RIVERAn overflow crowd, in four separate locations around Arizona, heard the long-anticipated news on about the likely near-term future for Colorado River flows during a mid-May meeting.

With a few exceptions, the outlook presented was sobering.

Organized by the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project, the gathering was the second Colorado River shortage-briefing in as many years.

Water Resources Assistant Director Clint Chandler described the so-called Drought Contingency Plan “money” graph, which depicts the amount of water each Lower Basin state would forego from its allocation in order to help stabilize Lake Mead. The controversial graphic depicts California joining Arizona and Nevada in giving up a portion of its allocation once Lake Mead’s water levels descend below 1,045 feet.

A “shortage declaration” – a finding by the Bureau that Colorado River flows into Lake Mead are insufficient to meet demand – is increasingly likely over the next five years, although water levels in Mead should remain high enough to avoid a shortage declaration before 2018. The big question of the day, however – the one prompting hundreds of people to stream into the Water Resources offices, as well as into satellite locations of the presentation around the state – regarded what happens next:

What – exactly — happens when Lake Mead’s depth sinks below the shortage trigger point of 1,075 feet?

According to guidelines put in place in 2007, Arizona and Nevada begin to take shortages when the water elevation in Lake Mead falls below 1,075 feet. The volumes of shortages increase as water levels fall to 1,050 feet and again at 1,025 feet. In 2012, Mexico agreed to participate in shortages at the same elevations. The law exempts California from shortages until the entire CAP supply is reduced.

For weeks – ever since the Bureau of Reclamation first announced in mid-April that Mead would finish the calendar year a scant three feet above levels that would trigger water-delivery reductions – interest has built over what actions the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California are planning.


The May 18 Drought Contingency Planning briefing at Water Resources’ offices in central Phoenix drew overflow crowds, both in Phoenix and at satellite locations in Tucson and Yuma. Here, a rapt audience watches the presentation from the agency’s Santa Cruz meeting room.

Arizona’s water managers laid out some precise details of what the consequences of a shortage declaration may entail – as well as the much-discussed “Drought Contingency Plan,” or DCP.

While the DCP remains under negotiation among Arizona water-users, as well as among the states, Water Resources Assistant Director Clint Chandler graphically outlined the DCP as it now exists.

“Until the drought relents, the people of Arizona expect us to proactively respond to the challenges,” said Chandler, pointing to a set of charts outlining the proposed Drought Contingency Plan. “We won’t let them down.”

The plan to stabilize Lake Mead is tied to descending water levels.

Under the proposal, Arizona and Nevada would begin reducing water deliveries when Lake Mead reaches elevation 1,090 feet. Below 1,075 feet, Arizona leaves over a half million acre-feet of its 2.8 million acre-foot allocation in Lake Mead. Should levels continue dropping to below 1,045 feet, Arizona’s allocation of Colorado River water is reduced by a total of 640,000 acre-feet. And below a depth of 1,025 feet, Arizona would leave behind 720,000 acre feet of water.


Pam Adams, hydrologist for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, described drought-contingency planning among Arizona Native American tribes. From left: Adams; Clint Chandler, Water Resources Assistant Director of Statewide Water Planning & Permitting; Lisa Atkins, President of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District; Ted Cooke, General Manager for the Central Arizona Project; and, Dan Bunk, River Operations Group Manager for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Boulder Canyon Operations Office for the Lower Colorado Region.

The proposal also calls for California to begin participating in reductions when Mead falls below 1, 045 feet, at which point it would reduce its annual 4.4 million acre-foot allocation by 200,000 acre-feet. California’s reductions would increase as Lake Mead water levels fall, culminating in a 350,000 acre-foot reduction at 1,030 feet. The inducement for California to give up its “senior” status on the Colorado River is the same factor that motivates Arizona and Nevada: seeking certainty for water supplies.

Coincidentally, Arizona’s lead negotiator on behalf of its Colorado River allocation rights, Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke, was unable to attend the shortfall briefing, for good reason: He was en route to Arizona from Washington, D.C., where he had briefed a Senate subcommittee on precisely the same, urgent issues.

There, Buschatzke told members of an Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee that the steps Arizona already had taken to preserve Lake Mead were the end-result of “hard choices (made) over many decades” by Arizonans and that any final decision on a drought-deficiency plan would represent consensus among “a broad group of water users.”

Briefing panelist Lisa Atkins, the president of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, observed at the end of the briefing that “water is a legacy issue with Arizona” and that “we have to keep our sleeves rolled up.”

“The system has reached that tipping point that we knew would come one day,” said Atkins. “We don’t manage water as an every-man-for-himself proposition. We rise together.”