U.S. House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife hearing recap #ColoradoRiver #COriver #DCP #aridification #snowpack #drought

The Colorado River, between Loma and Westwater. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

Representatives from all seven Colorado River Basin states testified before the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, detailing the years of hard work, compromise and negotiations that went into forging the plans that will be the operational foundation for the river through 2026…

Testimony came the same day the U.S. Drought Monitor released updated drought conditions across the United States, showing marked improvement in many of the basin states, including California — which is virtually drought free — and Utah, which sits with just 3.24 percent of its land mass in moderate drought.

West Drought Monitor March 26, 2019.

That sliver of land is minuscule compared to where Utah sat just three months ago with drought conditions — with 99.96 percent of its land mass classified in moderate drought.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-California, and several others cautiously acknowledged the bountiful nature of this winter’s precipitation, with upper Colorado River snowpack at 127 percent of normal and March rounding out to be one of the wettest ones on record.

“But one good year is no guarantee the 19-year drought is over, and prudence and experience both warn us of the need to be prepared,” McClintock said. “History is desperately warning us to be prepared.”

Brenda Burman, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, said the plans use a variety of tools and measures to implement water savings among the states.

“The drought contingency plans are not designed to keep us out of shortage, they are designed to keep us out of crisis.”

She said savings are possible, pointing to the bureau’s own accomplishment of tightening losses at the Hoover Dam of 100,000 acre-feet in the early 2000s to less than 7,000 acre-feet last year.

“We have overwhelmingly tightened the system,” she said.

James Eklund, Colorado commissioner with the Upper Colorado River Commission, echoed McClintock’s concerns about a good performing water year easing concerns over drought.

“Don’t be misled by the snowpack, the excellent snowpack we have received so far this year. It only demonstrates the wide swings we have to manage moving forward,” he said. “You can put an ice cube, even an excellent ice cube, in a hot cup of coffee but eventually it is going to disappear. But for the 40 million people who depend on this river, it is not an abstraction. This is personal.”

Eric Millis, the Colorado River commissioner for Utah and director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said this year’s snowpack will likely deliver near normal inflows from the Colorado River into Lake Powell.

“It is hard to know, however, if this year will be just one more good year among so many bad ones, ” he told the committee. “It is therefore wise to have a plan and implement actions to help ensure we can keep the system operating in a way that complies with the law of the river and protects water users and the environment.”

From Arizona Central (Ian James):

On Thursday, a House subcommittee endorsed the Drought Contingency Plan after questioning the state and federal officials who crafted it. One of them, Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, called on the committee and Congress to take “urgent action” and authorize it as soon as possible.

Thursday’s approval came a day after a Senate subcommittee endorsed the plan. Next, lawmakers in both chambers will have to negotiate and vote on bills that would allow the federal government to carry out the plan. Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who chaired the subcommittee, vowed action “as soon as possible.”

Buschatzke and the other officials stressed the short timeline they have tofinish work on the plan, a product of years of long and tense negotiations that crossed state and party lines.

“It is a plan … to address the ongoing drought in the lower Colorado River Basin that began nearly two decades ago and has no end in sight,” Buschatzke said to the committee…

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., one of the many Arizona representatives at the hearing, asked U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman how the plan complies with environmental standards, which he called the impetus for moving the plan forward.

Burman explained that a careful balance was found between stakeholders and water officials to help ensure any cuts would not harm wildlife that lives in or near the river.

Grijalva said the legislation, which he plans to introduce early next week, has support from all seven basin states and that it respects environmental laws.

He also said he has made a commitment to Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., to deliver possible solutions for stakeholders who were displeased with the exclusion of the Imperial Irrigation District, which objected to the plan’s failure to fully address problems with the Salton Sea.

Grijalva was joined by Arizona Reps. David Schweikert, Debbie Lesko, Andy Biggs, Ruben Gallego and Greg Stanton, all of whom lauded the deal as a rare bipartisan accomplishment and recognized the work from the state’s tribal communities.

Thursday was the water deal’s second test on Capitol Hill, coming a day after a Senate subcommittee, chaired by McSally, R-Ariz., similarly endorsed the plan. McSally echoed Buschatzke and the other officials who stressed the short timeline they have, saying she and other senators will take swift action.

“Now that the states have completed their work, it’s time for Congress to take it across the finish line,” McSally said on Wednesday, adding that she and other senators are working to finalize the language of their version of a bill to enact the plan, which could be introduced as soon as Thursday.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz, joined McSally in celebrating a huge first step, one of many standing in the way of enacting the plan. Sinema released a statement on Wednesday following the Senate hearing and said she was “proud to continue the legacy of water policy leadership in Arizona.”

Congress has until April 22 to pass the plan, a deadline set by the water leaders

While mostly optimistic, Burman also gave the committee a glimpse into what might happen if the federal government fails to do its part

“While shortages are likely part of the lower basin’s future, none of the lower basin states or Mexico can afford to allow a true crisis of water supply to develop,” Burman said to the House panel.

“Simply put, if lake Mead were to decline to elevations before 1,020 feet …this would leave us without a full year supply,” she said.

Even with recent storms and a promising snowpack in the Rockies, Burman said one good year won’t fix the underlying issues of drought. Lawmakers, she said, need to recognize the reality and authorize the plan so states like Arizona can breathe a little easier.

Stanton, D-Ariz., one of the lawmakers on the panel, is the former mayor of Phoenix, a city that gets almost 40 percent of its water from the river. Stanton, who often worked closely with Buschatzke, said he understood how much work has gone into finding a compromise for a critically important plan…

Stanton pointed to climate change as one of the larger reasons why the American desert Southwest is in this dire situation.

“Make no mistake, one of the primary reasons we are here today is climate change,” Stanton said, adding that Arizona and other Southwestern states are in the midst of a historic drought that is projected to worsen…

Burman alsostressed that water officials in the basin states will have to begin work soon on a long-range agreement.

“What (the plan) is going to do is give us that space for us … to work together on what is the next step,” Burman said. Buschatzke echoed Burman and said this temporary plan is just a bridge and that he didn’t know what could come of those future negotiations.

If nothing is done, Buschatzke and the other officials fear a crisis could cripple the sustainable growth of cities and their economies, negatively affect the wildlife that depends on the river and bring many other unforeseen consequences. The river, they said, is the lifeblood for 40 million people, millions of acres of farmland and a significant source of hydropower.

Biggs, R-Ariz., underlined that a reliable source of water is an economic necessity for the state, which he said has been a national and international leader in water conservation.

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