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‘Done’ isn’t done: What’s happening with the Colorado River drought plans?

The fate of Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona state line is the second largest reservoir on the Colorado, behind Lake Mead. Both are under considerable stress from overallocation and the aridification of the West. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC/Lighthawk)

The fate of Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona state line is the second largest reservoir on the Colorado, behind Lake Mead. Both are under considerable stress from overallocation and the aridification of the West. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC/Lighthawk)

GREELEY, Colo. – The seven states that rely on the Colorado River for water haven’t been able to finish a series of agreements that would keep its biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, from dropping to levels not seen since they were filled decades ago.

Five states – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nevada – are done. So is northern Mexico. But California and Arizona failed to meet the federal government’s Jan. 31 deadline to wrap up negotiations and sign a final agreement.

The Colorado River is stressed. Simply put, the vast, highly managed system of reservoirs, rivers and streams has a fundamental imbalance between supply and demands, a gap that’s growing due to long-term warming and drying trends in the Southwest.

The overall Drought Contingency Plan, made up of agreements between the river’s Upper and Lower basins, is designed to rein in water use and – at least for six years – prevent the whole system from crashing.

Without the plans in place, the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages power and water in the West, has issued a new deadline of March 4 for the seven states to finish the plans or it will ask the state’s governors for ideas on solving the region’s water-scarcity conundrum.

“We’re at a point where two roads are diverging in the woods,” Commissioner Brenda Burman told reporters Feb. 1. “And we need to decide which path we’re going to follow.”

The first path is the one the seven states are on now, where the parties are working collaboratively to finish the plans and put them into action themselves. Some language in the plans would then need approval by Congress and President Donald Trump.

The other path, Burman said, involves invoking the federal government’s “broad authority” to manage water distribution in the river’s Lower Basin (Arizona, California, Nevada and northern Mexico). But as tensions rise in some of the areas where the plans remain unfinished, some users are ready to challenge that federal authority.

Let’s go through a few points to understand where the drought plans stand now:

1. Arizona did and didn’t meet the deadline

Hours ahead of the Bureau of Reclamation’s deadline of midnight Jan. 31, a group of Arizona lawmakers and water users gathered in the state Capitol to watch Gov. Doug Ducey sign a resolution giving the state’s top water official the ability to sign onto the Drought Contingency Plan.

The signing was a celebration, a culmination of months of discussion in the state that laid bare hard truths about Arizona’s water past, present and future.

Earlier in the day, as the Legislature prepared to vote on the measure, House Speaker Rusty Bowers talked about just how hard it has been.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of people who’ve worked on these two bills that we have before us,” said Bowers, a Republican from Mesa. “All kinds of associations and groups have focused their attention on this. And we hope that this, as has been declared, this first step, will be beneficial to all of us.”

Negotiations brought in some groups that hadn’t been included before, such as the Colorado River Indian Tribes, who live in western Arizona.

2. River’s biggest user calls the deadline ‘coercion’

California’s Imperial Irrigation District, the single largest user of Colorado River water, hasn’t been shy about its concerns over the declining Salton Sea in drought negotiations.

Since early 2018, the district’s board has said it won’t sign a broader deal until more resources are provided to manage the Salton Sea’s expanding shoreline and its spiking salinity levels. A 15-year-old agreement led to a transfer of water from the district to growing cities in Southern California. That and increasing irrigation efficiency have led to the decline of the lake, which relies mainly on farm runoff, causing environmental and public health problems as it shrinks.

California, too, was singled out by Burman for failure to meet her Jan. 31 deadline, a fact that ruffled feathers at the irrigation district.

“No federal coercion was needed to reach this point of near completion,” district board member James Hanks said at a Feb. 5 special meeting. “And we don’t need it now.”

Hanks said Burman has “dodged questions” about Salton Sea mitigation funds, and about Reclamation’s role in addressing the lake’s growing list of problems. He also challenged whether the federal government truly has authority to meddle in Colorado River allocations and entitlements.

Although the Drought Contingency Plans focus their attention on preserving water levels in Lakes Mead and Powell, Hanks said the Salton Sea is part of the broader Colorado River system, too, and its future should be included in the negotiations.

“Are the golf courses of Phoenix, the fountains of Las Vegas more important than the public-health crisis at the Salton Sea?” Hanks asked.

The Imperial Irrigation District is seeking a federal match of $200 million in farm-bill funds for projects at the Salton Sea. Those funds have not yet been allocated. In December, district board members said they’d support the Drought Contingency Plan if three conditions were met, one being that the board would be able to vote on a full package of agreements when they were done. That hasn’t happened yet.

3. Once the plans are done, harder negotiations begin

If they’re finished, these deals are scheduled to expire in 2026.

Some have criticized the Drought Contingency Plans for not going far enough to solve the region’s water problems. Even the name of “Drought Contingency Plan” seems to suggest we’re dealing with a temporary dry period, rather than an overall shift in climate.

John McClow is general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and an alternate commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

“Most of the policymakers in the West are persuaded that we have aridification rather than drought,” McClow said. “Many folks now are saying, ‘This is what we can expect. It’s not going to get better.’”

For now, that shift is in the attitude of leaders, and it isn’t taking center stage in water policy.

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