Effective drought planning may be best accomplished in periods of water surplus, but there are often few compelling incentives to develop drought management plans during periods of high precipitation and “surplus” water. Human nature being what it is, droughts are not easy to anticipate and carefully plan for.
For much of the 20th century the traditional approach for coping with periodic water shortages (and to spur development) in the Colorado River basin was to construct storage reservoirs with sufficient capacity to both support future growth and meet water demands during drought. This practice was viable for many years; however, this strategy requires access to untapped (and previously undammed) water sources, good reservoir sites, strong congressional support, and a citizenry willing to accept the environmental costs associated with dam construction. Not all these conditions exist as they did in the early and mid-20th century and the prospects for expanding storage capacity via large federal reservoirs are essentially at an end across the West. And, regardless of human desires, dams do not create water resources, they only allow storage of natural precipitation and streamflow. During the 1950s and 1960s, water storage capacity greatly expanded in the Colorado River basin, with Lake Mead and Lake Powell providing a combined storage capacity of roughly 55 million acre-feet—almost four times the river’s annual average flow. As a result, water supply problems afflicting the Colorado River basin today thus relate less to storage capacity (for example, in 2006 most of the basin’s reservoirs were well below capacity and could store much more water) and more to limited supply, as well as to incessant increases in water demands. Moreover, as former Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner John Keys stated, “The days of the large [dam] project with the federal government as the sole funding source are over” (Keys, 2006). This of course does not mean there will be no new water storage projects, but it does mean that new projects will require close cooperation between water users, and multiple parties to plan, finance, build, operate, and maintain facilities. This report notes that water projects of the future are less likely to entail new dams and reservoirs and more likely will be focused on urban water conservation, landscaping, education programs, and better management of existing supplies. Accordingly, there will likely be some shifts in how organizations and citizens cope with recurrent drought and water shortages.