ICS – Three little letters that signify big contributions and new flexibility

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Hoover Dam Colorado River

What is ICS? It stands for Intentionally Created Surplus. ICS is an innovative – some say visionary – way for water managers to create incentives for water conservation and new contributions to Lake Mead.

The idea is to use less water in one year and have access to that water in the future.

The ICS program was developed as part of the 2007 Guidelines and was substantially expanded in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). ICS was created in recognition of the fact that water managers needed new tools to conserve and contribute water to protect the Colorado River. However, prior to 2007, it had been difficult to develop a program that respected existing water rights and priorities, while still protecting all water users.

So why is it called “Intentionally Created Surplus”? The name reflects the fact that water is intentionally created through investments in conservation. To qualify, and protect existing users, rights and priorities, ICS must reduce an existing beneficial use. Examples include: investing in new, higher efficiency irrigation; paying a user to develop a new, non-Colorado River supply including desalination; or paying a farmer using Colorado River water to fallow a crop. The reduction in use is then contributed to Lake Mead in a separate storage account. The stored water – ICS – is then available in a future year for use by the water user that created it. Therefore, ICS is a temporary contribution to Lake Mead and available, after evaporation losses are considered, for use in a future year.

CAP has used two types of ICS created in the 2007 Guidelines and one type created under Minute 319 with Mexico:

  • Extraordinary Conservation (EC ICS) – conservation projects that are saving Colorado River water that would have otherwise been used. An example is when agricultural projects use other water supplies instead of Colorado River water or when they go without water such as when fallowing land.
  • System Efficiency – projects financed to save Colorado River water that would otherwise be lost from the system – these projects make the system run more efficiently. Examples include Brock Reservoir in California, which adds additional storage capacity in the United States, and the pilot run of the Yuma Desalting Plant to treat agricultural runoff by removing salts from the water.
  • Binational ICS (BICS) – US parties provide funding for conservation projects in Mexico, helping to lower water demand and store more water in Lake Mead.

Now, under DCP, CAP intends to use a fourth type of ICS:

  • DCP ICS — allows an entity to convert any other type of ICS into a DCP contribution. Thus, ICS becomes a tool that adds flexibility to how mandatory DCP contributions can be made to Lake Mead.

How is ICS created?

To create ICS a water user authorized under the 2007 Guidelines or subsequent agreement to create ICS must put forward a proposal that is reviewed and approved by a technical workgroup comprised by representatives from the Lower Basin (or, in the case of DCP ICS, the Upper and Lower Basins). ICS accounting is performed and reported by the US Bureau of Reclamation (BOR). BOR provides an annual accounting report that documents the amount of ICS created annually by each water user and the current account balances. In order to protect all water users, rights and priorities, the 2007 Guidelines and DCP include limits on the total amount of annual ICS creation, accumulation limits and delivery limits, so this innovative program continues to benefit water users and the Colorado River system and avoid unintended impacts.

Although complicated, ICS is an important tool that has been beneficial to the Colorado River system to temporarily protect the Colorado River water supply as we prepare for a hotter and drier future.