Hoover Dam and Lake Mead

The declining water levels in Lake Mead reveal a “bath tub ring” on the surrounding rocks and shoreline, as seen from Hoover Dam in Arizona on Dec. 18, 2015.

The image on the computer screen shows our uncertain future.

It features a plummeting vector representing Lake Mead. This is where water for Arizona as well as for California and Nevada is stored. As the climate shifts in the Colorado River Basin in ways no model is fully capturing, the river’s flow continues to diminish and the lake lowers.

This amounts to an unprecedented shift in the U.S. West. To address it, the Central Arizona Water Conservation Board and Arizona Department of Water Resources — the two agencies largely in charge of making water policy — are, after a year of disagreement, working together to implement new rules and procedures overlaid onto decades of outdated state and federal water policy.

The new policies emerging are called the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). In addition to stabilizing Lake Mead in order to avoid a shortage declaration — which would lessen Arizona’s ability to negotiate our water future — it aims to weave new relationships in our state and in the basin among tribes, government agencies, municipal and agricultural stakeholders, environmental nonprofits and private investors; new agreements that will winnow flexibility (or “bend the curve”) into legally rigid overlapping systems of water laws that define our state and the basin.

Even for those riveted to this story of a lake and a river and a state and a way of life — what we choose about water these next months will define every aspect of our lives — it’s all challenging to understand.

Behind the complexity, though, a few questions are clear — ones which, however, are largely obscured amidst the tangles of data.

First, we need to know who is making water policy and the interests they represent. Is everyone at the table who needs to be, reflecting a diversity of ages, ethnic and economic backgrounds, and opinions? So far, the decision-making process hasn’t included — to the extent it must — younger people, people of color, tribal representatives, those advocating for a local economy that will likely be more climate resilient, or those proposing a new legal framework protecting flowing rivers as the base of a thriving 21st-century society. We need their voices, in part to cultivate critical thinking and trust from a much wider range of society; in part because people across the state, many of them younger, are developing a bold new vision for Arizona’s economy, segueing from one based significantly on growth.

We also need to know which groups are financing water conversations in our state and in the basin. As with medicine and education, we are making a profound shift away from public to private financing, water as a public good, led first by foundations (singularly, the Walton Family Foundation — Walmart); but also private investors, who will look for returns. While embracing the many important projects private capital is helping finance in the West — restoring burnt forestland and returning flows to rivers through partnerships and water trading — we need to question the costs and benefits of this new model, in the context of global best practices.

The cornerstone element that seems to be missing, at least publicly during this critical first stage of water discussions in a time of emergency, is the legal framework protecting ecological water — water allocated for rivers to sustain themselves, plants, animals, people and society. Without it — protecting ecological water is like creating a household budget — what is to keep us from spending beyond our means: dewatering our rivers, in the face of development, thereby endangering future generations — life itself?

Current water policy in our state and in the basin as it takes shape seems to suggest that only later, once the DCP passes, can we openly discuss ecological water — create an honest budget — as the key to sound water policy in a region facing unprecedented drought, fire and floods. We need to ask those who know water well whether this isn’t a singular omission? Around the world legal protection for rivers — and a cap on their use — serve as catalysts for more honest, inclusive conversations about water and for developing economies better prepared to withstand uncertainty.

Perhaps above all, sounding out a longing many in our state share to meaningfully participate in upcoming discussions about water policy at this historic juncture, we must understand the potential longer-run scenarios and solutions experts are considering to address scarcity on the Colorado River. Without them, as short-run solutions are intensively discussed, it’s hard to grasp what’s truly at stake.

Tricia Gerrodette and Madeline Kiser are members of the Sustainable Water Workgroup, a statewide coalition of 27 conservation and community organizations.