Congress: Approve the Colorado River Plan as a model for climate resilience

After years of hard work and difficult negotiations, a historic seven-state agreement to conserve Colorado River water is facing its last hurdle: Congress.

In the coming days, Congress will begin committee hearings on unusually concise, 139-word legislation that would allow the secretary of the interior to implement the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP.

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The DCP may sound like three unimportant letters to members of Congress outside the seven states that rely on the Colorado River for their water supplies: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

But this agreement marks a watershed moment in building our country’s resilience to climate change. The DCP embodies two key principles of building resilience — collaboration and tradeoffs — that apply not only in the West but across our country. Speedy congressional approval is essential to ensuring this model is implemented.

Collaboration

The Colorado River travels 1,450 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California, providing water to approximately 40 million people, irrigating nearly 6 million acres of farmland and passing through nine national parks. Unfortunately, demand for Colorado River water has long exceeded supply.

This imbalance stems in part from an unfortunate miscalculation. Under the Colorado River Compact signed in 1922, the states agreed how to divvy up 15 million acre feet of water from the river per year. By 1944, this number grew to 17.5 million acre feet per year with the addition of water deliveries to Mexico and flows from Arizona tributaries.

The problem is that the original number was based on one of the wettest years in history. In reality, the Colorado River has provided less than 15 million acre feet of water per year on average over the last 10 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Add population growth and a 19-year drought to the equation and the result is “a looming crisis,” as the seven states recently described the Colorado River situation in a letter to Congress. This crisis comes into sharp relief on Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., located just outside Las Vegas. Bathtub-like rings around the lake provide visual evidence of record-low water levels and the new reality of a drier climate in the American Southwest.

Given the Colorado River’s enormous reach, no one state could decide how to conserve water in Lake Mead. The DCP required the three lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — to agree to how much water they will keep in Lake Mead as water levels fall even lower.

Within each state, local stakeholders had to agree on who reduced how much to reach those state totals. This was especially challenging in Arizona, which faces the largest cuts of the Lower Basin states. This is because the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile system that brings Colorado River water to central and southern Arizona, has the most junior rights to Colorado River water and consequently is first in line for cuts. Developing Arizona’s portion of the DCP required dozens if not hundreds of meetings and massive collaboration among farmers, tribes, cities, water agencies, businesses, state lawmakers and environmental groups.

Tradeoffs

Conserving water in Lake Mead inevitably requires tradeoffs, again most notably in Arizona. Farmers agreed to give up some of their water earlier than previous planned.

Tribes demonstrated extraordinary leadership and willingness to participate in conservation and storage agreements in exchange for fair compensation. Cities agreed to trade some of their water rights for credits for future use.

Water in the west is complex, and it’s easy to get lost in the details. What’s most important about the Colorado River Drought Contingency Agreement is that seven states collectively recognize it’s time to manage our water differently, as a finite — not unlimited — resource because the future will not look like the past.

However, this challenge is not unique to the West. Regardless of their party, virtually all members of Congress will almost certainly face water challenges in their state — either too little or too much — as extreme weather becomes more frequent. They, too, may need to come before Congress in the future seeking support for efforts to respond to a climate-changing world.

The Colorado River agreement provides an instructive model, demonstrating we can thrive in this new environment when we accept tradeoffs, collaborate on a scale with few precedents, and envision a future that meets our needs within our water budget. Now it’s time for Congress to step up and support this new vision for the future, too, by approving the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan legislation.

David Festa is senior vice president of ecosystems at the Environmental Defense Fund.