Ask Darren


There is a lot of talk about something called drought contingency planning as a way to help maintain Lake Mead levels, but I hear it would require California to conserve more water than it already does under the QSA. Can you share what you know about this new proposal?


First off, there are a couple of points that need to be made clear. The Water Authority has not been a participant in the drought contingency planning (DCP) negotiations. The participating agencies are the Section 5 Contractors on the river, including Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Imperial Irrigation District, Coachella Valley Water District, Palo Verde Water District, and representatives from Arizona and Nevada. California’s Colorado River Board and the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) are also participating. The second point is that no agreement has been reached and no agreement is likely to be reached until 2017, if at all. While negotiations are ongoing, the parties have not yet resolved all issues.

Ultimately, the DCP is being touted by the DOI as a way of managing the river by enacting measures that exceed those negotiated previously under the Colorado River 2007 Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Reservoir Operations. The 2007 agreement, which the Water Authority did help negotiate, called for shortage measures to be implemented when Lake Mead reaches elevation 1,075 feet with additional measures at 1,050 and 1,025 feet. Under that agreement, Arizona and Nevada would face apportionment reductions at each designated elevation level. Keep in mind that California has senior water rights on the river, and under the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement, California already implemented significant conservation measures to reduce its use of the Colorado down to its 4.4 million acre-feet entitlement.

The DCP proposal seems to focus on California carrying out additional conservation of up to 350,000 acre-feet beyond the conservation under the QSA, to help prevent Lake Mead from reaching critically low elevations. Reports suggest the additional conservation water would be for storage purposes in Lake Mead.

The San Diego County Water Authority has raised concerns, along with other agencies, that increased conservation from the Imperial Valley—the source of 60% of California’s DCP water—would have further impacts on the Salton Sea, and there seems to be little conversation about conducting an environmental review to understand the potential impacts.

IID has stated publicly that it would not agree to the DCP unless the State put forward a ten-year plan for restoration of the Salton Sea including milestones and funding. The State is drafting a ten-year plan that could be released as early as January, but it likely will not include a ten-year funding plan. Even if the State did bring forward a ten-year plan that IID found acceptable, there are still questions as to the impacts the DCP—separate from restoration issues and beyond QSA impacts—would have on the Sea.

In summary, there is no DCP in place yet, but talks are ongoing. We all need to be vigilant and pay attention to this issue because there could be very real impacts to California. With the possibility of a Lake Mead shortage declaration as soon as 2018, conservation is clearly important but DCP needs to be carefully scrutinized before any new agreement is reached.