Arizona Moving Forward On Lower Basin Drought Contingency Planning Discussions

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By Thomas Buschatzke, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director and Ted Cooke, Central Arizona Project General Manager

In a joint statement in May, our agencies, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) and Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) announced that we are committed to bringing the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (LBDCP) to closure in Arizona by addressing a broad range of issues that respect the concerns of all stakeholders across the state.

The discussions between ADWR and CAWCD were only the first step and today, we hosted a public briefing describing the proposed LBDCP, which was developed to address those risks. Colorado River managers were invited to learn about the LBDCP and its importance within Arizona.

We were joined by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. The Bureau of Reclamation discussed how the risks to the Colorado River have increased from what was expected when the Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages were established in 2007.

In fact, the risks of Lake Mead falling below critically low reservoir elevations have tripled in the past decade, increasing the risks of potentially draconian reductions to Arizona’s Colorado River supply.  The tools provided in those guidelines now are insufficient to address the current risks to the system.

In recognition of these increasing risks, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Mexico have worked together in recent years to voluntarily contribute water to Lake Mead.  These efforts include system conservation programs and storage programs, and have served to stave off shortages in the Lower Basin from 2015 through 2018, and very likely in 2019.

We recognize that even these efforts may not be sufficient to reduce the risks posed by a drier future on the Colorado River.

More needs to be done.

Drought Contingency Planning

In today’s briefing, we outlined a framework of additional measures to reduce risks in the Colorado River system, called the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (LBDCP).

The LBDCP is a plan developed by Arizona, California and Nevada and the United States.   It has several major components, including:

  1. Additional contributions to Lake Mead from Arizona and Nevada, along with new contributions from California and the United States.
  2. Incentives for additional storage in Lake Mead by creating flexibility for water users to store water and take delivery of storage even during lower reservoir conditions.
  3. A commitment by parties in the Lower Basin to protect elevation 1020 feet in Lake Mead, implemented through consultation to determine what additional measures would be necessary to protect that elevation.

Implementation of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan will trigger additional contributions from Mexico through the Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan as detailed in the Minute 323 agreement, adopted in 2017.

Projections by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation show that the LBDCP, along with contributions from Mexico and actions by the Upper Basin States, would reduce the risks of falling below critical elevations in Lake Mead.

The LBDCP achieves this reduction of risks by requiring additional incremental water-delivery reductions by Arizona water users.  These reductions will impact Arizona’s junior Colorado River priority holders. The LBDCP has the potential to impact to all CAP priority pools, but the most significant impacts are likely to be to the CAP NIA priority pool.

Arizona Next Steps

This briefing was the beginning of a series of public discussions involving many Colorado River water users, elected officials, and other key stakeholders in Arizona. We recognize that the LBDCP and its impacts are complex issues, and there will be more questions than those addressed today.  Therefore, we have scheduled a meeting on July 10 at the Heard Museum to answer questions, as well as to provide additional details about the LBDCP.

Today’s briefing closed with the announcement that an Arizona Steering Committee will be formed to discuss and recommend how to adopt and implement the LBDCP in a way that is acceptable to Arizona water users. While the delegates to the Steering Committee will be by invitation jointly provided by ADWR and CAWCD, the meetings and discussions will be open, and the public is invited to participate. The Steering Committee is tentatively scheduled to conduct its first public meeting on July 26th.  Additional details will be provided at our websites www.azwater.gov and www.cap-az.com/AZDCP.

We recognize that more must be done to protect Arizona’s Colorado River users from the uncertainty and risks of critically low elevations in Lake Mead.  We are committed to working with Arizona water users and other stakeholders to adopt and implement the LBDCP in a way that is acceptable to Arizona water users.

 

Attention focusing on planned June 28 Colorado River briefing by ADWR and CAP

New Mexico journalist John Fleck, whose well-informed blog has long served as a sort of news pathfinder regarding Colorado River issues, just posted a lengthy take on the briefing to be co-sponsored by the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project in Tempe on June 28.

The briefing, which is to feature Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman as keynote speaker, will examine the systemic risks posed by potential shortages on the Colorado River.

The event also represents the kick-off of a continuing Arizona discussion on how to adopt and implement the plans of the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada for contending with a delivery shortfall, known as the Drought Contingency Plan (see details of the briefing below).

The June 28 event will be livestreamed.

According to Fleck, a shortfall in deliveries of Colorado River water will constitute a lesson in the difference between an “allocation” of water from the river and an “entitlement” to that water. Fleck illustrates the various challenges facing Colorado River water-users with an examination of agriculture in Pinal County, where the river water delivered via the CAP canal system is subject to availability. It’s an interesting analysis and well worth a read.

The June 28 event:

What: An Arizona Discussion of the Risks to Arizona’s Colorado River Supply and the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan

Who: Panel will include Bureau Commissioner Brenda Burman; ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke; and, CAP General Manager Ted Cooke; the event also will feature presentations from BOR staff on the conditions on the Colorado River and the potential for delivery shortfalls in coming years

Where: Arizona Historical Society Museum at the Arizona Heritage Center at Papago Park – hosted in the auditorium; 1300 N. College Ave, Tempe 85281

When: June 28, 1-4 pm.

How: The briefing will be livestreamed online; visit azwater.gov or CentralArizonaProject.com for details

 

Public briefing on Colorado River Drought Contingency Planning set for June 28

Arizona Department of Water Resources & Central Arizona Project to co-sponsor

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Burman to be keynote speaker

Event to be livestreamed

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By clear consensus, the most important issue currently facing the Colorado River system is the as-yet unresolved question of what the states will do to lessen the risks of draconian shortages on the Colorado River.

What, exactly, will the Lower Basin states – Arizona, California and Nevada — do to assure that instability at Lake Mead doesn’t lead toward the perilous state known as “dead pool,” in which water no longer can be drawn from the reservoir?

For several years, all seven Colorado River states, as well as the federal Bureau of Reclamation, have wrestled with the questions surrounding shortage on the Colorado River – how to implement a comprehensive Drought Contingency Plan that will manage the risks of an unstable Lake Mead presented by the on-going regional drought and over-allocation of river water.

In 2007, the seven states and the federal government (joined, in 2017, by the Republic of Mexico) agreed to specific shortage “trigger levels” – that is, specified water levels at the system’s most threatened reservoir, Lake Mead – and the reduced water-delivery volumes that would result from hitting those “triggers.”

Eleven years later, it is clear those triggers – formally, the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead — are not enough.

Arizona is the only state in the system that requires legislative approval to sign a plan with our out-of-state river partners to deal with the difficult questions surrounding a shortage. The State’s water community is contending with those issues now.

On Thursday, June 28, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project will co-sponsor a panel discussion of the systemic risks posed by potential shortage, as well as announce the kick off of an Arizona discussion on how to adopt and implement the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan.

Keynote speaker at the event will be Brenda Burman, Commissioner of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, who plans to discuss the risks to the system.

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Brenda Burman, Commissioner, Bureau of Reclamation

The event will include presentations from ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke and CAP General Manager Ted Cooke, as well as demonstrations depicting current river conditions from Bureau of Reclamation staff.

There will be a limited question-and-answer session following the presentations. Follow up discussions are scheduled for later in the month.

What: A Joint Briefing by the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project on a Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan

Who: Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman; ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke; CAP General Manager Ted Cooke, as well as input from Colorado River technical experts from ADWR, CAP and the Bureau of Reclamation

When: June 28, 1-4 pm

Where: The Arizona Historical Society Museum auditorium at the Arizona Heritage Center at Papago Park, 1300 N. College Avenue, Tempe

Special Note: The event will be livestreamed.

 

Arizona Water Resources director recommends a denial of lease deal for Quartzsite’s Colorado River water

After nearly ten months of evaluation, the Arizona Department of Water Resources has recommended that the Secretary of the Interior deny a proposed lease of the town of Quartzsite’s Colorado River allocation to the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.

On August 2, 2017, Quartzsite and the CAWCD submitted a request for consultation to the Department for the proposed lease to the District of its 1,070 acre-feet per year allocation. CAWCD is seeking the water to partially fulfill its statutory groundwater-replenishment obligations.

In his May 24 letter to Secretary Zinke, ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke said he recommended that the Interior Department deny the lease based on the fact that the allocation had never been put to a beneficial use, or “perfected” — a fundamental principle governing Arizona’s water law. As a result, the lease would be “inconsistent with the policies and laws of the State.”

“For that reason, the Department recommends that the United States deny the proposed lease if it is submitted for approval by Quartzsite and CAWCD,” wrote Buschatzke.

 

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Respected water blogger sees a (barely) hidden message in federal press release on Colorado River management

 

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Bureau of  Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman

Well-respected water journalist and author John Fleck is serving up some intriguing thoughts on his blog about a recent press release issued by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Author of Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West, Fleck contends the Bureau’s press release was less of a traditional press announcement than an implicit call to action directed at the Colorado River basin states.

John Fleck at Morelos Dam
Journalist and author John Fleck

Fleck argues that Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman used the press statement as an opportunity to kick-start the effort to finalize drought-contingency planning among the seven Colorado River states.It’s hard to argue with Fleck’s point. As quoted in her press release, Commissioner Burman observes that “(w)e need action and we need it now.

“We can’t afford to wait for a crisis before we implement drought contingency plans,” she said.

Fleck noted that the press release also took the unusual step of including messages supportive of drought-contingency planning from representatives of all seven Colorado River basin states. He said his favorite quote was from John Entsminger of Nevada, who observed that “Mother Nature does not care about our politics or our schedules.”

Well spoken, indeed. But the representative from Arizona, we should note, also had interesting points to make:

“The completion of the lower basin states’ Drought Contingency Plan is vitally important to Arizonans,” wrote Tom Buschatzke,  Director of the Arizona Department of  Water Resources.

“The plan reduces the likelihood of Lake Mead declining to critically low levels and incentivizes the use of tools to conserve water in the Lake so that reductions in delivery of Arizona’s Colorado River supplies are avoided or lessened.”

Water Resources Director details plans for saving Lake Mead, concerns with CAWCD’s claim to “sovereign immunity”

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Director Buschatzke addresses legislative panel at “Learning Tour” gathering in Yuma

At a highly anticipated public meeting on water issues in Yuma on Friday, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke told legislators and a packed audience that sound management of Arizona’s Colorado River supplies requires forbidding the operator of the Central Arizona Project canal from using “sovereign immunity” as a legal weapon against folks with Colorado River water entitlements.

“The State has concerns that [the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, operator of the CAP canal] will attempt to use the defense of sovereign immunity at the expense of water users in Arizona,” said Buschatzke. CAWCD has maneuvered, unsuccessfully thus far, to just do that.

“Sovereign immunity” is a legal protection that indemnifies some public entities – such as states and the federal government – from many types of lawsuits. CAWCD has acknowledged that gaining sovereign immunity as a so-called “arm of the State” of Arizona is of “fundamental importance” to the canal operator.

The Director reminded lawmakers that the District has attempted to use the defense in the past, notably in a federal case involving a Colorado River water entitlement holder, the Ak Chin Indian Community.

“To prevent CAWCD from claiming sovereign immunity in the future, the Governor’s Office and DWR proposed legislation that would clarify that CAWCD is not entitled to sovereign immunity in any type of lawsuit,” said Buschatzke.

“I would like to see our proposed legislation move forward this session.”

Buschatzke delivered his remarks at a special “Learning Tour” organized by legislative leaders seeking public input on proposals to reform Arizona water laws.

Organized by Sen. Gail Griffin and Rep. Rusty Bowers — chairmen, respectively, of the Senate and House natural resources committees — the tour already has taken public commentary at a meeting on March 9 in Casa Grande.

In addition to his oral testimony expressing opposition to CAWCD’s pursuit of a “sovereign immunity” legal defense against its own customers, Buschatzke also provided the panel with a more expansive written testimony.

That written statement illustrated the State’s priorities in reforming Arizona water law this year.

Those priorities include taking action to protect Lake Mead from falling to critically low elevation. Among those actions: winning legislative authority to finalize a “Drought Contingency Plan” with Arizona’s Lower Basin Colorado River partners.

A central feature of that plan is giving the ADWR Director authority to “forbear” delivery of Colorado River water conserved by an Arizona Contractor in Lake Mead. That means the Director would assure no other contractor could take that water from the troubled reservoir.

Director Buschatzke’s full statement to the legislative Learning Tour panel in Yuma follows:

Testimony of ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke Before the Special Meeting of the Arizona House Committee on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources

Yuma City Hall, March 23, 2018

My name is Tom Buschatzke. I am the Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources or DWR.

I know that most of you are familiar with DWR, but for those who are not, it is the agency designated by the Legislature to represent the State of Arizona with the United States, other states, and Mexico on matters involving the Colorado River. The State Legislature and DWR, working with the Governor, are the appropriate entities to represent the State. DWR is also the agency tasked with protecting the State’s rights to Colorado River water.

I take those responsibilities very seriously.

Colorado River water is vital to our State.  No one knows that better than the people who live and work in Yuma, where approximately 1 million of Arizona’s 2.8 million acre-feet of Colorado River water is used. Colorado River supplies are becoming increasingly at-risk. Continuous, long-term drought coupled with an over-allocation of Colorado River supplies, the structural deficit, has not only brought Lake Mead to the brink of shortage, it has increased the probability of the Lake dropping to critically low elevations that could affect all Colorado River water users in the State.

The volume of water that Arizona receives every year from the Colorado River is tied to Lake Mead elevations. Once the Lake’s elevation falls below 1,075 feet, Arizona deliveries are reduced by 320,000 acre-feet, approximately 11% of Arizona’s total Colorado River allocation. Deeper, more extensive shortages occur at lower “trigger” elevations. Early shortages will hit water users in Central Arizona, and particularly the CAGRD and the Arizona Water Banking Authority, the hardest. At even lower elevations, draconian reductions will be necessary to protect remaining water supplies in the Lake.

“Continuous, long-term drought, coupled with… the structural deficit, has not only brought Lake Mead to the brink of shortage, it has increased the probability of the Lake dropping to critically low elevations that could affect all Colorado River water users in the State.”

Yuma water contractors hold some of the most senior rights on the River. But even senior rights are at risk when Lake Mead elevations plunge. If Lake Mead reaches deadpool at elevation 895 feet, no water can move past the dam. Picture a bathtub with only an overflow drain. It could have water in the tub that you could not get out of the tub. That is what “deadpool” is.

We anticipate that the Secretary of the Interior will act to avoid the Lake reaching deadpool, but we can’t know how. Modelling projects that waiting to act until the Lake reaches elevation 1020 could result in a 3 to 6 million acre-feet reduction in the Lower Basin. All Arizona Contractors should be concerned about the uncertainty that could result from possible Secretarial intervention.

To address this increasing risk, beginning in 2015 DWR, on behalf of Arizona, began meeting with representatives of California and Nevada, which also receive Colorado River water from Lake Mead, and the federal government to devise ways to keep more water in Lake Mead. That group developed a water management framework designed to do just that, called the Drought Contingency Plan or DCP.

The DCP is not yet in effect. There are still aspects of it which need to be resolved, and ultimately, the Legislature must approve it. But the core commitments embodied in the DCP are historically remarkable in many ways. The plan contains a collective commitment on behalf of the Lower Basin states to protect against Lake elevations falling below elevation 1020. It would require California, for the first time, to participate in mandatory shortage reductions. It also contains additional efforts by Nevada to conserve water in Lake Mead, and through its connection to Minute 323 to the Mexico Water Treaty, would require additional water savings from Mexico.

In order to receive these benefits, Arizona must be willing to give something as well. The DCP contemplates that Arizona will begin taking shortages at higher Lake elevations, Specifically, Arizona would be required to leave 192,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead at elevation 1090.

Impacts of that additional reduction will be partially mitigated when Lake Mead is kept above elevation 1075 by keeping CAP agriculture’s water supply whole. Incentives included in the DCP for conservation by Nevada, California, and Mexico are expected to help achieve that goal. But Arizona must also act to conserve water in Lake Mead to achieve that goal. Those actions by Arizona are known as DCP Plus.

In June of 2017, the Governor’s Office convened a group of stakeholders to deliver support for DCP and to find a way to make DCP Plus work. During that process, the Governor’s Office and DWR proposed a program to facilitate conservation efforts by Arizona Colorado River Contractors to target maintaining Lake elevations at or around 1,080 feet. The proposed program would facilitate conservation in several ways, one of which is to ensure that water that is kept or stored in Lake Mead by an Arizona Contractor would not be taken out by another Arizona water user. This last feature is achieved by giving the ADWR Director authority to “forbear” delivery of the water to other water users.

The Governor’s proposal has met with resistance. One the most vocal opponents has been CAWCD.

CAWCD is resisting efforts for all Colorado River water contractors to create conserved water, and in the process has sought to exercise an outsized role in shaping Arizona’s Colorado River water policy.

For example, Arizona Indian tribes have rights to nearly half of all the Colorado River water delivered through the CAP canal. At least one of those tribes, the Gila River Indian Community, is already leaving water in the Lake to help prop up Lake elevations. Tribes are interested in conserving additional water in Lake Mead through the creation of something known as Intentionally Created Surplus. Both the U.S. and the State of Arizona agree that they have the legal right to create ICS. However, to date, CAWCD refuses to recognize that right. We need all hands on deck within the State of Arizona.

“CAWCD is resisting efforts for all Colorado River water contractors to create conserved water, and in the process has sought to exercise an outsized role in shaping Arizona’s Colorado River water policy.”

With respect to DWR and the Governor’s Conservation Program proposal, CAWCD has asserted that it should have veto authority in all decisions about who in Arizona can conserve water and under what conditions.

CAWCD is governed by elected officials from Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal counties, yet they make decisions affecting all of Arizona. Several actions taken by CAWCD over the past few years demonstrate that CAWCD gives little thought to the broader statewide impacts of its actions.

I will give two specific examples, though there are more:

In 2014, the CAWCD entered into an agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and Denver Water for a pilot program to fund the creation of Colorado River system water through voluntary water conservation. Water that was left in Lake Mead pursuant to that agreement has been important in avoiding shortage, and no one seeks to deny or minimize that fact. However, that agreement was negotiated without the involvement of DWR, and contains at least one provision that should cause concern throughout the State of Arizona.

The pilot agreement recognizes conservation through reductions in the “consumptive use” of Colorado River water; however, rather than defining consumptive uses with reference to the “Colorado River mainstream,” as it was defined in U.S. Supreme Court’s Decree in the landmark case of Arizona v. California, the pilot agreement allows for the creation of system water through reductions to consumptive uses of water from the “Colorado River System,” including “water drawn from the Colorado River System by underground pumping.” The term “Colorado River System,” is defined in the pilot agreement to have the same meaning as in the 1922 Interstate Compact among the seven Basin States, which included not only the Colorado River mainstream in its definition, but also all of its tributaries.

We vigorously disagree with this reckless definition of “consumptive use.” It flies in the face of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Arizona v. California and the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928. The literal reading of this language suggests that all wells used by agriculture, industry, mining, cities, towns, and counties connected to water that is tributary to the Colorado River might be pumping Colorado River System water. If that were the case, all of those wells would need a contract with the Secretary of the Interior and those withdrawals would count against Arizona allocation of 2.8 million acre-feet. It appears that CAWCD gave no thought to the potential impacts of this language on water users across the State.

CAWCD’s disregard of the impacts of actions to other water users is also evidenced in its relentless efforts to claim sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Under the Eleventh Amendment, states cannot be sued in federal court with certain exceptions. Political subdivisions of the state, like CAWCD, generally are not entitled to claim this immunity.

CAWCD nevertheless raised the defense in 2012 in an employment case filed in federal district court known as the Gressett case.  CAWCD argued that it should be entitled to sovereign immunity because it is an “arm of the State.” The district court rejected that argument.

CAWCD appealed the ruling and, in an effort to convince the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that it is an arm of the State, it made inaccurate claims about its authority and responsibility in securing and managing Colorado River water.  CAWCD also argued that the State of Arizona would be functionally liable for CAWCD’s debts if CAWCD were unable to meet them.

In fact, CAWCD was established to ensure that the cost of repayment of the State’s share of the construction of the Central Arizona Project would be borne by water users and tax payers in the three counties that benefit from CAP water deliveries, and not by the taxpayers in Arizona’s 12 remaining counties, who rely on other water supplies.

The State has concerns that CAWCD will attempt to use the defense of sovereign immunity at the expense of water users in Arizona. And in fact, CAWCD raised the defense in a case brought by the Ak-Chin Indian Community regarding the Community’s rights to the delivery of Colorado River water. The State of Arizona opposed CAWCD’s attempts to obtain a court ruling that it has sovereign immunity. CAWCD settled that case before the Ninth Circuit ruled on it.

CAWCD testified to the Legislature in early February that sovereign immunity is limited, and that it would not be used in contractual disputes. However, on February 26, 2018, CAWCD requested the court vacate its decision so that it can raise the defense of sovereign immunity in future lawsuits. CAWCD said that sovereign immunity is of “fundamental importance” to it. The State opposed this action as well.

The State is seeking a permanent resolution to this issue. To prevent CAWCD from claiming sovereign immunity in the future, the Governor’s Office and DWR have proposed legislation that would clarify that CAWCD is not entitled to sovereign immunity in any type of lawsuit. But that legislation appears nowhere in any bill. We are committed to protecting Colorado River water users in Yuma, La Paz, and Mohave counties, as well as those water users within CAWCD’s service area.

I would like to see our proposed legislation move forward this session.

 

New “Water Book” outlines Arizona’s path forward on water

The Governor’s Office has released “Securing Arizona’s Water Future,” an illustrated outline of Governor Ducey’s plan for taking action to help secure the State’s water supplies.

The “water book,” as it is known, is available on the Governor’s website.

It escorts readers through Arizona’s storied (and, often, trailblazing) history of water management, including a candid outline of the challenges now facing the State in this era of drought. It also proposes legislative solutions to those issues.

Arizona is a renowned leader in water management thanks to its long history of careful planning and effective governance. But, with the State facing serious challenges to some of its key water supplies, the Governor’s Office asserts that the time to act on water policy is now.

Governor Ducey has prioritized Arizona’s water future as one of the most crucial policy issues facing the State. He highlighted the issue in his 2018 State of the State address:

“Earning Arizona’s reputation as a national leader in water management was no easy feat and it didn’t happen by accident. It was the proactive nature of our predecessors, and our state’s willingness to take-on complex issues.

“This session, we must follow their lead and put forward responsible policies that will ensure Arizona speaks with one-voice to secure the state’s future for generations to come.”

As the water book illustrates, Arizona relies on the Colorado River for 40 percent of its water supply. Unfortunately, the Colorado River system has experienced severe drought conditions for more than 17 years. Lake Mead, a vital reservoir on the Colorado River, is less than 40 percent full.

Lake Mead water levels are important because they determine whether a shortage is declared in the State’s Colorado River allocation, which would result in decreased delivery levels of water.

Based on data from the Bureau of Reclamation, the threat of a shortage declaration by the Bureau at Lake Mead is real.

Building on Arizona’s history of responsible initiatives, the Governor’s Office has proposed a plan that focuses on strategic conservation.

The plan also calls for protecting consumers through responsible groundwater management and by speaking with one voice on water-management issues, particularly regarding the Colorado River.

Governor Ducey’s plan would better enable voluntary conservation of Colorado River water by providing the State with forbearance authority relating to specified circumstances. This would contribute to higher Lake Mead elevations, reducing the likelihood of a shortage and providing increased protection from the economic consequences of water-delivery reductions.

With an eye toward achieving the management goals of Active Management Areas (the geographic areas created through Arizona’s landmark 1980 Groundwater Management Act), the Governor’s proposal would also establish an advisory committee to monitor the progress of AMAs.

Finally, since decisions about Arizona’s water supply affect the entire state, the Governor’s plan ensures accountability by requiring State authorization before entering into interstate deals involving Colorado River water.

Historically dry winter means Lake Mead may be closer to shortfall than people think

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LAKE MEAD SHORTFALL AS SOON AS 2019? DON’T WRITE IT OFF

A Q&A WITH THE ADWR DIRECTOR ABOUT POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES OF AN HISTORICALLY LOW SNOWPACK IN THE ROCKIES

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve had some beautiful warm, sunny, dry days of late.

And weeks. And months. The entire Southwest, in fact, has experienced one of the warmest, driest winters on record. For golfing and hiking and living the outdoor lifestyle, that’s great, of course. But, alas, there is an unsettling flip side to all this fair weather.

That dark flip side is the possibility of an unprecedented lack of snowpack runoff in the Colorado River system. Forecasts are calling for a continuation of the dry weather into the fast-approaching spring.

Winter – typically the Southwest’s season for accumulating snowpack in its mountain regions, which provides runoff into reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead – is nearing its end, regardless what groundhogs in Pennsylvania claim.

Arizona Water News recently sat down with Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, to discuss the consequences of what may be a record-low amount of runoff into the Colorado River system from the 2017-2018 Winter snowpack.

A transcript of that conversation follows:

Arizona Water News: Director Buschatzke, there is a concern that the lack of snowpack in the western Rockies – particularly in the southern sectors of the Rockies – may result in an unregulated runoff into Lake Powell this spring that may be at a record low. How real is that possibility?

Tom Buschatzke: Based on the current snow-water equivalent graphs, regarding that snow-water equivalent in the upper basin of the Colorado River where most of that water is generated is a very real possibility that the snow-water equivalent is tracking lower than 2002, which was the lowest year in recorded history for 100 years of records.

We do know that the runoff is not linear to what the snow-water equivalent is showing, but it is pretty alarming that we are tracking at this point 2002, or actually a little bit below 2002.

AWN: The Bureau of Reclamation has declared that there is almost no chance of a shortfall in water delivered from Lake Mead next year. But is there a chance that those predictions may change as a result of these extremely dry conditions in the Rockies?

TB: Yes, there is certainly a chance that that that prediction, that forecast, may change.

That forecast is based on a release from Lake Powell to Lake Mead of 9 million acre-feet. Normal release is 8.23 million acre-feet. If the unregulated inflow gets to a certain low level, that 9 million acre-feet release won’t occur. You will get 8.23 million acre-feet.

That loss of volume of water (represents) close to 10 feet of elevation in Lake Mead. The Bureau of Reclamation’s current projection — with that 9 million acre-foot release — is about five feet above the shortage trigger, which means that if we get 8.23 (million acre-feet), we could be five feet below the shortage trigger.

If we can’t conserve enough water in Lake Mead to make up the difference, that will be a high bar to achieve between mid-April and the end of July, which would be the time period in which we’d have to do that conservation.

AWN: We’re not the only ones experiencing an abnormally dry winter. California’s snowpack in the Sierra Nevada also is very low right now too. How might that impact California’s stored water in Lake Mead?

TB: If the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada continues to be also very low and the allocations of the State Water Project remain very low, that means southern California is going to get much less water from northern California than it normally does. It also means that they will be looking to make up the difference somehow, and they will be looking probably at the Colorado River to make up that difference.

Potentially, some of that water stored by California – by the Metropolitan Water District (of Southern California), particularly – that is stored in Lake Mead might start coming out of Lake Mead.

There is about 500,000 acre-feet of that water stored. That is over six feet of water under the regulations that control water going in and water going out of Lake Mead. California can take 400,000 acre-feet – or five feet of water (off the top of Lake Mead) – in this calendar year. So, that is a potential that plays into the possibility that the prediction made by Reclamation so far might also change.

 

AWN: How does the unusually dry winter affect the discussion among the Colorado River states regarding a Drought Contingency Plan? Many Colorado River stakeholders felt that last winter’s higher-than-average snowpack created a so-called “comfort zone” regarding finalizing a DCP. Can they remain comfortable about water in the Colorado now?

TB: So, I think between the states — the state folks who worked on that Drought Contingency Plan – we are in agreement that we need to finalize that Plan.

Some of the individual stakeholders, water-users, etc. that may have believed that there is a “comfort zone,” that we have bought time to further work on the Drought Contingency Plan, I think, need to really address what is happening with the hydrology and the increasing risks of not just the short-term impacts on Lake Mead, but potentially going into a shortage in 2019.

(They need to address the fact that) this bad hydrology also has implications for the future and for the lake falling to those critical elevations that the Drought Contingency Plan was intended to protect.

So, they should not be comfortable about water in the Colorado River. We need to continue to work to finalize the Drought Contingency Plan. And we need to make sure that in Arizona we have the tools in place to make that happen.

AWN: Thank you.

Attack of the Blob: How an enormous, persistent arctic low-pressure system is helping dry out the American Southwest

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It’s… the blob. It came from above. And it’s got the world in its grip.

And… it’s not going anywhere any time soon.

If that sounds like a trailer line for a low-budget sci-fi movie… well, it could be.

But it also fairly describes the powerful “Strong Hudson Bay Low” – an Arctic-spawned low-pressure systemthat locked in place over much of the Northern Hemisphere in mid-November. The strong, static “blocking” system is showing no sign of releasing its grip any time in the foreseeable future.

“WITH SNOW CONDITIONS IN THE UPPER COLORADO RIVER BASIN TRACKING AT JUST 31 PERCENT OF THE TOTAL AVERAGE SEASONAL ACCUMULATION AS OF MID-JANUARY, THE 2018 SEASON IS LOOKING DRYER THAN THE RECORD-DRY 2002 SEASON.”

And neither is one of the stronger regional effects of the huge low-pressure system:

An equally persistent, equally strong high-pressure ridge has locked into place beneath the blob. It sits in an equally unyielding “blocking” pattern over the eastern Pacific and the southwestern U.S., which is driving the west-east jet stream and its storms well to the north of the parched American Southwest.

That strong high-pressure system is proving to be a virtual mirror image of the Strong Hudson Bay Low, driving temperatures dramatically up and sapping the atmosphere of moisture.

“How strong and permanent it becomes depends on establishment of other high- and low-pressure systems as well as the amplitude of the jet stream around the globe,” explained Greg Smith, a senior hydrologist at the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, a division of the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Coming at the time of year when the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains typically build snowpack that, come spring, provides run-off into the Colorado River system, the moisture-robbing effects of this static high-pressure system may prove to be record-setting.

So too might the effects of the Artic blob.

On January 2 in the U.S., at least one location in all 50 states recorded temperatures below freezing. Yes, even in Hawaii.

Water fountains in Florida froze over. Off-shore, sharks swimming near Cape Cod froze to death. And all that occurred before the infamous “bomb cyclone” drove temperatures deeply negative on the entire East Coast for nearly a week.

On the opposite side of the globe, meanwhile, it’s the same deal. The Arctic blob has much of the eastern side of the Northern Hemisphere frozen and snow-bound, too.

In Yakutia, Siberia – 3,300 miles east of Moscow – residents reported their eyelashes freezing as temperatures dropped to an astonishing 88 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. In southwestern Scotland — typically cold and wet in the winter — blizzard conditions shut down highways. And shipping on the normally blue Danube – for now, icy gray – was halted because of ice.

All weather patterns being inter-related with all other weather patterns, the powerful high-pressure ridge sitting over much of the southwestern U.S. built up around the same time as the Strong Hudson Bay Low gathered its global steam – in mid-November.

And like its Hudson Bay “polar” opposite, there it has remained. And remained. Strong. Resolute. And dry.

While neither strong low-pressure systems that sweep down from the Arctic nor high-pressure ridges laying out over the western U.S. are unusual at this time of year, these systems are unique in one important respect: their persistence. They won’t quit.

The high-pressure ridge has proved so persistent – and the conditions it creates so dry – that hydrologists at the Forecast Center now are comparing this season’s snowpack in the Rockies (as well as in the Arizona mountains) to that of the infamously dry winter of 1976-1977, which produced one of the lowest inflows into Lake Powell on the Colorado River system on record.

How low did that inflow go?

The fall-winter “water year” season that ended in 1977 produced an unregulated Colorado River inflow into Lake Powell of roughly 5.8 million acre-feet. That is almost three million acre-feet less than the average river flow into Powell since 2000, a period when much of the Southwest, including Arizona, has been locked in chronic drought.

Measured against the historic average since 1964, the 1977 inflow into Powell was almost five million acre-feet below average. Since 1964, only three seasons have provided less runoff than 1977.

“What drew us to the comparison (with 1977) initially was the snow situation,” said Smith.

The Forecast Center’s highly advanced “SNOTEL” (for “snow telemetry”) network indicated that many of the Colorado River Basin’s snowpack areas, especially in the southern regions, were experiencing the “lowest snow on record,” according to Smith.

To Smith and other hydrologists, the atmospheric patterns prompting the weak snowpack seemed familiar:

“Some of us recall how poor conditions were in 1976-77. Then we noticed these large atmospheric features — strong low in the east and ridge in the west — were similar.”

Added Smith: “These are not uncommon features from year to year. But in both 1976-1977 and this year they were fairly strong, and the jet stream flow in the atmosphere similarly had a high amplitude. These strong low- and high-pressure systems, known as blocking features, or a blocking pattern, can be quite stubborn.”

As it stood in mid-January, the estimate for unregulated inflow into Lake Powell from the western slopes of the Rockies indicated the lake would receive 6.75 million acre-feet of runoff, or 62 percent of the historic, 30-year average. Not good, obviously. But not historically bad.

That estimate may be changing, however. And not for the better.

The lowest Colorado River inflow into Powell ever recorded was about 2.3 million acre-feet in 2002.

With snow conditions in the Upper Colorado River basin tracking at just 31 percent of the total average seasonal accumulation as of mid-January, the 2018 Water Year season – at this point in time — is looking dryer than the record-dry 2002 season.

A “snapshot” chart recently released by the federal Bureau of Reclamation compares the current water-year snow conditions with Water Year 2002. As of January 17, which is 57 percent through the snow-accumulation season, snow conditions were tracking well below conditions in 2001-2002.

Caveats apply, certainly.

Weather changes. The “blocking” low- and high-pressure systems could weaken and dissipate. And we are still relatively early in the snow-accumulation season. The very dry mid-January snapshot of conditions could look very different by mid-February.

As Smith notes, the 1976-1977 pattern finally broke down in March 1977, ushering in a much wetter late-winter period, especially in the northern Colorado and Great Basins.

As our days of unnervingly pleasant sunshine and annoyingly dry, easy breezes drone on – and on – the prospects for matching (or, gulp, “besting”) the Great Colorado River Dribble of 2002 increase.

But, again, as the forecasters well know, weather changes. Even the extraordinarily dry winter of 1977 ended pretty wet.

 

The prospects for desalination: Experts weigh plusses and minuses of augmenting Arizona’s water supplies

Water Resources director and other experts brief Arizona lawmakers on prospects for large-scale desalination

Buschatzke at desalination conference

Just as the State Legislature began preparing for the 2018 legislative session early in the New Year, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke and other water experts began briefing lawmakers on some of the fundamental issues facing Arizona’s water supplies.

On January 4, State legislators heard from a panel of experts on desalination – potentially one of the most intriguing water-augmentation sources for Arizona – including Water Resources Director Buschatzke.

Following the official commencement of the Second Regular Session of Arizona’s 53rd Legislature on January 8, the Director also briefed the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Rusty Bowers, and the Senate Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee, chaired by Sen. Gail Griffin.

Organized by Rep. Becky Nutt and moderated by Rep. Bowers, the January 4 “Desalination Conference” included participants offering a wide array of perspectives regarding desalination.

Arizona Department of Water Resources depiction of major brackish-groundwater sites around the state. By some estimates, underground deposits of brackish groundwater could exceed 600 million acre-feet.

In addition to Director Buschatzke, they included Clive Lipchin of Israel’s Arava Institute Research Centers; Sandy Fabritz, Director of Water Strategy at Freeport McMoRan; Robert Fowley, an expert on regulatory and permitting challenges that faced New Mexico’s municipal desalination plant in Alamogordo; Scott Reinert of El Paso Water Utilities; Carlos Riva, CEO of Poseidon Water in Boston; and, Chuck Cullom of the Central Arizona Project.

Quoting from the 2012 Bureau of Reclamation Basin Study of anticipated conditions on the Colorado River system, Buschatzke observed to lawmakers at the conference that “seawater desalination may be the most cost-effective and politically viable importation option available to Arizona.”

The Director addressed a wide assortment of desalination issues and opportunities, including desal prospects in partnership with California and Mexico.

Buschatzke recalled for lawmakers recent Southwestern history involving desalination efforts.

Among them: an “augmentation work group” organized by the seven Colorado River Basin States (and, at the time, co-chaired by Buschatzke), as well as the potential for joint Mexico-U.S. desalination projects that have been opened up by the signing of Minute 323 in September. Minute 323 is an extension of the existing, long-term water-related agreements between the two countries.

He also noted Arizona’s prospects for desalinating its enormous underground deposits of brackish water, notably in three areas: the Yuma Brackish Groundwater Mound; the West Salt River Valley; and, the Winslow-Leupp Area in northeastern Arizona.

Buschatzke observed that residents near the locations where the brackish groundwater exists have expressed some concerns that the desalinated water may be transported away from their area:

“I will say that there are communities that are concerned about the local area impacts for treating and transporting away from their area brackish groundwater desalination. We heard those concerns in the desal committee of the Water Augmentation Council.”

Regarding the Yuma brackish-groundwater “mound,” Buschatzke told lawmakers attending the conference that estimates coming out of a recent study indicate that “50,000 acre feet of (potable) water per year” could come out of that mound of saline water at the cost of about $550 per acre foot.

Also, Buschatzke briefed the lawmakers on the activities of the desalination committee of the Governor’s Water Augmentation Council, whose mission is to research and identify potential locations for brackish groundwater desalination projects, and to discuss the potential for implementing those projects.

“Their goal is to identify a project to potentially move forward with,” he said.

Partly because its “total dissolved solids” content often is far lighter than seawater, brackish groundwater is often considered a less expense option than seawater for desalination.

The director noted to lawmakers in his slide presentation that a 2016 study by the Montgomery & Associates consulting firm identified that “an estimated 600 million acre-feet of (brackish) water is obtainable in Arizona” through desalination – an amount 200 times greater than Arizona’s annual delivery of Colorado River water.

Buschatzke’s slide presentation included a map identifying the major brackish groundwater sites around the state – a map that had been prepared in 1973 by an ADWR employee, Debra Daniels. Incredibly, Daniels’ estimates of the location and size of brackish groundwater deposits stand up today, 45 years later.

This week, Buschatzke also briefed the House and Senate natural-resources committees on Arizona’s water-resources opportunities and challenges.

While noting the substantial challenges – including drought-inspired threats to the State’s Colorado River supplies and the increasing strain on groundwater in some regions – he reminded both committees of Arizona’s long legacy of meeting those challenges.

 

In particular, Buschatzke observed the remarkable fact that Arizonans today use less water than they did in 1957, when the State boasted a sixth of its current population and an economy almost 1,800 percent smaller than Arizona’s economy today.

“That is something we all should be proud of,” he said.