A little breathing room is always appreciated. In December, the three Lower Basin states plus
other parties signed an agreement to store an extra 740,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead by 2017.
The ultimate goal is to save 3 million acre-feet by 2020. Arizona will leave 345,000 acre-feet in
lake storage by substituting some water off the Salt-Verde River system and by incentivizing
farmers to take 160,000 acre-feet less through 2017. Cities will not be impacted. Las Vegas
will refrain from using 45,000 acre-feet that it has a right to use, but doesn’t need over the next
three years. The Bureau of Reclamation will leave 50,000 acre-feet in the lake.
And Metropolitan Water District has finally joined in for the first time, pledging to save almost
300,000 acre-feet over the next three years by helping southern California farmers with greater
conservation efforts. It is a major breakthrough to get such a pledge from California in the
middle of an extreme drought. Of course, there is a major caveat: California must first receive
enough precipitation to refill its reservoirs before it starts saving, i.e., its drought must end first.
That alone might take three years of above-average precipitation levels.
The 740,000 acre-feet not released from Lake Mead can raise water level elevations (now at
1,085 feet above MSL) 10 feet and push back the first declared shortage by a year, maybe
two. That gives a bit of maneuvering room to figure out how to save even more (the 3 million
acre-feet target), and cure the imbalance between current low inflows and deliveries at levels
set when flows were high. Further measures are not likely to be as easy or cheap. But even
California is nervous about what happens when Lake Mead elevations drop to 1,000 feet. That
is too close to dead pool.
Everyone in the Colorado River Basin has a stake in what happens to the management system
of the river. Collaboration in such matters is far more likely to yield results than conflict in the
courts. Entities at all levels—two federal governments, seven states and numerous more local
agencies—must start thinking about new approaches. So a year or more of quiet negotiations
has given us a bit of breathing room. We can’t waste it.