‘Running out of time’: Federal water official sets deadline for Colorado River deal
Arizona’s top water managers continue to meet to create a drought contingency plan for Colorado River water supply. Arizona Republic
LAS VEGAS — Federal Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman set a firm deadline for Western states to finish a set of Colorado River drought agreements, telling Arizona and California they need to sign on by Jan. 31.
If states fail to meet that deadline, Burman said, the federal government will get involved and step in to prevent reservoirs from falling to critically low levels.
"We are quickly running out of time," Burman told water managers from across the West at an annual Colorado River conference. "Today's level of risk is unacceptable and the chance for a crisis is far too high."
She pointed out that Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river's two main reservoirs, are together at their lowest level since Glen Canyon Dam was built and Powell was filled in 1966.
"To put it in more personal terms, these are the lowest reservoir levels in my lifetime," Burman said. "We are teetering on the brink of a shortage today, and we see real risk of rapid declines in reservoir elevations, particularly at Lake Mead, in the very near future."
Lake Mead is now just 38 percent full and approaching a point that would trigger a declaration of a shortage by the federal government.
Burman's remarks met resistance in Arizona, where legislative leaders cautioned against rushing into action and said they wanted time to study the final version of the agreement.
'Only done will protect this basin'
A year ago, Burman called for Western states to finish negotiating drought-contingency plans before this year's conference in Las Vegas. The states in the Upper Colorado River Basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — have approved their agreements.
And in the Lower Basin, Nevada is done with its plan. But Arizona and California aren't quite finished.
"Close isn't done, and we are not done. Only done will protect this basin," Burman said. "It is high time to wrap up these efforts."
She said based on current trends, the level of Lake Mead, which now stands at an elevation of 1,079 feet, is projected to fall about 30 feet, below 1,050 feet, by the summer of 2020 — a level that would put the biggest reservoir in the country deep into a shortage.
"It is time for us to pay attention," Burman said. She said she's encouraged by recent progress in the negotiations, and Arizona has made "remarkable progress" in developing the outline of an agreement for the state to participate in the larger three-state deal with California and Nevada.
She warned, though, that the Interior Department can't wait much longer for the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP, until it takes action.
"To date, Interior has been very supportive and extremely patient with the pace of progress on the DCP. But delay increases the risk for us all," Burman said. "And we need to ensure that the risks of lake levels declining to critically low elevations are addressed."
She said that if by Jan. 31, the water agencies in Arizona and California haven't finished their work to complete the deal, the Interior Department will publish a notice asking all seven states for specific recommendations on the actions the federal government should take.
"I am here today to tell you all that we will act if needed to protect this basin," Burman said. "This is absolutely not our preferred course of action. But if we do, we will give the states 30 days for those submissions. And the department will take those submissions and decide on a course of action."
Will a deadline make a difference?
Several officials from water districts that are involved in the negotiations said having the deadline should help. Some of them called it a hammer hanging over the process.
John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said "laying down the gauntlet" was the right approach to spur all the parties to finish the agreements.
"I think the states need it," Entsminger said. "If this isn't done, then we're all going to have to submit what we think should be done, and that's not going to be to everybody's liking."
Entsminger likened the Drought Contingency Plan to a scalpel that’s capable of making fine cuts, and said if the federal government intervenes, it could “swing a really big sledgehammer.”
“If that’s going on and we’re trying to keep the system from crashing, while people are starting to file lawsuits … things could get bad very quickly,” he said.
Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, said it helps to have the deadline as a specific target.
"We know that we have to be done soon," said Cooke, who wore a pin with the slogan "Protect Lake Mead" on his lapel.
Representatives of Arizona's cities, water agencies, tribes and farmers have been holding a series of meetings since July on how the different parties would share in water cutbacks to make the agreement work.
Even as the main players in Arizona have supported the outlines of a shortage-sharing agreement, a few details remain to be worked out — including proposed funding to help farmers in Pinal County who face some of the biggest cutbacks in water deliveries.
Arizona's Legislature also still must formally adopt a resolution to support the drought-contingency plan when lawmakers return to session starting Jan. 14.
Despite the remaining hurdles, the efforts toward a three-state agreement have been productive, Burman said.
"We are closer than we've ever been to completing the job," Burman said. "I sincerely hope that in early 2019 we are in a position to better protect all of the people that rely on this river, our shared resource. That's our job."
Closer to a deal, but not there yet
Last week, the board that manages the Central Arizona Project voted to support the latest outline of an "implementation plan" in the state. The agreement would help Arizona join in the three-state Drought Contingency Plan by spreading around the impacts of the water cutbacks, providing "mitigation" water to farmers in central Arizona while paying compensation to other entities that would contribute water.
Gov. Doug Ducey has said he's seeking $30 million in his budget proposal to support the plan, and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District has pledged to contribute an additional $60 million.
Many managers of water agencies expressed optimism that a deal will come together.
"We've never been closer, and yet, closeness only counts in horseshoes. So, we have a lot of work to do," said Peter Nelson, who chairs California's Colorado River Board. He called it a process of "i's to dot and t's to cross."
The deal between Arizona, California and Nevada, if finalized, would help boost the levels of Lake Mead, which have fallen to near-record lows.
Under the existing rules, if the reservoir's water level reaches elevation 1,075 feet at the end of any year, the federal government would declare a shortage and supplies to Arizona and Nevada would be cut back. The level of Lake Mead now sits just 4 feet above that trigger point.
The Colorado River has long been overallocated, with the demands of farms and cities exceeding the available water supply, and the strains are being compounded by climate change.
Since 2000, the amount of water flowing in the Colorado River has dropped 19 percent below the average of the past century. Scientific research has found that about half the trend of decreasing runoff from 2000-2014 in the Upper Colorado River Basin was the result of unprecedented warming.
Water managers in Arizona, California and Nevada have been discussing the proposed drought plan for the past few years.
A 'bridge' to a long-term solution
Not all of the discussions at this week's Colorado River Water Users Association conference focused on the plan.
In the conference rooms at Caesars Palace, there were presentations on topics such as Israeli irrigation technologies and desalinating seawater. Burman also presented a new tribal water study that the Bureau of Reclamation produced in collaboration with the Ten Tribes Partnership, a group of tribes that holds water rights along the Colorado River.
But in the hallways and speeches, many people spoke about how vital it is for Western states to put the finishing touches on plans for adjusting to the river's dwindling flows.
"I'm feeling optimistic that we're on the trajectory to get this done," said Sharon Megdal, a board member of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.
Her board voted to support "key provisions" of Arizona’s proposed plan last week. Some of the details that were yet to be worked out include proposals to secure funding to help Pinal County farmers pay for new wells and infrastructure to start pumping more groundwater to make up for cuts in Colorado River water.
The farmers have voiced concerns about a lack of clarity on where that money would come from.
"I'm hopeful that the agricultural community will be able to support the DCP at the Legislature knowing that there are things still to be worked out with the potential investment in wells and stuff for them," Megdal said, "because that's not going to get determined by January."
Arizona legislative leaders said, however, that there should be no rush. In a meeting with The Arizona Republic's editorial board after Burman's speech on Thursday, Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said the vast majority of lawmakers haven't been briefed on details of a potential plan and are nowhere near ready to hold a special session on the issue.
"The sausage is almost finished and nobody knows what's in it," Fann said. "That in itself is going to take a lot of time for our members to fully understand."
House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, echoed that sentiment, saying, "It's worth the time to have the best deal, than a quick deal."
Cooke said some discussions on details still need to happen, and about 20 agreements need to be drafted between different parties in Arizona. But he expressed optimism that it can be done by the time lawmakers start their session.
"The only thing the Legislature has to do is this very simple joint resolution" to authorize the signing of the Drought Contingency Plan, Cooke said. "That should be very straightforward."
Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, agreed that he thinks it's very possible to get the deal done and approved by the Legislature before the deadline.
"Even though we’re taking huge cuts within the state of Arizona, we know that that still is the best way to move forward because other entities — Nevada, California, Mexico — are going to help solve the problem in the lake," Buschatzke said.
The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water for about 40 million people from Wyoming to California, as well as more than 5 million acres of farmlands that produce crops including hay, cotton and much of the country's vegetables.
Arizona is entitled to 2.8 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River annually. Under the terms of the proposed three-state deal, the state would face cutbacks of 512,000 acre-feet, or 18 percent of the state's total.
Nevada and California would contribute by accepting larger water cuts than they would otherwise have under the current guidelines for shortages. And if the three states sign on, Mexico has pledged under a separate deal to contribute by temporarily leaving more water in Lake Mead, too.
Several water managers at the conference described the plan as a "bridge agreement" that will enable the states to make it through the next several years without seeing Lake Mead plunge into a crisis.
Megdal, who leads the University of Arizona's Water Resources Research Center, pointed out that the talks focus only on short-term solutions for the Colorado River, not long-term solutions, and that other negotiations are scheduled to begin in 2020 on new guidelines to replace the existing rules starting in 2026.
"We've got to get this done so we're prepared in 2020 to start renegotiating the shortage-sharing guidelines, and that's really the future — a future of less water use," Megdal said.
"What's happening in the environment is happening in the environment, and we have to adapt to that," Megdal said. "We've got to plan for less water."
Another hurdle in California
In California, the water districts that receive Colorado River water have mostly endorsed the drought plan. The board of the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California voted to approve the plan on Tuesday.
Board members of the Imperial Irrigation District, which is entitled to the largest single share of Colorado River water, signaled their support for the drought plan on Monday. But in their 4-1 vote, they also set conditions for eventually signing the agreement.
One is that state and federal agencies should guarantee funding for projects at the shrinking Salton Sea, where California officials have plans to build thousands of acres of ponds and wetlands to cover growing stretches of dusty lake bed.
The Salton Sea has long been fed by runoff from farmlands in the Imperial Valley. Now, with a water-transfer deal sending more Colorado River water away from the area to cities, the Salton Sea is drying rapidly. Along its shores, the winds kick up hazardous dust clouds and send them blowing into communities.
After years of delays, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature allocated $80 million for the state’s Salton Sea plan in 2016. California voters approved an additional $200 million in a bond measure in June.
But with the total estimated cost of the state's 10-year plan now at $420 million, the plan remains short of funding and far behind schedule.
And that's where Imperial Irrigation District officials would like to see the federal government help. IID President Jim Hanks said Monday that he wants to see a financial commitment from the federal government to match state funding for the Salton Sea plan.
The new Farm Bill that was passed by Congress this week may help ease those concerns somewhat. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein added language to the bill that will open up new sources of federal funding for Salton Sea projects.
"Frankly, the Farm Bill developed independently of the DCP. But it is a rare opportunity for smart people like Jim Hanks and the feds to do something great, to move forward to having some resolution on both these issues," said Phil Rosentrater, general manager of the Salton Sea Authority.
"Now the expectation is that IID is going to participate in an agreement at Lake Mead," Rosentrater said. "So, the feds are looking for more participation, and from IID’s point of view, this should be a two-way street.”
It’s not clear how much more money could end up being budgeted for the Salton Sea as a result, or whether the ability to tap federal funding will help nudge the IID board toward signing the Colorado River deal.
Burman said California appears to be close.
"I would caution folks, however, not to add unrealistic demands as you try to complete the pieces of the DCP puzzle," she said. "There is still a lot to get done."
Reporters Janet Wilson of The Desert Sun and Dustin Gardiner of The Arizona Republic contributed to this article.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and at OurGrandAZ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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