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Controversy Grows with Upper Colorado River Basin States Upset with the Central Arizona Water Conservation District’s Water Strategy

Leaders from the four Colorado River Upper Basin states and Denver Water recently sent a series of letters to the water managers in Arizona claiming that the actions of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) “threaten the water supply for nearly 40 million people in the United States and Mexico, and threaten the interstate relationships and goodwill that must be maintained if we are to find and implement collaborative solutions” to water shortage issues in the Colorado River Basin.

On April 13, six executives from the Upper Colorado River Commission—representing Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico—sent a letter to Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR), to express concern over recent presentations and comments by Ted Cooke, General Manager of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. [The CAWCD operates the Central Arizona Project (CAP). CAP is a more than 300-mile long canal built to deliver Colorado River water into central and southern Arizona. Because CAP is operated by CAWCD, the two acronyms will be used interchangeably throughout, to denote the specific water that is run through CAP at the discretion of CAWCD.]


The Grievance—Lake Powell and Lake Mead Water Levels

The Upper Basin commissioners began the letter by noting the severe 17-year drought that has left Lakes Powell and Mead at near historic low levels. This winter’s snowpack will do nothing to help the situation, as projected inflow into Lake Powell (the upper of the two reservoirs) is only 5.62 million acre-feet (MAF)—a mere 52 percent of average. According to the latest Drought Monitor Report, released April 24, the entire Colorado River Basin is at least “abnormally dry” with most areas in moderate or severe drought. (See,

The Utah and southern Colorado mountain ranges, sources for a large percentage of Colorado River water, have fared much worse. Those areas are experiencing extreme drought with current snow water equivalent levels ranging from 30 to 60 percent of normal. The extended drought has resulted in large water shortages on an annual basis, draining Powell and Mead—Mead in particular is currently at 41 percent capacity and projected to keep falling.

But the Lower Basin has nevertheless continued to receive above-normal releases from Lake Powell. This is, thanks in part, to the 2007 Interim Guidelines, a set of agreements designed to alleviate the effects of the prolonged drought. As part of the Guidelines, the two reservoirs now operate as one system, meaning that more water is released from Lake Powell in an attempt to stabilize the levels in Lake Mead. The Lower Basin is also working on a Drought Contingency Plan that utilizes voluntary water restrictions in an attempt to prevent catastrophic shortages.

Those measures are being undermined, the Upper Basin leaders claim, by CAWCD’s water strategy recently evidenced by presentations and graphics [The “sweet spot” graphic has since been removed from the CAP website] from Ted Cooke. Cooke spoke to the Congressional Water Caucus at its March 9, 2018 Arizona and Western Policy Roundtable, and his comments were later uploaded to a blog on the CAP website. In those remarks, Cooke expressed a desire to avoid “overconserving” by remaining at the so-called “sweet spot”—a level of use low enough to avoid a declared shortage, but high enough to get extra water from Lake Powell through the Guidelines’ plan to balance reservoir levels. The customary annual release from Powell is 8.23 MAF; however, by keeping use levels high and therefore draining Lake Mead, the federal government has released 9.0 MAF from Powell to compensate in each of the last four years. That extra 0.78 MAF (approximately 251,020,000,000 gallons) which has largely been used by CAP “effectively offsets the structural deficit and [has] kept the Lower Basin out of a declared shortage since 2015,” according to Cooke. The “structural deficit” refers to a systematic shortage that occurs in the Lower Basin because initial calculations failed to account for evaporation, seepage, and other transit losses. Therefore, when even depletions match (or even exceed, as has recently been the case) releases from Lake Powell, there is still a shortage in the Lower Basin.

He went on to say that “it doesn’t make sense for the Lower Basin to conserve even more water in an attempt to offset the reductions in Lake Powell releases” because the proposed reductions are much more severe than CAP would actually experience in a declared shortage. “What we need to do, for at least the next two years, is to nurture the ‘sweet spot’ for as long as we can while higher releases are possible by carefully targeting conservation,” Cooke said.


The April 13th Letter

That last sentiment is the general basis for the outrage from the Upper Basin. The April 13 letter claims that: “CAWCD’s statements run contrary to the spirit of interstate comity and cooperation that led to adoption” of the Guidelines and that “as a result, consultation with Governors of all Basin States…may be necessitated to resolve any claim or controversy.” The Upper Basin leaders said that CAWCD’s plan to intentionally maximize CAP’s demands to continue to induce larger releases from Lake Powell “disregard the basin’s dire situation at the expense of Lake Powell and all the other basin states.” Lake Powell is currently projected to drop 30 feet within the next year, leaving it only seven feet above the Guidelines’ elevation to trigger shortage releases of only 7.48 MAF per year. According to the Upper Basin leaders:


  • . . .attempts to maximize demands to increase releases from Lake Powell could ultimately accelerate low reservoir conditions in both the Upper and Lower Basin and cause shortages in Lake Mead.

In response to CAP’s actions, the Upper Basin leaders threatened to withdraw support and participation from the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP). The SCPP is a program through which water users, mainly agricultural, are compensated for temporary and voluntary water reductions. The SCPP is funded by CAWCD, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Denver Water, and the Bureau of Reclamation. The Upper Colorado River Commission is the contracting and managing authority for the Upper Basin. The program is widely considered a success, already resulting in more than 139,000 acre-feet of water savings that benefit the entire Colorado River system. In the April 13 letter, Upper Basin leaders noted that SCPP was “not designed or intended to subsidize inaction” and that CAWCD “has directed the system benefits of the program for its own use.” Therefore:


  • . . .the Upper Division States and Upper Colorado River Commission are…forced to consider whether and how to proceed, if it all, with the SCPP going forward.

This threat is an unfortunate blow to a program that many have celebrated as an effective way to deal with Colorado River system water shortages in the coming decades.

The Upper Basin leaders ended the letter by expressing a desire to work cooperatively with CAWCD, but that if the:


  • . . .collaborative efforts continue to be delayed or manipulated, we will act to protect the Colorado River System and will urge others to do the same.

Although the letter was actually sent to Tom Buschatzke, Director of ADWR, on April 17 he released a similar critical statement, saying that he has:


  • . . .huge concerns that the unilateral actions of CAWCD are threatening the regional and binational [drought contingency] plans…that will benefit and protect Lake Mead.



Conclusion and Implications

CAWCD responded through a statement on April 17, saying it was surprised to receive the letter, and is:


  • . . .hoping to clarify apparent misunderstandings, and to facilitate in-person, collaborative discussions aimed at finding solutions that will benefit the communities and environment served by this mighty river.

Later in the statement CAWCD classified its actions as attempts to leave water in Lake Mead, and implied that the Upper Basin leaders had misunderstood its goals and reasoning for extending the “sweet spot.”

Also on April 17, Denver Water joined the controversy by sending its own letter, this time directly to CAWCD threating to pull its funding from the SCPP. Denver Water claims that CAWCD’s actions “severely compromise the trust and cooperation that has allowed us to develop” the SCPP. The SCPP would be critically underfunded if both the Upper Colorado River Commission and Denver Water withdrew their support.

(John Sittler, Paul Noto)