Southwest drought contingency plan. “Arizona will figure it out.”

Central Arizona Project Canal
Central Arizona Project canal

Colorado River basin states need to come to an agreement on a Drought Contingency Plan, in case water levels in Lake Mead drop below a certain level, which may happen. Arizona is balking, because there was decent rain last winter, so maybe the problem will go away for at least a few years. Or so farmers in Pinal County in Arizona pretend. Native Americans, whose water rights outrank all others, disagree.

[Farmers are] worried that one version of a plan to stave off a catastrophe at Lake Mead is unfair and will threaten their long-term livelihood, along with the entire agriculture economy that has thrived in Pinal County since World War II.

[Gila River Tribal Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis] says a version of the water-saving plan favored by Pinal farmers is not only unfair, but will cost the tribe close to $200 million. Plus, it will slow the tribe’s efforts to heal its own agriculture economy, one wiped out 150 years ago when its water was “stolen” by non-Indian farmers living upstream, Lewis said.

However, circumstances may force the farmers to accept the Drought Contingency Plan.

When Arizona was staring down a shortage declaration, the state’s water community seemed ready and willing to act. When a wet winter reduced the pressure, factions within the state took up old grievances and defenses of narrow interests.

That is not going to last.

With even a modestly bad winter this year, Lake Mead could end 2019 in elevation in the 1,060-1,070 range. That’s below the shortage threshold of 1,075. But more importantly, the accompanying low flows into Lake Powell in the Upper Basin would trigger lower releases from Lake Powell, which would push Lake Mead down even further. As a result, there’s a significant risk that Lake Mead could drop into the 1,040s by the end of 2020. Down that path there be a bunch of scary dragons. If you buy the Sullivan et al. argument (and I do), Arizona will soon enough be back in the “crisis/policy window opening” mode, and we’ll get a DCP.

And if we don’t, I am confident the smart people will have a six-state, Arizona-less Plan B. Either way, we’ll get there, just with more or less chaos in the process. As a smart friend pointed out, “Optimistic or pessimistic – isn’t the answer the same? We’ll use the water nature gives us.”