Bruce Babbitt and Brian Richter: Saving The Colorado River

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sun rises above cracking mudflats deposited just above where the Colorado River meets Lake Powell on April 11, 2022.

The 40 million of us who depend upon the Colorado River are using more water than the river can provide. We are relentlessly plundering the water stored in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, to compensate for mounting water deficits. As these reservoirs – now nearly three-quarters depleted – continue falling toward dead pool, water bankruptcy awaits.

Water managers and political leaders are attempting to stave off bankruptcy by juggling water balances among the reservoirs, by holding back and delaying water releases and by looking to cloudless skies for relief that is not coming.

As the crisis deepens these short-term patches will no longer suffice. The only way to secure the future is to devise a long-term plan to balance our accounts, to withdraw and use only that amount of water that the river provides each year.

For a long-term sustainable plan, the states will need to build upon existing drought response measures agreed to in 2019, called the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). The DCP has two parts: one governing the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada and another for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico.

The Lower Basin DCP sets out a schedule for California, Arizona and Nevada to achieve balance by reducing their use by 1.4 million acre-feet each year. To date these three states are less than halfway toward that target, having reduced withdrawals from Lake Mead by only 533,000 acre-feet each year.

The DCP delays the remaining cuts by allowing the three states to continue depleting reserves in Lake Mead until the lake level approaches dead pool, at which point both power production and downstream releases are in jeopardy. The time for taking these risks, wagering that drought relief will soon arrive, is over. The Lower Basin states must agree to a definite timeline for making the remaining reductions.

The Upper Basin is even farther behind. The Upper Basin states have yet to set reduction targets, or even to agree on a procedure for making cuts.

Meanwhile the crisis deepens at Lake Powell, where waters have fallen to a level that threatens both power production and the integrity of the dam structure itself.

A recent analysis by the Utah Rivers Council (“A Future on Borrowed Time”) demonstrates that Upper Basin states are presently diverting 500,000 acre-feet per annum more water than can be sustainably withdrawn under existing rules.

If the Upper Basin states cannot soon reach agreement on necessary reductions, all options must be on the table. The federal Bureau of Reclamation has the regulatory authority to intervene to reduce water deliveries to federal irrigation projects in the Upper Basin states. Such an intervention in water allocation decisions, normally left to the states, would be unprecedented and unwelcome, but these are times that call for forceful action.

Even these measures to balance water diversions with present day river flow throughout the Basin may not be sufficient for the future. Climate scientists report that since 2000, river flows have declined by 10% due to aridification caused by increasing temperatures. They project that as global warming continues, each degree of temperature increase will cause river flow to decline by 9%. At this rate the river may lose an additional 10-25% of flow by 2050.

As temperatures continue to rise, causing river flows to continue to decline, we will reach a point at which the Colorado River Compact, the framework law that governs relations among the states, will become unworkable. As future flows decline below the current level of approximately 12.4 million acre-feet, Compact provisions that guarantee a minimum delivery to the Lower Basin will progressively reduce the Upper Basin’s share of the river downward toward unfeasible levels.

Such a future scenario would violate every measure of equity among the states. While we are not there yet, it is none too soon to consider amending the compact to adjust sharing between the Upper and Lower Basins in times of extreme water shortage. The compact should be revised to include a new formula for apportioning reductions when river flow drops below the current average. At that point, additional reductions should be allocated on a proportionate basis among all users across the entire river basin.

Reaching consensus on matters that affect the lives and welfare of millions will not be easy. However, further delay will only intensify the crisis and make it ever more difficult to craft solutions. The river has spoken and now we must respond.

Bruce Babbitt

Bruce Babbitt served as secretary of the Department of the Interior from 1993 to 2001 and governor of Arizona from 1978 to 1986.

Brian Richter

Brian Richter is president of Sustainable Waters and a senior fellow at World Wildlife Fund. His latest book is Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability.”