The Colorado River District’s Board of Directors received an update in January 2018 from its outgoing General Manager, Eric Kuhn, on key issues affecting Colorado River Basin water users.

Kuhn covered a variety of issues including Drought Contingency Planning (DCP) efforts in the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins and concerns regarding lower-than-average snowpack in the Upper Basin.

Kuhn’s discussion of DCPs highlighted what he sees as “a relatively complicated plan among the Lower Basin states” that would require additional cutbacks in water consumption by Arizona, California and Nevada if Lake Mead storage levels approach the low elevation mark of 1,025 feet above sea level.

A separate DCP among the Upper Basin states would likely include special drought operations of the Colorado River Storage Project’s  (CRSP) system reservoirs – Flaming Gorge, Aspinall and Navajo.

DCP efforts in the Upper Basin states would also include a focus on system augmentation, or “cloud seeding,” and further planning for demand management strategies that would reduce consumptive uses if total system reservoir levels reach critically low levels.

Kuhn specifically noted that there is no commitment yet by any of the Upper Basin states to implement demand management efforts, which would likely include water banking, but the states are committed to continue studying it.

Implementing the Lower Basin DCP would likely require federal legislation, but Kuhn noted that the three Lower Basin states are not in total agreement on this front. According to public discussions at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in December 2017, Arizona and Nevada believe legislation will be required whereas California believes legislation will be helpful but not essential.
Kuhn noted several reasons the Lower Basin states would prefer a legislative approach. “They do not want to wade through a formal amendment to the 2007 Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages, which could take years to renegotiate,” he said.

Those “Interim Guidelines” were the result of a complex, multi-year analysis following a period of extreme drought (2000-2005) in the Colorado River Basin. Lake Powell and Lake Mead dropped from nearly full to about 46 percent of capacity in that time, prompting the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to develop a management plan for the Basin that included Interim Guidelines for operations of Lakes Mead and Powell and Lower Basin shortages. The Guidelines are set to expire in 2026.

The second reason for legislation could relate to Arizona’s desire to change a provision in a 1964 Arizona v. California Supreme Court decision which gave the U.S. Secretary of the Interior the authority to deliver apportioned water not used by a Lower Basin state to another state.

Kuhn noted that Arizona would likely want to change this “to require the Secretary first have permission of the donating state.” The possibility of Lower Basin-driven legislation raises a political question of what exactly the Upper Basin states should ask for in return.

The four headwaters states have had informal discussions on this topic and a number of suggestions have surfaced, including the concept of legislation that would direct the Secretary of the Interior to operate the upstream CRSP units to protect water levels at Lake Powell.

Other concepts for potential legislation include securing storage space to hold conserved water for the benefit of the Upper Basin.

Although informal discussions are occurring, Kuhn pointed out that there is no clear consensus among the four Upper Basin states and there have been no detailed discussions with the Lower Basin. “I expect these conversations will be very difficult,” said Kuhn.