From The Arizona Republic (Ian James):
With the water level in Lake Mead hovering near a point that would trigger a first-ever official shortage on the Colorado River, representatives of California, Arizona and Nevada are trying to wrap up a plan to prevent the water situation from spiraling into a major crisis.
The plan is formally called the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan. But at an annual Colorado River conference this week, many water managers stressed that it’s merely a stopgap plan to get the region through the next several years until 2026.
It might also rightly be called a temporary rejiggering of the rules, a quick fix to stave off a reckoning, or an initial step toward planning for a future with less water.
Looming over the negotiations is a long-term issue that is intensifying the strains on the river: climate change.
Some of the water wonks at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference called the proposed drought plan a temporary “bridge” solution, or a first step toward larger efforts to address the river’s pattern of over-allocation and adapt to climate change in the seven states that depend on the river.
“It will be a short-term solution to stave off the immediate impacts of the problems that we’re seeing,” said Cynthia Campbell, a water adviser for Phoenix. “Lake levels are going down just too fast.”
The idea is simply to stop the free-fall, she said, and provide a short window of time to begin to plan bigger steps…
The river has long been overused to supply farmlands and cities across the West. And during the past few decades, rising global temperatures have added to the strains.
The higher temperatures have shrunk the average snowpack in the mountains, reduced the flow of streams, and increased the amount of water that evaporates off the landscape.
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.
At this week’s meetings in Las Vegas, managers of water agencies said there is widespread recognition that the Colorado River system needs long-term adjustments to adapt as rising temperatures increasingly sap the river’s flow and lead to longer, more intense droughts…
Even with the reservoir’s dire situation hanging over the negotiations, finishing a drought plan has proven difficult.
Pressing for Arizona and California to sign on to the proposed three-state drought agreement, federal Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman has given the states a deadline of Jan. 31.
She announced the deadline on Thursday, saying if the states fail to meet that deadline, the federal government will get involved and step in to prevent the reservoirs from falling to critically low levels.
Arizona’s top water officials say they’re optimistic they will be able to finish nailing down the details of agreements in the state to take a plan to the Legislature for approval in January.
This set of agreements would enable the state to join the larger three-state pact by spreading around the impacts of the water cutbacks, providing “mitigation” water to farmers in central Arizona, and paying compensation to other entities that would contribute water.
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.
Paul Orme, a lawyer who represents four agricultural irrigation districts in the area, said the growers are seeking $15 million to $20 million in funding from the state Legislature and the Central Arizona Project, as well as matching funds from the federal government.
That money would help drill between 40 and 50 new wells and pay for pumps and other infrastructure to help the farmers start to use more groundwater to partially replace the Colorado River water they’re going to lose…
Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society, said a great deal is at stake in the talks on the Drought Contingency Plan, because if the collaborative approach fails, decisions on how the river is managed could start to be made in more disruptive ways by the courts or federal officials.
“The most worrisome future is we don’t have the framework, we don’t have the collaboration, and the hydrology continues to tank, and it seems like the problems multiply,” Pitt said. “The Drought Contingency Plan is the key to avoiding really catastrophic problems for people and wildlife and birds in the Colorado River Basin.”