A long-term strategy is needed for the Colorado River in addition to addressing current woes
By Warren Tenney
The Colorado River is a key water supply for the ten AMWUA municipalities to meet the water demands of 3.7 million residents and the Valley’s thriving high-tech manufacturing, defense, financial services, health care, higher education institutions, and other services that support the regional and national economies. Municipal water providers need stability and predictability in their water supplies so that communities can make critical decisions that impact millions of residents and vital industries. This is why the current uncertainty surrounding the Colorado River is unacceptable.
The AMWUA cities are waiting to see if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the seven Basin States that rely on the Colorado River can develop a comprehensive plan to significantly reduce demand from the Colorado River to protect this water-producing system, which is threatened by decades of overallocation, a historic mega-drought, rising temperatures, and drier climate. A short-term plan of action that is expected to work within the current framework for operating the River is needed now and then will be revisited in 2026.
The current rules for managing the Colorado River, Lake Mead, and Lake Powell are commonly referred to as the 2007 Interim Guidelines. The key word is “Interim” because they expire at the end of 2026. Before that happens, the seven Basin States and the federal government need to develop a new set of operating procedures that will replace the 2007 Interim Guidelines.
In other words, while determining drastic reductions to rescue the River now, Reclamation and the Basin States must also develop a new set of operating guidelines to stabilize the whole Colorado River system in 2026 and beyond. This process – called Reconsultation – is anticipated to involve complex negotiations among stakeholders in the Basin and with Reclamation to determine how to operate the reservoirs and manage the Colorado River in a way that complies with federal law and avoids triggering litigation. Development of the new guidelines must address how to better protect the River’s long-term health.
To start the official process of developing the new operating rules for the Colorado River, Reclamation requested input from the states, water users, and the general public to capture a broad range of perspectives on what issues should be considered as a new set of operating procedures are created and will replace the 2007 Interim Guidelines. The process offers an opportunity to improve the management of the Colorado River, which is needed considering our current situation. Reconsultation will have implications for decades as it will determine whether we will have a Colorado River that can continue providing water for the benefit of all its users.
Based on the importance of Colorado River water to the Valley, AMWUA submitted a letter to ensure that the Bureau of Reclamation considers the municipal perspective on Colorado River management after 2026.
Here are the primary points that were included in AMWUA’s letter to Reclamation:
Increased Clarity and Reliability Is Needed
Municipal water providers need increased clarity regarding how much water will be available from the Colorado River, even in times of severe shortages. Therefore, the Colorado River should be managed to increase long-term reliability rather than trying to maximize the amount of water released from the reservoirs every year. Post-2026 operations should seek to restore and build back up the Colorado River system reservoirs.
Factor In Climate Change
Reclamation’s modeling tools and processes must be updated to incorporate the best available climate science and to remove biases from past, wetter hydrology. Estimates of what constitutes a “normal” supply need to be consistent with the new reality of the aridification in the Colorado River Basin.
Equitable Shortage Sharing
Water users throughout the Basin and Mexico should all take responsibility for reducing shortages and making efforts to protect the system. Arizona cannot shoulder the entire burden of reductions, but rather water users from all sectors of all the Basin States must contribute.
Municipal Input and Consideration
The Reconsultation process would benefit from more input from municipal water providers. AMWUA recommends the creation of a Basin-wide “Municipal Sector Committee” to serve as a forum for municipal water providers to share their unique and critical perspectives to Reclamation.
Collaboration and Consultation
Continued collaboration and consultation with the Basin States, water users, Mexico, Tribes, NGOs, and stakeholders - including municipal water providers - throughout the Basin is crucial for a successful Reconsultation process. Collaboration must be pursued to avoid costly, unproductive, and time-wasting lawsuits.
The process for Post-2026 operating strategies has only just begun and is understandably being overshadowed by the current uncertainty facing the Colorado River. Nevertheless, this process is a chance to update and improve the long-term management of the Colorado River. The AMWUA cities will continue to remain engaged on Colorado River issues to ensure that this crucial water supply can continue to benefit the Valley for generations.
AMWUA’s letter sent to Reclamation can be read in full HERE.
To print or save this week's blog, a PDF version is available HERE
For over 50 years, the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide their communities with assured, safe, and sustainable water supplies. For more water information, visit www.amwua.org.