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On the Water Front: A (Lack of?) Progress Report on the State of the Colorado River

Last month, we took a closer look at the current state of the Colorado River. At the Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA) Conference here in Las Vegas, federal officials warned the seven Colorado River Basin states that they may begin mandating water cuts later this year if all states haven’t completed their drought contingency plans (DCP’s) by the end of this month.

So what’s happened since then? Here are some updates on the water levels, the DCP drama, the bigger picture on climate change, and how the (partial federal) government shutdown is affecting the state of affairs on the water front.

Why might the federal government intervene in the Colorado River, and why is one agency taking extreme action as another state is taking its time?
Photo by Andrew Davey

On December 13, 2018, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman warned representatives from the seven basin states at CRWUA, “Close isn’t done, and we are not done. Only done will protect this basin.” She later added, “If by January 31, the DCP’s are not finished, the Department [of the Interior] will publish a notice in the federal register.”

Since then, Arizona remains the biggest hurdle to all states meeting Burman’s deadline. As a result, our own Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) is pitching in to help pull Arizona across this finish line before the 31st. Yet despite the outside intervention, the Arizona Legislature continues to struggle in finalizing its DCP.

To make matters even more alarming, Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District (MWD) is spooked enough by Arizona’s DCP doldrums that it’s begun withdrawing from its water reserves in Lake Mead. (One secret to Lake Mead avoiding an official shortage declaration up until now has been the intricate network of “reserves” and “storage banks” to keep our slice of the Colorado River above shortage levels.) As long as MWD continues withdrawing its reserve water, this probably expedites the federal government’s declaration of a Colorado River water shortage that will probably trigger the much-feared mandatory cuts if the DCP’s  aren’t all completed by the end of this month.

The climate connection: How and why this regional water crunch points to a much larger global security crisis
Photo by Andrew Davey

While we’ve been examining the complex contemporary politics of the Colorado River, there are a couple of simpler scientific truths at play here. For one, it’s been overallocated for nearly a century thanks to the 1922 compact that was designed without consideration of drought or urban development. Second, climate change is having a real effect on the region, so much so that some experts have begun dropping talk of “drought” and reclassifying the two-decade-long “dry spell” as long-term aridification of our already naturally dry region. Even with “OK snowpack in Colorado” this winter, it’s still nowhere close to fully replenishing the water flow that’s been dwindling over time.

Apparently, we in the American West are not the only ones concerned about climate change: According to a new Yale-George Mason poll, 72% of Americans see climate change as a very important issue to address. Their numbers largely mirror those of a November AP-NORC poll showing similarly high support for the scientific consensus on climate change, as well as growing support for climate action. Whether it’s the ongoing string of extreme weather incidents, the recent reports on Greenland’s ice melting and the oceans heating more quickly than previously expected, or the growing interest in the “Green New Deal” that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and “climate hawk” activists have been touting, it’s increasingly looking like Americans are coming around to accept the reality of climate change… And do so much more quickly than most of our elected officials in Washington, D.C.

Yet instead of action, the federal government has been partially shut down for the past month. That’s actually added another challenge to Arizona finishing its DCP on time, as Bureau of Reclamation legal counsel have been furloughed. So whether it’s these kinds of local matters being neglected thanks to President Donald Trump’s shutdown shitshow or the gridlock that’s holding back more comprehensive climate solutions, we can continue to see and feel the consequences of inaction along the Colorado River.

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