A Case Study: Transboundary Waters Allocation lessons from the US on the Colorado River
A Case Study: Transboundary Waters Allocation lessons from the US on the Colorado River
Allocation lessons from the United States’ governance of intracountry cross-border rivers: drought contingency plan on the Colorado River
Approximately 1,400 miles long and flowing through seven States of the United States and into Mexico, the Colorado River drains roughly one-twelfth of the land area of the contiguous United States. The Colorado River Basin is divided into the Upper and Lower Basins at the Lee Ferry Colorado River Compact Point (Compact Point) located in northern Arizona. The Upper Basin spans portions of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and northern Arizona. The Lower Basin covers parts of Nevada, Arizona, California, south-western Utah and western New Mexico. The Colorado River also supplies water to parts of the states of Baja California and Sonora in north-western Mexico. The Colorado River provides water to almost 40 million people and 4 million to 5.5 million acres of farmland. The Upper Colorado River Basin supplies approximately 90 per cent of the water for the entire Basin, primarily from snowmelt run-off. The Lower Basin is arid, with little tributary run-off reaching the mainstream of the Colorado River except during occasional rain events. The Lower Basin depends upon managed use of the Colorado River System to make its surrounding land habitable and productive. Colorado River water is also delivered to areas that lie outside the Basin’s hydrologic boundary, including parts of southern California, the east side of the Front Range in Colorado, the west side of the Wasatch Range in Utah, and parts of northern and central New Mexico. In addition, federally recognized tribes hold a substantial amount of quantified and unquantified federal reserved water rights to the Colorado River and its tributaries
The dams, reservoirs, and canals in the Colorado River System provide storage for regional water supply, facilitate water deliveries, provide flood control benefits, improve navigation and generate hydroelectric power. These facilities are operated in coordination with adjacent or nearby water delivery systems that also provide a variety of other economic, cultural and ecological benefits. The Basin’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, hold about 50 million acre-feet of combined storage, which is approximately 83 per cent of the total system storage capacity. This large storage capacity creates a buffer against year-to-year hydrologic variability and longer term drought periods by allowing excess water to be stored during wet years and used during dry years.
Due to year-to-year differences in precipitation and snowmelt, the natural water supply of the Basin is highly variable. Long-term drought such as the Basin has experienced since 2000 reflects natural climate variability coupled with the likely impacts from changing climate. Since most of the Basin’s water supply comes from the Upper Basin, drought conditions in the Upper Basin impact on water supply and resources in both the Upper and Lower Basins of the Colorado River.
Since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has experienced the driest 22-year period in more than 100 years of historical natural flows. As a result, the risk of reaching critically low elevations at Lakes Powell and Mead has increased significantly since the drought began. Critically low reservoir levels could affect compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact; Lake Powell could drop below the level required to generate hydropower and water shortages in both basins could have a negative impact on the economies, livelihoods and natural resources in both the United States and Mexico.
In the Colorado River Basin, the federal governments, Basin states, Indigenous tribes, local water districts and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the United States and Mexico cooperate to develop creative strategies to reduce the impacts of drought and increase reservoir storage at Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Activities related to drought response include a basin-wide system conservation programme and drought contingency planning efforts in both the Upper and Lower Basins through 2020.
Colorado River drought contingency plans (DCPs)
Water conservation strategies have added approximately 50 feet to Lake Mead’s elevation. The implementation of Minutes 319 and 323 to the 1944 United States–Mexico Water Treaty and related binational discussions also underscore the importance of the partnership and continued collaboration between the two countries. Additional planning studies conducted with stakeholders include the 2012 Basin Study and Moving Forward efforts and the Colorado River Basin Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study. To reduce the risk of Lake Powell and Lake Mead declining to critically low levels, in December 2017, the United States Department of the Interior called on the seven Colorado River Basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada to put drought contingency plans (DCPs) in place before the end of 2018. The Colorado River DCP was submitted to Congress on 19 March 2019.
On 16 April 2019, the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act was signed into law. It requires the Department of the Interior to execute the Colorado River DCP without delay and operate applicable Colorado River System reservoirs accordingly.
The agreements include an Upper Colorado River Basin DCP and a Lower Colorado River Basin DCP.
The Upper Basin DCP is designed to:
- Protect critical elevations at Lake Powell and help assure continued compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact; and
- Authorize storage of conserved water in the Upper Basin that could help establish the foundation for a Demand Management Programme that may be developed in the future.
The Lower Basin DCP is designed to:
- Require Arizona, California and Nevada to contribute additional water to Lake Mead storage at predetermined elevations;
- Create additional flexibility to incentivize additional voluntary conservation of water to be stored in Lake Mead and
- Require the Secretary of the Interior to design programmes to create or conserve 100,000 acre-feet or more of system water annually, to benefit Lower Basin system reservoirs, subject to applicable law and availability of appropriations.
Mexico’s Approach to the Plan
In addition to the reductions and other measures to which the Basin states agreed under the DCP,
Mexico has also agreed to take additional measures to protect the Colorado River Basin. Under a 2017 agreement, Minute 323 to the 1944 United States–Mexico Water Treaty, Mexico agreed to implement a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan but only after the United States adopted the DCP.
Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman stated, “This is an historic accomplishment for the Colorado River Basin. Adopting consensus-based DCPs represents the best path toward safeguarding the single most important water resource in the western United States. These agreements represent tremendous collaboration, coordination and compromise from each Basin State, American Indian tribes, and even the nation of Mexico.”
Source : All text constitutes direct quotation from the following United States Government webpages, updated slightly by Government officials: (www.doi.gov/water/owdi.cr.drought/en/index.html; www.drought.gov/news/colorado-riverdrought-contingency-planning; www.drought.gov/news/colorado-river-drought-contingency-planning; https://www. usbr.gov/dcp/; www.usbr.gov/newsroom/newsroomold/newsrelease/detail.cfm?RecordID=66103)
HANDBOOK ON WATER ALLOCATION IN A TRANSBOUNDARY CONTEXT-UNECE- Geneva 2021.
Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plans
In 2019, the Upper Basin and Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plans were signed. The DCPs outline strategies to address the ongoing historic drought in the Colorado River Basin.
The Upper Colorado Basin DCP is designed to reduce the risk of reaching critical elevations at Lake Powell and to help assure continued compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
The Drought Response Operations Agreement is one element of the Upper Colorado Basin DCP. The DROA identifies a process to temporarily move water stored in the Colorado River Storage Project Initial Units above Lake Powell — Aspinall, Flaming Gorge, and Navajo — to Lake Powell when it is projected to approach elevation 3,525 feet, which was identified in the DROA as the target elevation. This elevation provides a 35-foot buffer above the minimum power pool of 3,490 feet. Maintaining an elevation above 3,525 feet will help ensure compliance with interstate water compact obligations, maintain the ability to generate hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam, and minimize adverse effects to resources and infrastructure in the Upper Basin.
Pursuant to the DROA, Reclamation worked with the Upper Division States on a Drought Response Operations Plan (Plan) with the goal of implementing operational measures to augment water deliveries from the three upstream CRSP Initial Units to prop up Lake Powell. Reclamation continues to closely monitor hydrologic conditions and projections to identify appropriate upstream release volumes to maintain Lake Powell water level above the target elevation.
Drought Contingency timeline
- May 2022: DROA releases begin to move an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Lake Powell (from May 2022 – April 2023).
- January 2022: the Lower Colorado Basin declared the first shortage for calendar year 2022, resulting in water delivery reductions to Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico in the amounts of 320 kaf, 13 kaf, and 50 kaf, respectively.
- Starting in July 2021: Drought response operations were implemented under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement, which is part of the Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plans.
- Beginning in 2020: Conditions prompted the implementation of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan and the Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan still in place currently.
- May 20, 2019: Interior and states sign historic drought agreements to protect Colorado River
The Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation and representatives from all seven Colorado River Basin states gathered today and signed completed drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Colorado River basins. These completed plans are designed to reduce risks from ongoing drought and protect the single most important water resource in the western United States. Read More...
- April 9, 2019: Statement by Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman on historic legislation to implement Drought Contingency Plans
I’m pleased that collaborative efforts among the seven Colorado River Basin states, local water agencies, Tribes, non-governmental organizations, Mexico and the Department of the Interior to reduce risk on the Colorado River are succeeding. I applaud Congress for taking prompt action on implementing legislation for the Drought Contingency Plans. This brings us one step closer to supporting agriculture and protecting the water supplies for 40 million people in the United States and Mexico. Working together remains the best approach for all those who rely on the Colorado River.
- March 19, 2019: Department of the Interior Statement on Transmittal of Drought Contingency Plans by the Seven Colorado River Basin States and Key Water Districts to Congress for Implementation
Since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has experienced historic drought and dry conditions. Currently, the combined storage in Lakes Powell and Mead are at their lowest levels since Lake Powell initially began filling in the 1960s.
On February 6, 2019, the Department of the Interior published a notice in the Federal Register, 84 Fed. Reg. 2244, requesting input from the Governors, or designated Governors representatives, of the Colorado River Basin States regarding recommendations for potential actions by the Department of the Interior that: (a) would be appropriate to take to reduce the risks the Colorado River Basin is facing, and (b) could be adopted prior to the August 2019 determinations of operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2020, in the event that the Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) could not be completed and promptly adopted.
On March 19, 2019, the Governor’s representatives of the seven Colorado River Basin States and key water districts formally submitted Drought Contingency Plans to Congress for immediate implementation. The Department of the Interior commends the Basin States and key water contractors on this important milestone. Given their successful efforts to reach consensus on the DCPs, the Department, by this statement, terminates its request for input from the Colorado River Basin States, as the immediate completion and implementation of the DCPs demonstrates the best path forward to: a) reduce the risks the Colorado River Basin is facing, and that b) can be adopted prior to the August 2019 determinations of operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2020.
Basin States Letter to Congress
- Feb. 1, 2019: Interior and Reclamation seek formal input from Colorado River Basin states’ governors to protect Colorado River Basin
The Colorado River Basin is experiencing its worst drought in recorded history and water stored in Colorado River reservoirs is the lowest volume in over a half-century. Reclamation is currently working with each of the seven Colorado River Basin states to develop drought contingency plans (DCPs) which, if implemented, would reduce the risk of Colorado River reservoirs declining to critically low levels. After years of work, and delays, in December 2018, Reclamation’s Commissioner indicated that if the DCPs were not completed by January 31, 2019, Reclamation would issue a solicitation for input from the seven basin states’ governors regarding recommendations for potential actions by the Department of the Interior to reduce the risks of lakes Powell and Mead declining to critically low levels.
The basin states have not completed the DCPs. While unfinished, the Department takes particular cognizance of the fact that on January 31, 2019, the Arizona legislature passed – and Governor Ducey signed - legislation authorizing the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources to execute the relevant interstate DCP agreements. Arizona is unique in the need for state legislative action to approve the DCPs and this important step may indicate that finalization of the DCPs is imminent.
A Federal Register notice indicates that the Department will accept input from the basin states’ governors beginning on March 4, 2019, for a 15-day period. As stated in the notice, the Department will ensure that information received from the governors will be promptly shared with Tribes, interested parties and the general public at the end of the comment period. This Departmental action was not our preferred approach. However, any further delay elevates existing risks in the basin to unacceptable levels. It is our hope that the basin states will promptly complete the DCPs, and if they are successful, we anticipate terminating our request for input and rescinding the request contained in the Federal Register notice.
- Oct. 10, 2018: Colorado River Basin States make important progress towards adopting effective Drought Contingency Plans in 2018
In December 2017, Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman called on the seven Colorado River Basin states and water entitlement holders in the Lower Colorado Basin to continue developing Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) in response to ongoing historic drought conditions in the basin and reduce the likelihood of Colorado River reservoirs – particularly Lake Powell and Lake Mead – further declining to critical elevations. All seven Colorado River Basin states have been working diligently throughout 2018 on a set of draft DCP agreements that would implement Drought Contingency Plans in the Upper and Lower Basins. The agreements include an Upper Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan and a Lower Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan.
The Upper Basin DCP is designed to: a) protect critical elevations at Lake Powell and help assure continued compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact, and b) authorize storage of conserved water in the Upper Basin that could help establish the foundation for a Demand Management Program that may be developed in the future.
The Lower Basin DCP is designed to: a) require Arizona, California and Nevada to contribute additional water to Lake Mead storage at predetermined elevations, and b) create additional flexibility to incentivize additional voluntary conservation of water to be stored in Lake Mead.
The Upper and Lower Basin DCPs contain actions in addition to the provisions of the December 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Upper and Lower Basin DCPs are available for download here: Upper and Lower Basin DCPs – Final Review Draft. (PDF - 668 KB)
Source : https://www.usbr.gov/dcp/