmental organizations, and elected officials, working together in a transparent environment. Our meetings were open to the public and livestreamed, and the presentations and videos reside on our website to this day.

Arizona’s Drought Contingency Implementation Plan put in place agreements that resulted in collective action by our state’s water users to share resources and mitigate the impacts of shortage within Arizona. Some committed to leave extra water in Lake Mead to reduce future risks, while others shared water with those most severely impacted by shortage.

The DCP is a remarkable achievement demonstrating how parties—including the broad water community of water users, the federal government, states, tribal communities, and Mexico—can come together to develop a collaborative solution.

Shortage Is Now Here, But We’re Prepared

The rationale of these efforts was to keep us out of a Colorado River crisis. And it worked. Whereas we thought we might have been in shortage as early as 2016, we managed to push it out to 2022. As we’re finishing the third worst year of hydrology in recorded history, the first-ever Colorado River shortage is on our doorstep.

While the actions to reduce water uses are painful, they were and are necessary to manage the available supply to meet our core mission of delivering water to meet health and safety needs and support the economic vitality of our communities. Managing reductions through proactive engagement is a success, not a crisis.

Throughout this time, we have been building regional relationships, resiliency, and capacity, so we were able to adapt in real time to circumstances as they unfolded. This involved trust, participation, and engagement so that by the time shortage was declared, the implementation—while still painful—is expected to be relatively seamless.

What is the plan now that we’re officially heading into this shortage? Arizona will face a reduction of 512,000 acre-feet to our Colorado River supply, borne almost entirely by the CAP system. The Tier 1 reductions constitute about 30 percent of CAP’s normal supply; about 18 percent of Arizona’s Colorado River supply; and just under 8 percent of Arizona’s total water use. The result will be less available Colorado River water for central Arizona agricultural users. Water supplies for cities, tribes, and industrial users will not be affected in 2022. Thanks to the efforts of the DCP, agriculture will have some water at a point when they otherwise would have had none.

Learning from the Past, Looking toward the Future

As I mentioned early on, we expect a new normal, with climate change and drought playing a role in how we manage our systems and supplies. We are seeing projections that our major Colorado River reservoirs may dip to record low levels now and potentially even lower over the next five years, so we may experience deeper levels of shortage and stay there. Fortunately, the DCP is adaptive to respond to worsening conditions. We intentionally provided requirements to identify and implement additional collective actions as needs dictate.

And, as we’ve done all along, we’re in a continual state of planning, preparation, and collaboration. Shortage is a standing topic on our Central Arizona Project Board of Directors agenda. We’ve held workshops with our stakeholders. We’ve talked with virtually every local, regional, and national media outlet. We’ve given countless presentations to community groups, with many more to come.

We are deploying all that we’ve learned along the way and keeping the DCP process intact as we work on the next major step. Before the end of 2026, the U.S. secretary of the interior will develop new guidelines for the long-term management of the Colorado River system. The Colorado River Basin states will play a leading role in the process to develop those new guidelines. The process will take many years and require multiple levels of discussion, negotiation, and coordination within Arizona and among the basin states.

Within Arizona, the DCP implementation worked so well that we’re using the same strategy—reconvening the DCP stakeholders as the Arizona Reconsultation Committee. We will incorporate our lessons learned as we build a new plan that is adaptable to an uncertain future.

Planning for an Uncertain Future: Our Path Forward

Our path forward will continue to consider an array of possible future conditions and adaptive cooperative measures by all stakeholders. We will continue to leverage innovation and planning so that we are managing our future rather than responding to crisis or disaster. To play on the health analogy again, the “solution” might have been foreseen, but now it will involve a deeper commitment to healthy habits and in some cases significant lifestyle changes.

We will come together locally and regionally to do more. We are eager to develop new partnerships and deepen existing ones. The keys will be resilience—providing flexibility and adaptive responses to a broad range of possible future risks.

In the short term, while we are dealing with reductions to our Colorado River supply, we must continue to focus on conservation. Concurrently, we must work on supplementing our supplies through reuse and augmentation. In the foreseeable future, that will mean intrastate and interstate partnerships to develop new supplies that might include recycled water and investing in water-saving technologies. And in the long-term, it may even mean broader solutions like ocean desalination and importation.

But most of all, the path to the future will be built on thoughtful collaboration. I, for one, remain optimistic because Colorado River water users have a long, successful history of building consensus around shared solutions to our collective challenges. Combined with the vast infrastructure that is a result of billions of dollars of careful investment to protect our water supplies for the communities we serve—including cities, tribes, irrigated agriculture, and the environment—it’s clear to me we have the tools and resources we need to protect our shared water future.

We will work through this together, as Arizona and water interests from throughout the Colorado River Basin have done time and time again, standing on our history of cooperation and conservation. On January 1, 2022, we’ll officially be in a Tier 1 shortage, but we’ll enter the year feeling prepared to meet this challenge and the challenges that lie ahead.

Headshot of Ted Cooke
TED COOKE is general manager of the Central Arizona Project.




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