Opinion: States have already agreed to cut more than a million acre-feet of water on the Colorado River. It’s time to make good on that agreement.
The speeches at the Colorado River summit in Las Vegas last week ranged all the way from pessimistic to panicked.
Ted Cooke, the outgoing director of the Central Arizona Project, summed it up: “(T)here’s a real possibility of an effective dead pool“ at Lake Mead, making it impossible to release water through Hoover Dam for downstream delivery to Arizona and California.
Yet, for all the hand ringing, none of the state and federal officials offered a plan or proposal for action to avert catastrophe. Just calls for more meetings and conferences.
Even the Interior Department, the federal water master on the river, had nothing to offer. Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told us, “I can feel the anxiety, the uncertainty in this room.” Other federal representatives simply suggested that the department will have something to say next year.
We haven’t yet enacted all cuts in the DCP
Meanwhile, there is on the shelf a plan available for immediate action that was not mentioned or discussed in Las Vegas. Recall that in 2019 the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada reached an agreement called the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), in which they agreed to substantial reductions, timed to declining water levels in Lake Mead.
At the time the three states and Mexico agreed to a delayed schedule for reductions, hoping that the drought would let up before the lake hit “dead pool.“ Central Arizona Project officials confidently predicted that with DCP the chances of Lake Mead dropping to disaster level were a mere 8%.
Since then the drought has only intensified. The lake continues to decline toward disaster. We must now accelerate the time table and implement the full agreed reductions without further delay.
The reductions waiting to be fully carried out under “Tier 3” of the DCP agreement are substantial. Arizona has agreed to cut 720,000 acre-feet per year (AFY), Nevada to 30,000 AFY and Mexico to 275,000 AFY. And importantly, California, which has the strongest legal position, has agreed to 350,000 AFY.
DCP’s cuts aren’t enough, but they are a start
It is, of course, possible to question how these numbers were reached back then and whether they are entirely fair. But the fact is the parties have agreed and it is now time to get off dead center and implement the agreement. We cannot continue to gamble that a miracle will somehow materialize to make the cuts unnecessary.
As the states continue to procrastinate, it is imperative for the Interior Department to come off the bench and use its authority as federal water master to compel the states to begin full implementation of the DCP agreement.
The reductions in DCP and a similar agreement with Mexico totaling 1,375,000 acre-feet will not be sufficient to end the crisis. They are, however, a good start; something that can be done now, a means to break the impasse and build momentum for the difficult decisions that lie ahead.
Bruce Babbitt served as governor of Arizona from 1978 to 1987 and as secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior from 1993 to 2001. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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