First Drought Contingency Plan Contributions Triggered from Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico

A recent photo of Lake Mead shows the reservoir’s reduced levels, although good hydrology in 2019 did increase levels enough to prevent a shortage declaration. The most recent figures by the Bureau of Reclamation place Lake Mead at level 1,089 feet, fourteen feet above the trigger for a shortage declaration and mandatory reductions. However, even at 1,089 feet, the first ever contributions to the river — affecting Arizona, Nevada and Mexico — under the Drought Contingency Plan will be implemented as part of 2020 river operations.

It has been well documented that the Colorado River has experienced a positive year hydrologically thanks to record snowfalls in 2019. Through the weather patterns this year, the impacts of drought on the river eased enough so that a shortage declaration was avoided for 2020 and is expected to be avoided in 2021 and possibly beyond. The good news clearly was reason for a collective sigh of relief. A shortage declaration would come if Lake Mead’s projected elevation for the end of the year was below level 1,075 feet. The Bureau of Reclamation’s (Bureau) critical projection shows Lake Mead at level 1,089 feet—fourteen feet above the shortage trigger, confirming there will not be a shortage declaration in 2020. Again, a positive sign.

However, even under the recent positive conditions, it is clear long-term drought continues on the river, and it is because of that reality the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) was adopted earlier this year. Under the DCP, if Lake Mead’s projected end of year elevation falls below level 1,090 feet—fifteen feet sooner than the first shortage trigger—the first DCP contributions would be required, affecting Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico (which is a participant under Minute 323, an international agreement between Mexico and the U.S.). When the Bureau released its final numbers in August showing Lake Mead below this first DCP trigger at the 1,089-foot mark, DCP contributions were triggered for the first time ever and will be implemented as part of 2020 operations. Arizona has a contribution of 192,000 acre-feet, Nevada, 8,000 acre-feet and Mexico, 41,000 acre-feet—a total of 241,000 acre-feet in 2020. For the DCP contributions, each contributor can determine what methods they will use to produce the required volumes under the established agreements. Additionally, the Bureau plans to produce another 100,000 acre-feet of system water to the river annually. It’s also key to note that California does not have any contributions until Lake Mead falls below the DCP trigger at 1,045 feet.

The goal of the DCP is to try to ensure Lake Mead does not continue its decline to critically low levels. The combination of DCP finalization and good hydrology both aided in the gain in storage and resulting rise in elevation in Lake Mead this year. However, with the first contributions now moving forward, it stands as a reminder that one good season of snow does not resolve the longstanding drought. While we can hope for another good season of snow in the year ahead, only time will tell. In the meantime, whether you work in industries that directly relate to water use or your only connection to water comes from flushing a toilet or turning on a shower, it remains critical to pay attention to these issues because they can have long-term impacts.

Certainly, under the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), the suite of agreements that reduced California’s use of the Colorado River down to the state’s 4.4 million acre-foot annual allotment, the QSA partnering agencies have taken a leadership role in developing and implementing conservation that has aided in the management of the river. We have shown what can be accomplished when stakeholders work together to make sure the river continues to meet the needs of all those who depend on it. Further, we must begin to plan for the future because the steps we take today will affect generations to come just as the decisions that water leaders made in the past have gotten us to where we are today—in a position to work together against the impacts of drought and to plan for the future in a way that is beneficial to all.