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Science and Innovations

Colorado River Basin States Meet to Discuss Drought, Water Cutbacks

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Representatives of the seven Colorado River Basin states meet today at a conference in Las Vegas to discuss the details of a long-awaited plan for dealing with drought. Cities, farms, and tribal nations are negotiating voluntary cutbacks in water use to reduce the risk of Lake Mead falling to catastrophically low levels. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with one of the conference moderators, John Fleck, a water expert from the University of New Mexico, about why this “Drought Contingency Plan” is needed.

SEVIGNY: Why are these negotiations happening now?

FLECK: When the Central Arizona Project canal was completed in the late 1990s and Arizona started taking its full share of Colorado River water, push came to shove, and Lake Mead began dropping. We’ve been able to continue to meet water needs around the basin by just draining the reservoirs, but Lake Powell and Lake Mead are low now, and we can’t keep doing that forever. We’re at a point where a couple of bad years in a row, a couple of dry years in a row, would really put us in a difficult situation.

SEVIGNY: So Arizona is the one state that’s really having a hard time in negotiating an agreement. Why is that?

FLECK: Arizona is finally having to come to terms with a reality that we all knew was coming, and Arizonans should have expected this. When Congress approved the Central Arizona Project back in the 1960s, it was always clear that there was not going to be a full supply in the Central Arizona Project aqueduct every year. Arizona kind of forgot that in the decades that followed, and you have a bunch of water users in Arizona who came to depend on a full canal. Grappling with the reality that the full supply is no longer going to be there reliably has been really, really difficult. Everybody has to make sacrifices and there’s a lot of fighting of who has to sacrifice how much right now.

SEVIGNY: So the idea of the Drought Contingency Plan is that we volunteer to take these cuts now, rather than being potentially forced to take them later.

FLECK: Yeah, the phrase that’s been used for years on the river, a phrase that was originally offered by environmentalists, was “conservation before shortage.” Let’s voluntarily conserve up front to avoid much more draconian and extreme mandatory cuts. And also, let’s all come together and agree ahead of time on what the cuts look like to avoid really complicated and nasty and risky litigation if we end up going to court and suing one other over this.

SEVIGNY: So this drought contingency plan is a seven year agreement. Then what happens?

FLECK: As soon as the Drought Contingency Plan is done, we keep negotiating, because there are a whole bunch of unresolved issues that still aren’t solved by this Drought Contingency Plan. We’re essentially in a state of permanent negotiation on the Colorado River. We have this enormous society across seven states in United States and two in Mexico that came to depend on—built cites and farms based on—a supply of water that’s no longer there. There’s a wrenching, difficult societal adjustment that’s going to be continuous, especially as we cope with less and less water in climate change.  So they’re going to be negotiating forever.

SEVIGNY: What’s the one thing you think the people living here in Arizona should know about the Drought Contingency Plan?

FLECK: I’ll actually say two things. They’re related. One is there is less water than Arizona came to expect, and this is partly Arizona’s fault. But the other thing is that Arizonans have been very, very good at using less water. Arizona’s total water use peaked at 1980, it’s been declining ever since. What that means is that once Arizonans get over the fear of scarcity and apocalyptic collapse as a result of water shortages, and realize you all can do it, you can. It’s important to get beyond the fears of running out of water and realize there will be enough water, you just need to learn how to manage it more carefully in the face of scarcity and that can be done. So I see a really bright future for Arizona.  

SEVIGNY: John Fleck, thanks so much for talking with me today.  

FLECK: Thanks for having me.

Arizona is expected to bring the Drought Contigency Plan to the state legislature for approval next month.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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