Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) System Conservation Project
In January 2019, following 19 years of drought and unprecedented low reservoir levels at Lake Mead (recently as low as 38% full and just 1’ above shortage declaration for Arizona), Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) into law. The Arizona DCP agreement is designed to promote conservation and stabilize water levels in Lake Mead—this plan reduces risks from ongoing drought by promoting conservation, reducing demand and stabilizing water levels in Lake Mead through projects that achieve “system conservation.” The underlying objective of the DCP—and the project presented herein—is to make water supplies more resilient in the lower Colorado River basin and reduce the likelihood of shortage declarations that would impact both central Arizona water users and users of the Colorado River Aqueduct.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) have lands that stretch along 56 miles of the lower Colorado River. The CRIT have nearly 720,000 acre-feet of water rights which by law are to be used on the reservation. However, as a result of recent legal changes ushered in by the DCP, off-reservation leasing is now allowed, making the CRIT an important partner in helping achieve water security outcomes for Lake Mead, Arizona, and the lower Colorado River Basin.
The CRIT System Conservation Project is a key part of Arizona’s interstate commitments under the DCP and is one of the most important projects needed to achieve water security for Arizona water users like the City of Mesa that rely on the Central Arizona Project (CAP). The CRIT System Conservation Project is designed to compensate the Colorado River Indian Tribes for leasing up to 150,000 acre-feet of water—the CRIT have pledged to lease this water and leave up to 50,000 acre-feet per year in Lake Mead for a multi-year period in order to achieve decade- scale water supply benefits for the Colorado River, Lake Mead, Arizona and southern California. These water rights are among the most senior in the state, meaning they have priority over other rights and are more reliable. However, this water will not be dedicated to system conservation and Arizona water security purposes unless private funding is allocated to fill the remaining project funding gap.
As a result of funding for this leasing agreement, a total volume of up to 150,000 acre-feet would accrue to and help stabilize lake levels in Lake Mead. This project has the potential to contribute an approximately two-foot increase in depth to Lake Mead and will directly shore up water supplies for the lower basin (CA and AZ) and minimize the likelihood of Bureau of Reclamation shortage declarations and associated curtailments of water to Arizona. Any such shortage declarations would disproportionately affect areas Arizona served by CAP—however, the project will also reduce shortage risks to California cities that rely on imported Colorado River water.
* Project supports voluntary transactions to change, reduce or stop water use – either temporarily or permanently – to protect or restore water for environmental benefit