Governors in states that cradle the Colorado River basin have about two weeks to tell the U.S. Department of the Interior how to manage their water after missing a deadline to reach a seven-state drought agreement.
A comment period opens from March 4-19, escalating the threat that the federal government will have intervene to direct states’ use of the Colorado River. That is the source of drinking water for more than 40 million people in cities including Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Denver.
That’s something U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman has warned about for months, after Arizona and California experienced delays in completing their portions of the drought plan for the river.
The proposals among Upper Basin and Lower Basin states—known as Drought Contingency Plans—charge states with voluntarily using less Colorado River water and conserving it in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. After nearly two decades of drought and overuse, those reservoirs are approaching levels that could trigger supply shortages.
States have until March 19 to provide their input to the Interior Department on what actions the federal government should take, under a Federal Register notice filed last month. But there’s still hope that states will come to their own agreement, which can then move to Congress for approval.
“If they do, then we’ll rescind the notice,” Patti Aaron, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation Lower Colorado Region, told Bloomberg Environment.
‘Fish or Cut Bait’
Arizona and California are holding up a plan already approved by Nevada and the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.
Arizona is working through internal water use agreements while California’s part of the deal could be complicated by one district’s federal funding request that won’t be granted in the short-term.
California’s Imperial Irrigation District voted to approve the plans, but only if state and federal officials agree to fund a 10-year restoration plan for the Salton Sea, which is shrinking, too salty, and losing fish.
Imperial asked Department of Agriculture officials for $200 million from farm bill money in January under new drought provisions, but was rebuffed.
The Upper Basin states are focused on the end of the comment period, Pat Tyrrell, Wyoming State Engineer and representative to the Colorado River Basin states, said Feb. 28.
They are hoping all seven states will sign a Drought Contingency Plan letter and send it to the federal government before March 19, he said.
“March 19 is the fish-or-cut-bait, do-or-die date,” he said. “There are a lot of moving parts.”
If California doesn’t get there, “it doesn’t mean we pack up our toys and go home,” Tyrrell said. At a minimum, there will be separate letters from the two basins, although that’s not the preferred option, he said.
The Upper Basin plan focuses on drought operations of the federal reservoirs in the four states that require management, Tyrrell said. In the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada, water users are agreeing to take voluntary cuts now to prevent future crises.
Arizona Has Dozen to Go
In Arizona, a plan to use less Colorado River water resulted in 16 agreements water users need to finalize before the state can sign the regional deal. Arizona has a dozen left to complete, according to Sally Stewart Lee, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
The intrastate deals include how farmers in the central part of the state will use less water, the amount of Colorado River water that tribes will contribute to conservation, and other details. It’s unclear how the state will move forward given the federal comment period deadline, Lee said.
Various agencies are still working to wrap up their plans. The board that oversees the Central Arizona Project—a canal diverting Colorado River water to the central part of the state—approved more than half of the agreements it must sign off on.
“This is complex work, involving a lot of time, attention, and detail,” Ted Cooke, Central Arizona Project general manager, said in a statement. “We are making good progress toward completing these necessary agreements.”
Pruning California Water
California’s Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot is tracking developments, said Lisa Lien-Mager, the agency’s deputy secretary of communications. The state is still drafting its comments to Interior, she added.
“We continue to explore ways we can be supportive,” Lien-Mager said.
California’s main sticking point has been the Salton Sea. Any cuts to the water allocations as part of drought plans could further imperil the sea, which is fed primarily by agricultural runoff. California approved a $383 million, 10-year restoration plan in 2017 but it is not fully funded.
Imperial could be cut out of the picture if the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California promises to give the water in place of Imperial.
But Imperial officials oppose that plan.
“Just as it is hydrologically connected to the Colorado River, the Salton Sea is inseparable from the [drought plans], and any attempt to sweep it aside or pretend it doesn’t exist is as unsustainable as it is cynical,” Imperial Board President Erik Ortega said during a meeting March 1.
“We all need to cross the finish line together, in California and across the two basins, but that won’t happen by taking short cuts, environmental, economic, or otherwise.”
—With assistance from Tripp Baltz.
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