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A seven-state compact to save the Colorado River from running dry and prevent future water shortages is already showing results just five months after the deal was signed, according to Arizona water leaders.

Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and Ted Cooke, General Manager of the Central Arizona Project, highlighted the immediate success of the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) in a recent op-ed for the Arizona Republic.

“It didn’t take long for the completion of the Drought Contingency Plan to create value to Arizona and the Colorado River Basin,” they wrote.

Buschatzke and Cooke specifically cite the DCP’s focus on stabilizing Lake Mead and creating incentives to “bank,” or store, water in the reservoir as having been hugely successful. Lake Mead’s water level is 22 feet higher than expected, with half of that rise coming directly from storage and contributions to system conservation, the water leaders wrote. The rest is attributable to snowfall in the Rockies. 

“We can say with confidence that DCP is already a success,” Buschatzke and Cooke said.

Why was the DCP necessary?

Arizona gets nearly 40% of its water from Lake Mead, which is in the midst of a 19-year drought. If the lake reaches critically low levels — an outcome that is made likelier by the impact of climate change — Arizona could lose access to up to 17% of its water allocation, representing a year’s supply of water for one million Arizona households.

This crisis led the federal government to act in 2018, ordering Arizona and the six other Colorado River states to implement a revised DCP or have the process taken over by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. 

After months of collaboration between the state’s water agencies, water users, lawmakers, and other stakeholders, the state legislature passed two bills in January that allowed Arizona to ratify the DCP. 

Gov. Doug Ducey (R-Ariz) signed the bills into law and said in a statement they were “the most significant water legislation passed in nearly 40 years.” Arizona, the six other Colorado River states, and Mexico then came together to sign the interstate agreement in May, at Hoover Dam, finalizing the effort to conserve water in Lake Mead.

Looking ahead

This is only the beginning of the process to preserve Lake Mead. The lake’s level is expected to drop to Tier Zero level next year, which under the DCP’s new rules, triggers a reduction in how much water Arizona can take from the river. 

The state will subsequently have to leave 192,000 acre-feet of water — or 6.9% of its total allotment — in the lake. The water will remain banked in the lake until the reservoir rises above an elevation of 1,100 feet, the Arizona Republic reported.

“The estimated impact of contributing this water is more than $40 million, but the investment is worth it to protect the Colorado River system,” the Buschatzke and Cooke wrote. 

The water leaders are now focusing on how to protect the state’s supplies long into the future. “The DCP is providing a safe harbor while we work on important issues leading up to 2026, when the existing guidelines for the operation of the Colorado River system expire,” they said.

When that happens, they’ll need to renegotiate a new DCP.

The leaders said the first step of that effort is a “listening and data-collecting effort,” which will involve meeting with elected leaders and other delegates, including those who represent Arizona tribes, cities, agriculture, mining, development, and the nonprofit sector. 

Collecting thoughts from stakeholders and incorporating them into the next DCP agreement will “ensure Arizona is a strong voice among the Colorado River Basin states and the federal government,” Buschatzke and Cooke said.

While the current DCP represents a start when it comes to water preservation, the next version will need to go even further, according to a study by climate scientists Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck. They found that without changes in precipitation, global warming will likely cause the Colorado River’s flow to decrease by at least 35% by the end of the century.

That finding doesn’t make Udall hopeless, though, as he told the Arizona Republic in August. “We can solve this climate problem. We just need to acknowledge it and get to work solving it.”