From The Arizona Republic (Ian James):
With reservoir levels falling along the Colorado River, Arizona’s top water officials say they are making progress in talks toward a set of agreements for cities, farmers and tribes to share in water cutbacks and join in a larger proposed deal to prevent Lake Mead from dropping even further.
Since July, state water managers have been leading a series of biweekly meetings to work out details of the proposed drought-contingency plan. After their latest three-hour session Thursday, the two officials leading the talks said they are optimistic about finalizing agreements within Arizona in November so that the Legislature can sign off in January.
The proposed three-state plan would involve California, Arizona and Nevada jointly taking less water out of Lake Mead to give the reservoir a boost.
Based on Arizona’s priority system of water rights, complying with the plan without an additional adjustment would cut off water for farmers who depend on deliveries from the Central Arizona Project.
The idea is to reach an agreement that “more equitably spreads around the pain and the benefits” of the drought-contingency plan in Arizona, said Tom Buschatzke, director of the state Department of Water Resources.
“People are getting their real issues out on the table,” Buschatzke told The Arizona Republic. “People are really looking for solutions. They really are. There are some who are still holding their cards close to their vests, but I think the vast majority of people are trying to find ways to make this happen.”
Buschatzke spoke alongside Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke, who said he’s also optimistic about finishing a deal during the next two months.
“Nobody wants to see anybody lose any water, but people are going to,” Cooke said. “Nobody wants to see that hardship come to anybody, but there is going to be hardship and we need to spread it around.”
Cooke said it will be critical to get buy-in and widespread support to prepare for Buschatzke to take an agreement before the Legislature for approval.
“We need to get everybody on board,” Cooke said, “so that when he needs to go to the Legislature and say, ‘Give me the authorization to enter into this multistate deal,’ that everybody — or as many people as possible — can stand up and say, ‘We support this.’”
Some of the hurdles lie in negotiating agreements between the players to conserve water in places and free up some for the lowest-priority water users — such as farmers in central Arizona — to prevent them from losing their water supplies completely. Those talks about where the water will come from, and about the compromises needed to achieve such a deal, have been underway in a series of smaller meetings, Cooke said, and working through the details takes time…
One potential approach for freeing up water to make an agreement work, Buschatzke said, would be paying a higher-priority entity like a tribe to leave some farmland fallow and send that water elsewhere. He said officials are talking about ideas of where they might get the funding needed to compensate parties that would conserve water…
Arizona officials have said the goal now isn’t to prevent a shortage, which is looking very likely in little more than a year from now, but rather to prevent even more severe shortages…
Managers of water districts from across the region met in Las Vegas earlier this month for talks on the plan. James Hanks, the board president of California’s Imperial Irrigation District, said there was a “full-court press” by federal officials to get an agreement finished…
Hanks said federal officials talked about releasing drafts of the main agreements around Oct. 10.
Federal officials have made it clear they hope to have a deal finished by the annual conference of the Colorado River Water Users Association in mid-December, and that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wants to be there to “sign the deal,” Buschatzke said. He said federal officials know he won’t be able to formally sign until the Arizona Legislature passes a resolution granting him that authority…
“Progress has been good and steady, and I think we’re close,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “I think in California we have conceptually resolved all our intrastate issues and now we’re in the process of drafting them up.”
Kightlinger plans to brief the Metropolitan board on the proposed deal on Oct. 8. The way the agreement will work in California, he said, is that districts will leave water in Lake Mead according to how much they have used historically…
In Arizona, Kevin Moran of the Environmental Defense Fund has been participating in talks since early 2016 promoting the drought-contingency plan.
“Our view is that it’s better to plan ahead and avoid crisis if you can, because in a crisis, the environment will often lose,” Moran said. “It’s in the interest really of the entire region.”
He said adopting the deal will be a critical step toward managing water sustainably. And if the three states approve their agreement, Mexico has pledged under a separate deal to contribute by temporarily leaving more water in Lake Mead.
“I think the momentum is building because the hydrology of the region is grim and people realize that,” Moran said.