ULI Arizona News

Insiders Series Looks at Developments on the Colorado River and Arizona Groundwater

By Peter Madrid | MadridMedia

Water is a key factor to development in Arizona. The Colorado River, Arizona’s lifeline, supplies water to farmland and more than 40 million people in Southwest.

Land use professionals now more than ever are being called upon to make smart decisions on water-related issues. Officials predict that within two years the Colorado River could hit a historic low mark, necessitating mandatory cuts in deliveries to Arizona, Mexico, and Nevada.

ULI Arizona’s Insider Series, hosted by Perkins Coie, discussed recent developments on the Colorado River, including agreements between the U.S. and Mexico and the pending Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan. Also discussed were recent developments with Arizona groundwater management and associated regulations.

The featured speakers were Peter Culp of Culp & Kelly LLP and Matt Rojas of Perkins Coie LLP.

“Drought planning on the Colorado River can best be defined as a serious math problem,” Culp said. “Nineteen years of drought has brought problems of over allocation. We are using more than nature puts back in.”

Culp said issues included not accounting for evaporation and other system losses and demands. Impacted states include Arizona, Nevada, California; and our southern neighbor, Mexico.

“Projecting Lake Mead levels will be crucial moving forward,” Culp said. “Since 2007 we’ve been trying to stay out of the shortage problem. As much as anything, we’ve been lucky.”

Culp said what officials are trying to avoid is a “dead pool,” a point at which no water can leave Lake Mead at all. “This means the inability to turn the turbines (at Hoover Dam).

“There will be some difficult conversations taking place,” Culp said.

Commitments between the U.S. and Mexico have also been enacted to ensure avoiding shortages. This includes the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, a December 2016 agreement in principal to continue discussions to try to reach agreements on impending shortages.

An impending issue could be the amount of snow and runoff, important to the Upper Colorado River Basin.

“Over the past decade or so, we have seen some interesting and strange changes in the UCBR,” Culp said. “We’ve seen a decrease in the amount of snow and runoff. Is our model off on snowpack?”

This is a result of climate change, officials fear. Over the last 50 years, there have been temperature increases. The snow leaves earlier; the growing season starts earlier. Once the snow is gone, the grass comes up in the high country. It never melts. It just evaporates.

With active groundwater management areas in place, Rojas said, goals can be met toward a “zero-use policy.” This includes farming communities such as those in Pinal County, the third-largest farming county in Arizona.

“We’d love to be where we were in 2007,” Rojas said. “Still, we’re in a groundwater conundrum. There are still lots of conversations to be had.”

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