From KUNC (Luke Runyon):
Water leaders from the seven states that make up the Colorado River basin are one step closer to finalizing a drought contingency plan. Representatives from Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona met in Phoenix Tuesday to sign a letter to Congress asking for federal approval of the plan.
Recent heavy snows in the southern Rockies have relieved some short-term pressure on the region’s water supplies. If dry conditions in the southwest return in the next six years, the plan would force Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico to cut back the amount each takes from the overallocated river system.
If snowpack remains high the next few years the plans might never be used.
“Today is a very important day in the history of the Colorado River,” said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman, who for more than a year has pressured state water managers to agree on voluntary cutbacks. “Today the seven basin states have come to an agreement and signed together a letter to Congress memorializing that agreement. The intrastate drought contingency plans are done. They are complete.”
In the letter, water leaders from throughout the basin say they want to execute the drought contingency plan no later than April 22, 2019.
In declaring the plans done, Burman also decided to rescind her call to Colorado River basin state governors for input to craft a federal plan should the states fail to coalesce.
The plan has been cobbled together through a series of agreements over the last five months among the states that make up the Colorado River watershed. Nevada first approved its portion of the plan in November 2018. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico followed suit in December. Starting Jan. 31, 2019 California and Arizona failed to meet a series of federal deadlines while the two states attempted to calm warring intrastate factions.
In Phoenix, water officials attempted to provide closure to the drought contingency plan process, while acknowledging big hurdles remain, including projected climate impacts to snowpack and the river’s structural deficit where more water exists on paper in the form of water rights than in the system itself…
“This is definitely a euphoric high point that we’re in right now, but there are miles and miles to go before we sleep,” said Upper Colorado River Commission member James Eklund. He signed the letter on behalf of the state of Colorado.
The euphoria isn’t shared by all users in the southwestern watershed. The plan now moves forward without the support of the single largest user of the river’s water. The Imperial Irrigation District (IID) in southern California said it would only sign on to the drought plan when it received $200 million in federal funds to mitigate public health and environmental problems brought on by the shrinking Salton Sea.
“By forging ahead, what they are saying is that the only acceptable way to check the boxes marked ‘IID’ and ‘Salton Sea’ is to erase them,” said IID board president Erik Ortega in a written statement. “What they’re also saying is that getting the [drought contingency plan] done is more important than getting it right.”
The drought contingency plan overlays onto a set of 2007 guidelines that govern how the river’s reservoirs are managed. Those guidelines weren’t able to keep up as dry conditions and chronic overuse in the basin caused reservoirs to drop to critical levels. The plan is meant to provide temporary stability while water managers negotiate a new set of operating guidelines which go into effect in 2026…
“If we were aliens visiting Earth from another system years from now would we run it this way? Probably not,” said Eklund, of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “But there are history and legacy, pieces of law and policy, politics in this basin that have guided us to where we are and what we have to do. And I think given the hand we’ve been dealt this is a pretty outstanding moment.”
From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Fort Morgan Times:
This “drought contingency” plan completed by the seven Western states to meet an extended federal deadline is “meant to avoid a crisis on the river,” said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman.
After 2026, the feds will look at flows in what scientists project will be a more diminished Colorado River and, working with states, “we will negotiate our next step,” Burman said.
This complex water plan hashed out since 2017 depends on all residents of the West using less water to deal with a 19-year shift toward aridity. Negotiators tinkered with fundamentals of the 1922 law that divvies up shares of Colorado River water for each state — an improvisation to try to address one of the planet’s toughest water problems caused by chronic overuse and climate change.
For two years, federal water authorities at the brink of declaring a shortage — which would trigger a federal takeover of managing deliveries from the Colorado River — have been pushing states to hash out drought plans as a temporary bridge toward sustainable use of the river. Congressional officials have scheduled hearings next week aimed at implementing the plan…
Federal scientists have projected that, if dry times continue, reservoir operators within five years will not be able to deliver water as usual to downriver cities including Phoenix, Los Angeles, Tucson and San Diego. The other main reservoir on the Colorado River, Lake Mead, remained only 41 percent full, with feds projecting that by the end of 2019, the water level will barely exceed (by about 6 feet) the threshold for federal declaration of that official shortage.
“This plan means we have seven states concerned about how to move forward and, instead of balkanizing the basin into fractured state interest groups, we’re all working together to control our own destiny,” said James Eklund, the Denver-based attorney who represented Colorado through extended multistate negotiations.
The outlook for the Colorado River “has not been rosy for the last 20 years. This snowpack does look decent. It may be an outlier. We have got to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Eklund said in an interview with The Denver Post on Tuesday.
For Colorado, the plan “does not obligate us to use less water,” Eklund said, but instead creates incentives for conservation. It allows Colorado and other upper basin states (Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico) to use Lake Powell as a bank account for extra water. Under river drought protocols negotiated in 2007, extra water in Powell above the amount those states are required to deliver to the lower basin states (Arizona, Nevada, California) could be moved out toward Lake Mead to help address the chronic depletion there.
That now has changed so that ranchers, growers, cities and industries that use less water can store it in Lake Powell. Federal officials said they hope this plan, once Congress directs implementation, will immediately create incentives for using less water.
“If the Colorado River reservoirs keep going down and down and down, then two sectors will feel the brunt of the pain: the environment and people in poverty. Those are the two that always, globally, when there is water stress, feel the pain disproportionately,” Eklund said. “We’re trying, with this contingency plan, to go a different route that allows us to manage our water and the river system so that it stays healthy longer. It allows us to keep away from that acute crisis that, if history is any guide, would hit hardest on the environment and people in poverty.”
A key concern for upper basin states has been the electricity generated at the federally run dam atop the Grand Canyon. If Lake Powell water, formed by that dam, drops 81 feet lower than it was this week, cities including Denver, Pueblo, Colorado Springs and scores of rural electrification districts that rely on distribution of electricity by the Western Area Power Administration could see sharp increases in their power bills…
Beyond the West’s booming cities, expanding fossil fuels and other industries, and agricultural operations, semi-arid landscapes and wildlife, including endangered fish and bird species, depend on healthier ecosystems along the Colorado River…
“If we don’t do something to address the drought situation for agriculture, cities and industry, and stabilize the river system, then the environment is going to suffer. This is a critically important step,” said Matt Rice, Colorado River Basin program director for the advocacy group American Rivers.
“Realistically we have to understand that with the huge economy driven by this river, we have to figure out ways to stabilize it,” Rice said, “or else rivers, the natural environment and recreation are going to suffer most.”