Water agencies in Arizona and California are the targets of a new warning from the Interior Department: Protect the Colorado River basin from drought, or the federal government will.
The two states are the holdouts in a seven-state agreement that recognizes water users are taking more from the Colorado River than nature can replenish. New guidelines aim to save more water in river reservoirs while addressing how supply cuts will play out during increasingly likely water shortages.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman set a new deadline Dec. 13 for the states to finish work on the agreements, called the Drought Contingency Plan. The Department of Interior will step in if they aren’t done by Jan. 31.
The Colorado River operates under a set of guidelines developed more than a decade ago. The drought agreements would update them to account for hydrology that has left the combined storage of the two major reservoirs in the system at the lowest level since 1966, Burman said.
Arizona and California already missed Burman’s original target date for the plan, she told attendees at the Colorado River Water Users Association annual conference in Las Vegas. The delays increase the risk to a river that serves 40 million people.
“We are quickly running out of time,” Burman said.
Federal Government ‘Sledgehammer’
States risk losing elements of their carefully negotiated drought agreements if the federal government takes action. Burman said the Interior Department would collect recommendations from states before deciding how to move forward.
The January cutoff will give the agency enough time to plan for August 2019, Burman said. Hydrologic projections released then will determine if there will be a water shortage in 2020.
The drought planning includes separate deals among Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming in the upper basin and Arizona, California, and Nevada in the lower basin. The upper basin states and Nevada are ready to sign the overall agreement, which will also need to be passed via federal legislation.
Water officials in Arizona and California said they appreciate the deadline and that it could hold them accountable.
Burman’s announcement “had some teeth in it” compared to previous deadlines, Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project water agency, told reporters after her remarks.
The drought-planning agreements take a nuanced look at what will happen once Lake Mead, the reservoir serving lower basin states, drops to elevations that trigger different levels of water shortages, said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. The federal government couldn’t implement those provisions unilaterally, he said.
“What they can do is swing a really big sledgehammer,” he said.
Action from the secretary of the Interior instead of the states also likely threatens conservation commitments made by Mexico, Burman told reporters. Mexico agreed to receive less Colorado River water once the drought plans are in place, under a binational treaty.
Steps Toward Implementation
California is close to securing approval of the state’s deal from the variety of agencies that need to sign on, said Peter Nelson, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California. Arizona water users are negotiating the details of a plan that emerged in the past few weeks after months of contention.
Arizona faces major water cuts under existing guidelines and the new plan. The state is looking to temporarily compensate water users, including farmers, for taking less of their Colorado River supplies.
Water users now want certainty on the specifics, Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told reporters. The state aims to have a plan ready for the Legislature when it meets again in mid-January.
Both the Legislature and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey have to approve the state’s implementation plan before Arizona can sign onto the regional deal. Burman’s deadline gives them just a few weeks to do that.
Buschatzke said it’s “very possible” to get a plan through during that time frame.
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