Scottsdale sets Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan directives into motion

Lake Mead as taken from Hoover Dam in 2007. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

Scottsdale’s leaders have agreed to terms to implement its portion of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan — a federal pursuit seeking the cooperation of multiple western states — to preserve Lake Mead water for the next few years.

On July 1, Scottsdale City Council unanimously approved four resolutions to set in motion its portion of the plan.

Water Resources Executive Director Brian Biesemeyer presented the plan to council, defining it as what he believed to be a “good news story.”

Officially titled the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, the interim agreement between Arizona, California and Nevada, the U.S. government and Mexico, will be effective from 2019 through 2026, with an overall goal to constrain the use of Colorado River water to avoid further declining levels of Lake Mead.

“In 1999, the lake was basically full and over the last 19 years of drought, has continued to decline,” Mr. Biesemeyer said, pointing out a bump in lake levels in 2011.

Brian Biesemeyer

“We had another good year this year, and I expect some sort of bump to be seen in lake levels. But, you can also see it quickly declining.”

Mr. Biesemeyer says officials were optimistic about early forecasts of river flows, and did not foresee a 19-year drought.

“Also, the agreement to construct the CAP canal put Arizona at a lower priority — or bottom of the priority list — for Colorado River water,” he said. “Additionally, California has historically taken more than its allocation. In 2007, interim guidelines were put in place to actually do the same thing we’re talking about today — but really they weren’t enough, they didn’t have enough cuts, and the river continued to decline.”

Laying the groundwork

The Colorado River Watershed is found within seven states and divided into the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California.

The seven states have been operating under the Colorado River Interim Guidelines since 2007, according to a city staff report.

The guidelines addressed shortage scenarios on the Colorado River at the reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, although they were not protective enough to prevent the water elevation at Lake Mead from continuing to reduce due to the ongoing and extended regional drought.

The lower basin states have been engaged in discussions about sharing for the past several years, and reducing the risk that the lake falls to an elevation known as “Deadpool,” where electric generation is stopped and water delivery is uncertain.

The Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan — known as DCP — was created for the lower basin states and Mexico to share in the cuts of water deliveries by agreeing to forgo water deliveries and instead leave it in Lake Mead.

The drought contingency plan is a compromise of years of negotiation between all Colorado River water users in the lower basin, the staff report stated, and directs the Secretary of the Interior to reduce deliveries from Lake Mead by defining the shortage triggers based upon the elevation of the lake above sea level.

The benefit of reducing deliveries while the lake is at a higher elevation includes more water being left in the lake for a longer duration and staving off the worst-case scenario of the lake elevation going below 1025-feet, or deadpool with no deliveries.

Additionally, an important strategy of adopting the DCP was to engage California, Nevada and Mexico in sharing in the reductions in delivery due to a lowering lake elevation, as well as agreeing to forebear or voluntarily leave water in Lake Mead, which is called intentionally created surplus, the staff report stated.

Scottsdale is among the municipalities in Arizona agreeing to constrain the use of Colorado River water to avoid further declining levels of Lake Mead. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Details behind the plan

Once the DCP framework was established, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District initiated the Arizona Implementation Steering Committee to address ways of handling cuts in Colorado River water allocations within Arizona and the CAP service area.

The steering committee was comprised of over 40 individuals from throughout the state representing a wide scope of interests, including four municipal water providers — Goodyear, Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tucson.

From July 2018 through February, the steering committee met in full and in several working groups to determine how cuts were to be implemented throughout the state.

The most contentious part of the discussions involved cuts to agriculture, primarily in Pinal County, due to the lower priority rights of agricultural water and how to mitigate users, the staff report stated.

A final compromise solution was agreed upon by the steering committee in January, and presented to the state legislature, who approved the DCP authorization. Gov. Doug Ducey signed the bill on Jan. 31, and the plan was then submitted to Congress, where it was signed and sent to the president’s desk for signature on April 8.

In order to implement the DCP in Arizona, each Central Arizona Water Conservation District subcontractor, including the City of Scottsdale, needs to have council approval of the various agreements specific to their municipality.

Scottsdale has been recharging water with partners in the Phoenix Active Management Area for over a decade. Through the recharge process, the city earns Long Term Storage Credits for every acre-foot of water recharged, which is used to offset groundwater pumping and for a drought reserve.

Scottsdale City Council meets at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

A resolution to an arduous process

In Scottsdale, according to Mr. Biesemeyer, the city came into “safe yield” in 2006, meaning they put more water into the ground than they took.

“Since 2006, you can see our water usage — shows a continued decline of our potable water usage, and yet our service connections are continuing to go up,” he said.

“The point is, our water consumption is generally flat if not declining and yet our population is growing and our connections are growing. So, conservation works — we don’t want to stop conservation, we want to continue it, and you’ll continue to see increased conservation measures as we move forward.”

Members of City Council commended Mayor Jim Lane and city staff’s work to accomplish the plan.

“I’d like to commend the mayor and Mr. Biesemeyer for working this out with the city, the state and the federal government. I know it was a long, arduous process and you guys have done a great job,” Councilman Guy Phillips said.

Councilwoman Virginia Korte said she served on the Central Arizona Project board in the 1990s, and recalled when a big issue titled, “Planet Ranch” was an issue for the city.

“What a visionary move that was for our city, and we continue to make those visionary moves to secure our water supply, and at the same time we continue to preserve,” she said. “What a great message that is not only to our citizens but to the rest of the Valley. It’s just good management.”

Mayor Jim Lane also threw in his two cents, thanking Mr. Biesemeyer and city staff for getting such a large plan passed.

“It was a tremendous effort, and a lot of technical information, a lot of good work. Frankly, it’s exemplified in what your department does every day,” Mr. Lane said.

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at or can be followed on Twitter at

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