The Colorado River Board of California voted March 18 to sign off on plans about how to manage Colorado River water in case of ongoing drought.

The vote, over the objections of the river’s largest water user—the Imperial Irrigation District—allows the California representative on the board to sign a letter with six other states March 19 authorizing the U.S. Secretary of Interior to move forward.

It also includes proposed federal legislation to execute the agreements.

“The [plans] allow for a greater amount of flexibility,” Colorado River Board of California Executive Director Chris Harris said during a special meeting. “We recognize the fact that we’re in really dire straits.”

The Colorado River provides drinking water to 40 million people in seven states and Mexico. It has been experiencing a drought since 2000 and forecasts show water could reach critically low levels in the nation’s two largest reservoirs—Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are both on the Colorado River—by 2021 if something is not done.

March 19 Signing Planned

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman had given the states until Jan. 31 to sign drought contingency plans, but Arizona and California did not meet the deadline. Burman then gave governors of each of the Colorado River states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming—until March 19 to suggest how the federal agency should manage the river.

Late March 18 Arizona announced that the seven states would meet in Phoenix March 19 “for the purpose of signing a letter to Congress requesting federal legislation to implement the Drought Contingency Plans created jointly by the seven States.”

In Washington, D.C., the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee are expected to hold hearings on the plans at the end of March.

Reclamation Public Information Officer Patti Aaron said she was hopeful Imperial would join the agreements down the road, an option Colorado River Board of California Chairman Peter Nelson made sure to include.

Given that Imperial Irrigation District has decided not to join at this time, we appreciate that California has found an alternate approach that also avoids impacts to the Salton Sea,” Aaron said in a statement.

Imperial Irrigation District’s board said it would not vote to approve the drought plans until money can be secured for Salton Sea, California’s largest lake.

Formed by floodwaters of the Colorado River in the early 1900s, Salton Sea is shrinking, has rising salinity levels, and dying fish populations. The sea is primarily fed by agricultural runoff and reducing water as part of drought plans could further imperil the sea, Imperial has said.

Imperial provides water to 500,000 acres of farmland in Southern California.

Salton Sea Concerns

The state adopted a $383 million restoration plan for the sea in 2017 but the program is not fully funded. Imperial asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for $200 million in farm bill money in January after new provisions allowed the agency to fund programs related to drought planning. Federal authorities have said the regulations for those provisions are not yet finalized.

Imperial, Aaron said, could have approved the plans now “as they continue to work with all of the relevant local, state, tribal and federal agencies involved in Salton Sea management efforts.”

Aaron added that if all the drought plans are completed March 19, Reclamation will “terminate our request to the Basin States for further input.”

The drought contingency plans call for water users to give back water when lakes Mead and Powell hit certain levels. California would be the last state to donate.

With Imperial vowing not to approve the the plans, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Board voted March 12 to take over Imperial’s obligations.

“There is no provision in here that makes any reference to the Salton Sea,” Imperial board member Jim Hanks said during the meeting. “Nobody has authority to sign or speak for IID.”

In a statement, Imperial Board President Erik Ortega said his district did not opt out of the drought plans.

“That decision was made for it earlier this month when the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California rode in on a white horse to rescue the [drought plans] by writing IID and the Salton Sea out of it,” Ortega said. “The other water contractors, along with the Bureau of Reclamation, could have rejected the MWD proposal as a cynical, short-sighted attempt to sidestep the Salton Sea issue, but they embraced it instead as an elegant solution to the problem, which is to basically pretend it doesn’t exist.”

—With assistance from Tripp Baltz and Brenna Goth.