The Colorado River Basin (Basin) is in the eighth year of drought – the worst eight year period in over a century of continuous recordkeeping. Reservoir elevations have declined over this period and the duration of this ongoing, historic drought is unknown. This is the first long-term drought in the modern history of the Colorado River, although climate experts and scientists suggest droughts of this severity have occurred in the past and are likely to occur in the future. The Colorado River provides water to two nations, and to users within seven western states. With over 27 million people relying on the Colorado River for drinking water in the United States, and over 3.5 million acres of farmland in production in the Basin, the Colorado River is the single most important natural resource in the Southwest.
The Secretary of the Interior (Secretary) has a unique role on the Colorado River – charged with management of a vast system of dams and reservoirs that have provided water for the development of the Southwest.
Under these conditions, conflict over water is unsurprising and anticipated. Declining reservoir levels in the Basin led to interstate and inter-basin tensions. As the agency charged with management of the Colorado River, the Department of the Interior (Department) had not yet developed operational rules for the full range of operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead because these types of low-reservoir conditions had simply not yet occurred.
Against this background, at the direction of the Secretary, the Department initiated a public process in May of 2005 to develop additional operational guidelines and tools to meet the challenges of the drought in the Basin. While water storage in the massive reservoirs afforded great protection against the drought, the Department set a goal to have detailed, objective operational tools in place by the end of 2007 in order to be ready to make informed operational decisions if the reservoirs continued to decline.