@USBR extends #DCP deadline one month #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead bathtub ring Mark Henle Arizona Republic

From The Summit Daily (Deepan Dutta) via The Sky-Hi News:

Amid the worst drought in the recorded history of the Colorado River Basin, the federal government is giving Colorado and six other states just one more month to finalize drought contingency plans to rein in water use. If all seven basin states do not comply by March 4, the feds will intervene and create its own scheme to adjust water usage across the West.

Jan. 31 was the original deadline for the Upper and Lower Basin states to submit their completed drought contingency plans before the Department of the Interior uses its authority to draw up plans at the federal level.

The Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico have already submitted their plans, as well as the country of Mexico. The Lower Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — have yet to finalize their plans.

There is good reason for the urgency. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which collectively distribute the Colorado River’s water to 40 million people across the West, are at the lowest levels they’ve been since Lake Powell was first filled in the ’60s. The drought has been continuous since 2000, with warming temperatures and shorter winters leaving less and less snow melting at the river’s source. The feds wanted the drought contingency plans to be in place by this summer to slow down water loss and avoid reaching critically low reservoir levels next summer…

Coming up with drought contingency plans is time consuming and requires a lot of negotiating among thousands of water rights holders. A particular hangup exists with Arizona, which is the only state that needs state legislature approval before the plans can be officially submitted.

Arizona has been struggling to get the many ranchers, farmers, American Indian tribes and other stakeholders who rely on water in one of the driest parts of the country to agree to cutbacks in the case of a water emergency. After a lot of log rolling, and just six hours before the Jan. 31 deadline, Arizona’s Gov. Doug Ducey signed a drought contingency plan that the state believed to be sufficient.

However, the Bureau of Reclamation was not satisfied. The next day, the bureau proclaimed that Arizona, California and Nevada had not submitted complete plans, as agreements had not been reached with all the key water rights holders. In other words, the feds were not convinced that the drought contingency plans were sufficient to ensure water levels staying above critical.

The bureau gave the states until March 4 to finalize their plans. If they’re not finalized by then, the feds would request comment from the governor of each state on how they wish to manage their water, with a public comment period.

The feds saw Arizona’s late effort to pass a plan as promising, and is still optimistic that the plans can be finalized by the deadline, avoiding federal intervention. However, the situation is grave enough that March 4 may very well be the last day the basin states can control their own destiny when it comes to water management.

“This departmental action was not our preferred approach,” the Bureau of Reclamation said in a statement. “However, any further delay elevates existing risks in the basin to unacceptable levels. It is our hope that the basin states will promptly complete the (plans), and if they are successful, we anticipate terminating (plans for federal intervention.)”

From The Los Angeles Times (Michael Hiltzik):

On the surface, things have seemed to be looking up in recent weeks for the future of Lake Mead.

The Western storms of the last month have fostered the impression of a respite, at least temporarily, from the region’s long drought. Earlier this month, Arizona legislators passed a sheaf of crucial measures signaling their willingness to cooperate in an interstate drought contingency plan, staving off federal intervention.

Yet these are stopgaps. The giant reservoir on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, which provides water chiefly to residents in California and farmers there and in Arizona, is suffering from a long-term and possibly irreversible decline in capacity.

Lake Mead’s enemies are both natural and man-made. Climate change has placed the Colorado River basin in a long-term drought. Meanwhile, human demands for water from the Colorado have far outstripped what it can provide.

“We’re in the 19th year of a drought,” observes Robert Glennon, an expert on water policy at the University of Arizona, “and it’s pretty obvious that climate change is having a devastating impact.” That places a premium on interstate cooperation to address the drought’s consequences — chiefly how to apportion what is certain to be a diminishing supply of Colorado water.

#Runoff in #ColoradoRiver basin likely below-average, @usbr official warns — @AspenJournalism #snowpack #COriver #aridification #cwcac2019

A big beach on the banks of the Green River in September 2018, one of the lowest months on record for inflow into Lake Powell. Runoff is 2019 is expected to be better than 2018, but still below average due to dry soil conditions in the area drained by the Green and Colorado river systems. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The regional director of the Upper Colorado River Basin for the Bureau of Reclamation told water managers and users last week to expect below-average runoff this year, despite encouraging snowfall this winter.

Brent Rhees — who oversees the federal reservoirs in the upper basin for the Bureau of Reclamation, including Lake Powell, Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa — said that although this winter’s snowfall, or “snow water equivalent,” in the upper basin above Lake Powell was now above average (109 percent on Feb. 7) the parched ground left in the wake of a hot, dry 2018 likely would soak up a lot of the resultant moisture in the spring.

As such, this year’s runoff is not expected to reach the average level, although storms in February and March could push it up to the 80 percent range.

“What we’re suffering from is last year’s dry year,” Rhees told the members of the Colorado Water Congress on Feb. 1. “And so, the runoff that is forecast is not that great. Last year, you all remember, it was the third-lowest on record inflow into Lake Powell. So, it’s not looking really good.”

Since Rhees’ remarks, it has been snowing a lot in Colorado, and the snowpack in the Roaring Fork River basin was at 115 percent of average on Feb. 6. But, again, Rhees was looking at future runoff over a thirsty landscape.

The inflow into Lake Powell during water year 2018 (Oct. 1 to Sept. 30) totaled about 4.5 million acre-feet, or MAF, while about 9 MAF was released from Glen Canyon Dam to run down the Colorado River and into Lake Mead, Rhees said.

“So, the math is pretty simple, isn’t it?” Rhees said. “More went out than came in. And so, we saw a significant drop in reservoir elevation.”

As of Jan. 1, the Bureau of Reclamation forecast that 6.98 MAF, or 64 percent of average, would most likely flow into Lake Powell, but releases from Lake Powell are expected to be about 8.6 MAF.

“We’re going to release a little bit more than comes in, likely this year,” Rhees said.

That means Lake Powell is expected to continue to shrink in 2019.

On Feb. 3, the elevation of the reservoir, as measured against the upstream face of Glen Canyon Dam, was 3,575 feet above sea level, or 39 percent full, and held 9.6 MAF.

A diagram showing the intake structures on the upstream face of the Glen Canyon Dam, which forms Lake Powell.

Three efforts

The first ongoing effort to bolster water levels in Lake Powell is weather modification in the form of cloud seeding.

Rhees said the federal government’s position on funding cloud seeding has moved from funding only research to funding active operations, too.

“That’s good news from my perspective,” he said.

The second effort is “drought-response operations,” which will begin if Lake Powell drops to the triggering elevation of 3,525 feet, or 35 feet above minimum power pool (which it is not yet forecasted to do in either 2019 or 2020).

But should the reservoir hit 3,525 feet, the drought-response operations will entail releasing up to 2 MAF of water from federal reservoirs in the upper basin, primarily from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River, which can hold 3.7 MAF; Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison River, which can hold 829,500 acre-feet; and Navajo Reservoir on the San Juan River, which can hold 1.69 MAF.

Rhees said Flaming Gorge is “the one that can have the biggest impact, (but) all (federal) reservoirs can participate in propping up that minimum power pool of 3,490 (feet).”

He also said the releases from the reservoirs would be “indiscernible” to river users and the water would not come down the river in a big wave of water, as some might imagine.

“You won’t know, if you are on the river, that it’s even happening,” he said.

The third effort to add more water to the river system is “demand management,” or a purposeful reduction in the amount of water diverted from rivers and put to a consumptive use, such as growing a crop or a lawn.

Voluntary demand-management programs are now being investigated in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, and the water saved by irrigators fallowing fields — for money — is to be stored in a new regulatory pool of up to 500,000 acre-feet in Lake Powell.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published this story on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2018.

Beyond #Drought: 7 States Rebalance Their #ColoradoRiver Use as #GlobalWarming Dries the Region — Inside Climate News #COriver #aridification #DCP

From Inside Climate News (Bob Berwyn):

As major reservoirs shrink with the changing climate, seven states seek a sustainable future for the critical regional water source.

The Colorado River watershed may be reaching a climate tipping point, drying under the influence of global warming to the point that states and tribes in the basin can no longer put off a day of reckoning about the water allocations that have been their lifeblood for the past century.

On Thursday night, Arizona joined other states that share the river basin in agreeing to voluntary water conservation plans. Its legislature approved a plan that helps balance the state’s competing water rights with of those of California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, along with Native American tribes and Mexico. The states faced a Jan. 31 deadline for completing interstate contingency plans on water rights; without them, federal officials could order mandatory cuts later this year. Only a California water district had yet to agree.

U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said Friday that with details in the complex web of agreements still being finalized in California and Arizona, her office would start the federal review process but halt it if all states had formal agreements in place by March 4.

A crisis point in the region has been approaching for years. When the regional water arrangements were first devised in 1922, assumptions about the river’s bounty were way off because they were based on data from wet years. Even when the mistake was recognized decades later, managers continued to permit new withdrawals.

And as dry heat has enwrapped the Southwest, the great river’s flow has been going down while cities and farms slurp up ever more water. The gap between supply and demand can no longer be papered over by shunting billions of gallons of the river’s waters back and forth among reservoirs in what has been one of the nation’s most significant attempts to adapt to climate change.

To the contrary, recent scientific research shows that the Colorado’s flow is very likely to drop even more in the years ahead.

Since 2000, temperatures have persistently run well above average. The heat sucks water out of the ground, as do thirsty plants. And the high country snowpack has dwindled, too.

From 1916 to 2014, flows in the Colorado dropped 16.5 percent, even though total precipitation in the upper basin increased slightly during that period, said Jonathan Overpeck, a climate researcher at the University of Michigan, who has written several studies showing the lasting impacts of warming.

In a recent study, Brad Udall and other researchers found that rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns reduced Colorado River flows between 2000 and 2014 by 19 percent compared to the 1906–1999 average.

“This drought is not going to end until we stop global warming,” Overpeck said. “It’s not just precipitation, it’s temperatures. We need to understand how what’s happening on the land and to plants affects flows. It would be crazy to bet on increased precipitation.”

What’s Reducing the Basin’s Runoff?

If recent research shows the fingerprints of global warming all across the basin, advanced modeling helps explain why.

A 2018 study used hydrology models to tease out what was causing the reduced runoff. It blamed a little more than half of the decline on unprecedented regional warming, which melted the snowpack and increased water use by plants. The rest was due to lower snowfall in four key pockets of Colorado where most of the water originates.

Model simulations run by Keith Musselman of the University of Colorado for a 2017 study indicated that some Western mountains could be expected to lose 10 percent of their mountain snowpack for every 1 degree Celsius of warming. (The models simulated flows in the Southern Sierra Nevada.)

A third application of advanced models across six mountainous regions of the West saw global warming driving the snowline — the altitude where snow falls above, but rain below — significantly higher up the slopes. Rain runs off immediately, while snow is stored until spring or summer.

The results “overwhelmingly indicate” the vulnerability of snowpack to a warmer climate,” wrote the authors, from the University of Utah.

More Warming and Drying Ahead

Alarmingly, climate scientists expect another 2.5 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit of warming in the region by 2070 even if global greenhouse gas emissions are substantially reduced.

By mid-century, flows could drop another 20 percent, and there is a significant risk of long droughts in the coming century that will cut river flows even if there is an increase in precipitation. Some climate models do suggest that precipitation may increase — warmer air holds more water — but there is a lot of uncertainty around the projections.

The term “drought” may not be useful anymore because it implies a short-term condition with an end in sight, said Udall, who works for the Colorado River Research Group. He calls it aridification instead, and says the negotiating over sharing the water is a dry run for the future of water use in the Southwest under climate change.

Ominously, some studies have already suggested the region is at the beginning of a megadrought, based in part on reliable projections that global warming will drive an expansion of subtropical dry areas, which means the deserts of the Southwest could encroach on what are now the water producing-areas of the Colorado River Basin, he added.

The lower end of the river basin, in Southern California and Southern Arizona, is already one of the hottest parts of the country. The 2018 National Climate Assessment shows places like Phoenix and Las Vegas will have more frequent heat waves with extreme life-threatening temperatures in the decades ahead. Those extremes will also affect agriculture in the lower basin, but these types of impacts haven’t even been considered in the current Colorado River talks, Udall said.

State Contingency Plans

The Drought Contingency Plans are designed to keep Lake Mead’s water level above a threshold that would trigger disruptive mandatory cutbacks in water use. Upper Basin states have agreed to keep enough water flowing to the desert lowlands. And the lower basin states, now including Arizona, have agreed to divert less for farms and cities in order to bolster Lake Mead.

The Southwest is going to have to live with less water, said Doug Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “We can do it with people kicking and screaming, or we can try to do it in a way that’s fair to everybody.”

The process still has a long way to go, but Gary Wockner, director of the conservation advocacy group Save the Colorado, said getting past the Jan. 31 deadline was a small sign that water managers recognize the elephant in the room.

It acknowledges that the agencies involved know that the collapse of the Colorado River management system is impending. Now the collapse is happening faster than they thought it would. But because of global warming time is running out. Incrementalism not adequate any longer. We have a global climate emergency, everyone needs to first and foremost approach every issue based on that.”

Water engineers, planners and scientists understand how global warming threatens water supplies and are generally averse to risk, Overpeck said. That’s not always the case in politics.

“The polarization that exists on climate policy in the U.S. has prevented a lot of conservative politicians from doing something,” he said. “And the decisions that are being made now, or the lack of decisions being made now, are going to condemn the Colorado to additional flow reductions.”

Overpeck, who recently moved from Arizona to Michigan, said global warming was part of his family’s decision to leave. Among other things, they were worried about the value of their property in the coming years.

“If we don’t deal with climate change, the Southwest will become a place of exodus. It was getting depressing to see politicians writing off the future of the Southwest,” he said.

@Interior and @USBR seek formal input from governors to protect #ColoradoRiver Basin #DCP #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River at Horseshoe Bend, upstream of Glenwood Springs. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

Here’s the release from the Reclamation:

Media Contact: Lower Basin: Patricia Aaron, 702-293-8189, paaron@usbr.gov
Upper Basin: Marlon Duke, 801-524-3774, mduke@usbr.gov

The Department of the Interior, through the Bureau of Reclamation, submitted a notice to the Federal Register today seeking recommendations from the governors of the seven Colorado River Basin states for protective actions Interior should take amid ongoing severe and prolonged drought. This notice recognizes the need for prompt action to enhance and ensure sustainability of Colorado River water supplies throughout the southwestern United States.

Recognizing growing risks in the basin, Reclamation and the basin states have worked for several years to develop meaningful drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Colorado River basins. The governor’s representatives from each state endorsed a Reclamation goal to complete DCPs by the end of 2018. The four Upper Basin states approved their DCP in December 2018. However, efforts among the Lower Basin states of California and Arizona have delayed DCP completion past the January 31, 2019, deadline set by Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference last December.

“Nobody questions the growing risk and urgent need for action along the Colorado River,” said Commissioner Burman. “Completion of drought contingency plans is long overdue. Action is needed now. In the absence of consensus plans from the Basin states, the federal government must take action to protect the river and all who depend on it — farmers and cities across seven states.”

The Colorado River is a vital water resource in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. It irrigates nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland and sustains life and livelihood for over 40 million people in major metropolitan areas including Albuquerque, Cheyenne, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Diego and Tucson. Since 2000 the Colorado River Basin has experienced its most severe drought in recorded history and the risk of reaching critically low elevations at Lakes Powell and Mead—the two largest reservoirs in the United States—has increased nearly four-fold over the past decade.

For more information: Drought Contingency Plan Summary: https://www.usbr.gov/dcp/

From The Arizona Republic (Ian James):

A top federal water official announced Friday that because California and Arizona haven’t finished Colorado River drought plans, the Interior Department is asking the governors of all seven states that rely on the river for recommendations on how to prevent reservoirs from continuing to drop.

Federal Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said there has been tremendous progress toward a deal, including the Arizona Legislature’s quick passage of drought legislation before a Thursday night deadline.

But she said that doesn’t change the fact that the states haven’t completed the Drought Contingency Plan for the river’s lower basin, which aims to reduce the risks of Lake Mead falling to perilously low levels.

“Neither California nor Arizona have completed all of the necessary work,” Burman told reporters on a conference call. “Close isn’t done.”

Arizona officials insisted they succeeded in meeting Burman’s deadline, but the federal government’s decision to put out a call for input seemed geared toward sending a message that Washington will only wait a little longer for the states to sign off on the remaining details.

Even though the federal government is stepping in, the states still could handle the situation on their own — if they act within the next month. Burman said that while the government asks the states for recommendations, the whole process could be called off and the notice could be rescinded if California and Arizona sign the plan.

“If all seven states are able to complete the Drought Contingency Plan before March 4, we will rescind and terminate that request,” Burman said.

The federal government plans to receive input from the states for a 15-day period starting March 4. The notice says the Interior Department is considering “potential federal actions to revise Colorado River operations in an effort to enhance and ensure sustainability of Colorado River water supplies for the southwestern United States.”

[…]

Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for Ducey’s office, said the deliberations in Arizona are done. He said the state took the necessary action before Burman’s Jan. 31 deadline.

“We met the deadline yesterday with the passage of the legislation,” Ptak told The Arizona Republic. “And now it’s time for California, the lone state that has not passed DCP, to do so.”

In California, water agencies including the Imperial Irrigation District and Coachella Valley Water District failed to meet the deadline to sign on.

IID’s board, which holds the largest entitlement to Colorado River water, has placed conditions on participating. They’ve said they want to be the last to review and sign the deal, and they want $200 million in federal funds for projects to control dust and build wetlands around the shrinking Salton Sea…

Burman said following Arizona’s “giant step” of approving the drought plan in the Legislature, there still are several agreements within the state that need to be completed.

“Arizona took a very important step yesterday and I applaud their efforts,” she said. “But we’re not done yet.”

[…]

The legislation that Ducey signed on Thursday includes a resolution granting Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke the authority to sign the plan on the state’s behalf.

The resolution also includes provisions saying that other steps should occur for Buschatzke to put pen to paper: Congress should authorize the Interior secretary to enter into the agreement, and all parties in other states must have authorization to sign.

Theoretically, that shouldn’t present a major hurdle if all seven states are on board. Burman said while the states were formulating the plans, “they determined they would like to see federal legislation.”

It’s not clear how long it might take for Congress to act.

Senator Martha McSally said Friday she will work on passing the federal legislation once the Lower Basins states are ready. She said Ducey and state lawmakers achieved a “historic agreement.”

“However, our work is not yet finished,” McSally said in a statement. “We await approval of the DCP by water users in the State of California. Then, Congress must pass legislation authorizing Acting Department of Interior Secretary (David) Bernhardt to implement the DCP agreements.”

[…]

Burman said she hopes the states will complete the agreements, at which point “we anticipate terminating our request for input” from the seven states’ governors.

But she also made clear that the federal government is prepared to act if necessary. She pointed out that when the Supreme Court issued its landmark opinion in 1963 and a related 1964 decree settling a dispute over Colorado River water in the case Arizona v. California, the court found that the Interior secretary has “broad authority” in managing the river.

“We are looking to the governor’s representatives to come to us with their solutions. It’s better to have consensus,” Burman said. “We’re at a point where two roads are diverging in the woods, and we need to decide which path we’re going to follow.”

She said the states have shown tremendous efforts to make progress on the deal in a limited timeframe.

“While we are getting closer, we are still not done,” Burman said. “Only done will protect this basin.”

[…]

Desert Sun Reporter Janet Wilson in Palm Springs, Calif., contributed to this story.

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at http://environment.azcentral.com

From The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):

On Friday morning, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency that manages waterways and dams across the West, submitted a formal notice asking each Colorado River Basin state to submit comments about how to manage the river in lieu of a drought plan. In December, Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told the states that the states had until Jan. 31 to finish negotiating a drought deal that has been in the works for about three years.

Despite Friday’s action, Burman said the agency’s preferred approach would be to implement the drought plan, which is nearly complete. If a plan is approved before March 4, when states start submitting comments, Burman said the agency would rescind its action. But if Arizona and California, the two states that have not finished the plan, cannot come to an agreement before then, Burman vowed to move down a path giving her broad authority to manage the river.

Such an action, Burman said, was not the agency’s “preferred approach.”

“However, any further delay elevates existing risk for the basin to unacceptable levels,” Burman told reporters. “The basin is teetering on the brink of shortage and there is a potential for Lake Powell and Lake Mead to decline to critically low elevations in the very near future.”

#AZleg House Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee passes lower basin #drought contingency plan 12-0 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #lbdcp #aridification

Pickepost Peak, Pinal County, Arizona. Photo credit: Matt Mets from Brooklyn, NY, USA – Uploaded by PDTillman, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18072691

From Arizona Central (Ian James):

The House Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee held a marathon meeting Tuesday on a series of bills that outline how the state will share cuts as part of the Drought Contingency Plan.

They voted 12-0 to pass the plan, which is expected to head to the House floor Wednesday for debate. A Senate committee also is set to begin work on the deal Wednesday.

More than 100 people filled the hearing and watched the discussion from two overflow rooms as lawmakers debated for five hours, stretching into the evening.

There was little doubt the bills would clear their first hurdle and get the committee’s approval. Lawmakers from both parties have signed on to sponsor the bills — a rare sign of bipartisan cooperation.

“We’ve heard from other speakers about how important this is,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “We know we are dealing with a drier future.

“We, Arizona, want to avoid going at it alone.”

While lawmakers agreed on the bulk of the plan, tensions ran high as farmers, business owners, lobbyists and conservationists spoke during the hearing.

Nothing in the bills was new for the parties, but lawmakers were meticulously reviewing the details after months of careful negotiations about how water cutbacks will be spread among affected areas.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said he’s hopeful the deal will be finished on time. He had previously said meeting the deadline wasn’t his chief concern.

Pinal County farmers get deepest cuts

One of the most controversial pieces is House Bill 2540, which would affect Pinal County farmers who would be hit hardest by the cutbacks.

The bill would earmark $5 million from the state’s general fund for groundwater irrigation projects to help those farmers lessen the economic burden. A few dozen farmers, many wearing plaid shirts and baseball caps, filled the hearing to express their reluctant support for the change…

HB 2540 is one of five bills that make up the plan. Another, HB 2541, would create a fund to repay those who forfeit some or all of their water in order to keep Lake Mead’s levels from dropping too low…

Other bills include changes in how water users can earn and exchange long-term storage credits for groundwater stored in aquifers.

The Arizona Senate will begin this same process with identical bills…

Sierra Club: Plan does little for conservation

But the plan was not without its critics. Some, like Sandy Bahr of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, called the plan shortsighted and said it does not address long-term problems.

Bahr said the bill does little to address water-conservation efforts, adding that there had been no mention of climate change in the hearing.

One tribal nation could decide the fate of #Arizona’s #drought plan — @HighCountryNews #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #lbdcp

Stephen Roe Lewis via the Gila River Indian Community.

From The High Country News (Elena Saavedra Buckley):

The Gila River Indian Community could pull out of the plan in light of a new bill threatening to undermine their water rights.

In Arizona, the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan now hinges on the approval of tribal nations. The plan is meant to levy water cuts to seven Western states, preventing the river and its reservoirs from reaching critical levels — but after a state lawmaker introduced legislation that undermines parts of the Gila River Indian Community’s water settlement, the tribe has threatened to exit the plan. Without tribal buy-in, Arizona’s implementation design will collapse, threatening the Basin-wide agreement. If the latter isn’t signed by Jan. 31, federal officials will scrap it and draw their own.

The Drought Contingency Plan’s fragile consensus between thirsty stakeholders highlights how tribal water rights, some of the most powerful in the West, can make or break deals in the arid region — where drought is a reality rather than an aberration.

Along with the Colorado River Indian Tribes, the Gila River Indian Community is contributing mammoth quantities of water for the plan, especially to sate vocal farmers in the Safford Valley with low-priority water rights. Gila River reached a deal with the state in December that, in total, gives up or sells approximately 640,000 acre-feet of water and brings them $90 million from the state and federal governments, according to their attorney Don Pongrace. With that water to conserve and distribute, Arizona will be able to handle the Drought Contingency Plan’s cuts.

The Gila River Indian Community is a water titan in the state. In 2004, after nearly a century of litigation, they reached their historic settlement through the Arizona Water Settlements Act, which delivers them over 650,000 acre-feet of water per year. They’ve created partnerships with cities like Phoenix to distribute resources, actions that have been called “the prototype of positive steps.”

The recent bill that aggravated Gila River leadership ignores many aspects of their settlement. House Speaker Rusty Bowers, an advocate for Pinal County agriculture during Drought Contingency Plan negotiations, hastily proposed it, trying to repeal a statute often called “use it or lose it”: If someone sits on water for more than five years without using it, they forfeit it to the state to reallocate elsewhere. “Use it or lose it” laws, common in Western states, were upheld in Arizona by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year after litigation from Gila River — the tribe wanted to prevent Safford Valley farmers from stockpiling water, which they say allowed them more resources than their annual allocations. By repealing forfeiture laws, water is more easily hoarded, and tribally-led litigation in high courts erased.

Kathleen Ferris, a Senior Fellow for the Kyl Institute of Water Policy at Arizona State University, doesn’t think Bowers’ bill is good policy in a drought. And not consulting the tribe, she said, is like “a slap in the face.”

Gila River’s governor, Stephen Roe Lewis, wrote to state water managers about the bill. “After all our hard work together, I am sorry that we are being put in this position, but this bill, introduced without warning and without discussion with (Gila River), represents a clear threat to our water settlement rights,” he wrote. Bowers did not respond to requests for comment from High Country News, and, in a statement, the Central Arizona Project reiterated their commitment to passing Arizona’s implementation plan.

Many Indian reservations are located in or near contentious river basins where demand for water outstrips supply. Map courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.

In theory, tribal water rights are some of the most dominant in the West. The Supreme Court determined in 1908 that when the United States created Indian reservations, they implied the existence of enough water for tribal members and irrigated farmland. But, unlike the Gila River Indian Community, many tribes’ rights aren’t quantified, making it easy for non-Native users to drink, bathe and farm with tribal water.

The Tribal Water Study, released in December by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Ten Tribes Partnership, aimed to gather data about how tribal water rights are used in the Colorado River Basin. It found that many water claims for Basin tribes, totaling millions of acre-feet, are unresolved, preventing the resource from reaching its rightful consumers. Settling those rights would manifest a long-held legal right that could also help rehabilitate tribal communities. “Water is only one factor in this economic disparity,” the study reads, “but when thousands of residents on tribal lands lack access to clean water and adequate sanitation, the path out of poverty is more difficult.”

T. Daryl Vigil, the water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation and spokesperson for the Ten Tribes Partnership, described the high stakes of tribal water involvement. “If we’re going to be sovereigns, or act like them, then we really do have the opportunity to create what our future looks like,” he said. “The study was part of that process: Who are we going to be in the process of saving, or bringing back to life and creating balance, in the Colorado River?”

As the West’s struggle with drought deepens, tribes stand to act as influential parties in drought negotiations — or exit them, as the Gila River Indian Community has threatened, to protect what is theirs.

As Arizona stares down the Drought Contingency Plan deadline, the potential absence of the Gila River Indian Community’s contribution is a glaring empty space. Despite Lewis’s warning, Bowers told the Arizona Capitol Times that he won’t budge on his bill. “I’m not going to back down,” he said, while also acknowledging that it will “really mess it up” if the Community backs out. If it happens, he said, he’ll just have to find that water “somewhere else.”

“No, no,” Ferris said in response to the idea. “There isn’t water anywhere else.”

Elena Saavedra Buckley is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email her at elenasaavedrabuckley@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

“If you look at the projections for the [#ColoradoRiver’s] flow, modified by, exacerbated by #climatechange, it’s perfectly clear that #DCP is just an interim solution” — Bruce Babbit #COriver #aridification

Verde River near Clarkdale along Sycamore Canyon Road. Photo credit: Wikimedia

From The Arizona Daily Star (Tony Davis):

After Gov. Doug Ducey urged legislators to “do the heavy lifting” and pass the proposed drought-contingency plan for the Colorado, Babbitt said Monday that authorities will have to start discussing a much longer-term plan immediately after it’s approved.

“If you look at the projections for the river’s flow, modified by, exacerbated by climate change, it’s perfectly clear that DCP is just an interim solution,” Babbitt, who is also a former U.S. Interior secretary, told reporters Monday after Ducey finished his State of the State speech.

Nearly 40 years ago, then-Gov. Babbitt helped push through the pioneering Arizona Groundwater Management Act by muscling a bipartisan group of legislators to approve it after years of inaction. That law set a 2025 deadline for Arizona’s largest cities to balance the pumping of groundwater with the recharge of rainfall and runoff into the aquifer.

Monday, he and former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl sat in the front row of the State House chambers as Ducey exhorted legislators to pass the drought plan in time to meet a Jan. 31 federal deadline. U.S. Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman has warned she’ll move to take over management of the Colorado River if Arizona and other states don’t approve drought plans by that date.

Babbitt said he was there at Ducey’s invitation. The Republican governor told legislators that Democrat Babbitt and Republican Kyl were examples of how you can succeed with water issues by “working with others, setting aside differences and putting our state and the greater good first.”

Babbitt said he saw clear parallels between the passage of the 1980 groundwater law and the current struggle to pass the drought plan. That year, the Legislature enacted the law only after then-Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus threatened to halt work on the Central Arizona Project if it didn’t — a threat Babbitt has since admitted having secretly orchestrated with Andrus.

“The parallel is that you reach a point at which you’re out of time and something must happen” Babbitt said. “That has an awakening effect on people.”

Now, however, the seven river basin states face “a very difficult pathway” — a continued future of declining river supplies and increasing demand fueled by continued population growth, Babbitt said…

The lengthy debate over the drought plan is a proxy for the much bigger questions about the dynamics between the river’s upper and lower basins, Babbitt said.

“We’re taking more than our share” in the Lower Basin, while the Upper Basin hasn’t started taking all the water it’s entitled to use, he said.

But he declined to discuss if the state can continue growing in population and economically in the face of decreasing flows on the Colorado. It supplies 40 percent of Arizona’s total water supply.

“That’s a subject for another lengthy discussion,” after this drought plan is approved, Babbitt said…

Babbitt said he’s increasingly confident that the drought plan will pass the Legislature, given that it’s become “front and center” in both the governor and legislators’ public statements.

From The Voice of San Diego (Ry Rivard):

The Colorado River may not look like it, but it’s one of the world’s largest banks.

The river is not only the source of much of the American West’s economic productivity – San Diego, Phoenix and Denver would hardly exist without it – but its water is now the central commodity in a complex accounting system used by major farmers and entire states.

Now, when talking about the river, water officials across the West use terms like bank, payback and surplus. Often the analogies to finance don’t stop there – they put money behind deals that dictate who gets water and who does not.

This month, the nation’s largest water agency, the Metropolitan Water District, began what amounts to a run on the bank.

The district – which delivers water across Southern California, including to San Diego – started rapidly withdrawing water from the river, which is stored behind Hoover Dam in Lake Mead.

Metropolitan officials are worried that the federal government is about to step in to ration the river, which 40 million people depend on as it flows some 1,300 miles from its headwaters in Wyoming and Colorado to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico…

Metropolitan’s immediate concern is that it will lose the ability to withdraw 600,000 acre feet of banked water from Lake Mead – enough water for roughly 7 million people. The district can only get half of that out this year, meaning it is in danger of losing lots of water…

At last count, Lake Mead stood just six feet away from falling into shortage, the first step toward rationing water. There was already about a 50-50 chance the river would fall that far this year. The chances are even higher now, because Metropolitan’s plan to withdraw as much water as it can may cause the lake to drop four or five feet – though the lake will rise again as snow melts this spring.

Once there’s a shortage, Arizona is supposed to be in trouble. At least on paper, California’s rights to the river’s water are so secure that Arizona’s water supply would have to run dry before California loses a single drop.

That’s politically impossible since 7 million people live in Arizona and need water. So for several years, Metropolitan and a clutch of power-players across seven states have been trying to reach a different, more realistic deal. Their efforts have repeatedly stalled, mostly because of squabbling within Arizona, which is ironic because the state stands to lose so much unless something changes.

The Arizona Chamber Foundation, a nonprofit business group, said without a deal the state’s access to water “could be caught up in the courts for decades or managed from Washington, D.C. Such uncertainty could be a drag on Arizona’s historic economic resurgence.”

The deal would allow Metropolitan to withdraw banked water even during an official shortage. But now Metropolitan is preparing for the worst-case scenario, which is a combination of uncertainty and a banking freeze. Still, district officials hopes Arizona signs a deal in coming weeks.

“We’re not at the point of no return,” said ​Bill Hasencamp, the district’s manager of Colorado River resources.

Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said in a statement that he knew Metropolitan would begin trying to get its water out as quickly as possible…

Last year, the agency that runs Arizona’s water system, the Central Arizona Project, got busted using water accounting quirks to get more water from the upper basin than it needed. Officials in the upper basin accused Arizona of threatening the water supply for 40 million people.

For decades, water officials across the region have alternated between working together to share the river and fighting like hell to horde it.

Following a long-running Supreme Court battle between California and Arizona, the Bureau of Reclamation in the mid-1960s created a modern accounting system to track who was using how much of the river from year to year.

For the past two decades, the river has been in drought. Partly to cope with that, states and water agencies began to use that tracking system to create increasingly complex transactions. The original laws governing the river don’t anticipate users would save water one year and claim the right to use that water in future years, the practice known as banking. The old laws also don’t anticipate or even allow the sale of water across state lines.

That has fallen by the wayside as a series of sophisticated transactions have proliferated, where states bank and transfer water.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority, for instance, has sent enough water for several million of its residents to Arizona, where it is stored underground.

When Nevada wants its water back, it won’t actually pump that water up from the ground. Arizona will curb its use of the Colorado River and let Nevada take water otherwise earmarked for Arizona.

Likewise, if the new river-sharing deal happens, Nevada has promised to lend water to Metropolitan that, in turn, will help Arizona avoid devastating cuts.

“It’s creative ways to live within the existing law of the river,” Hasencamp said.

Indian tribes saw it another way. They complained early on that transactions would rely on water that actually belongs to tribes. On paper the tribe have rights to lots of water, even though they currently lack a real way to get most of that water from the river to their land. So other states are essentially banking on tribes not getting that water anytime soon.

“It is logical to expect that the current water users will have even more incentive to resist the development of Colorado River water by the Navajo Nation in order to minimize their risk of shortage,” the tribe wrote in a 2007 letter to federal officials.

A federal appeals court disagreed with the tribes’ arguments on legal grounds, though didn’t quite deny they had a point…

There are two ways to get people to use less water. The first is to forbid them from using it, the regulatory approach. The second is to pay them not to, the market approach.

Because regulations often end up in court, some water officials think throwing money at the problem is easier. Most Colorado River water is still used for farming. So when push comes to shove in a drought, cities will end up paying farmers to use less water.

Over the past several years, cities from Los Angeles to Phoenix to Denver pooled their money to pay farmers to use less water.

These payouts happened up and down both basins: In 2017, cities paid $635,000 to a New Mexican farmer who stopped growing corn, potatoes, alfalfa and beans along the San Juan River, one of the Colorado’s far-flung tributaries. They paid several farmers along the Price River in Utah about $370,000 to idle their fields or change how they water them. Several farmers along Fontenelle Creek in Wyoming changed how they watered their pastures and got a few hundred thousand dollars in return.

These projects didn’t amount to much, a few million dollars to save about 11,000 acre feet of water…

The biggest transaction of all is between the San Diego County Water Authority and the Imperial Irrigation District. The irrigation district, which provides water to farmers in Imperial County, holds rights to as much Colorado River water as the states of Arizona and Nevada combined.

In exchange for billions of dollars, the Water Authority can use some of Imperial’s high-priority water rights for decades to come.

For now, that deal insulates San Diego from some of the drama on the Colorado, but Water Authority officials have actually wanted to get in the mix.

For several months, the Water Authority has said it would like to leave some of the water it buys from Imperial in the river. In doing so, San Diego water officials would forgo using water they spent a quarter century trying to get and fighting over in court.

Dan Denham, the Water Authority’s assistant general manager, said San Diego could leave enough of that water in Lake Mead to raise its elevation by three feet…

When the California drought left those northern rivers empty, Metropolitan began drawing as much water as it could from the Colorado. But when the drought ended here but continued on the Colorado River, Metropolitan began using as much Northern California water as it could and leaving water in Lake Mead. That’s some of the banked water it could now lose.

Recently, Metropolitan projected how much it would cost to replace some of its Colorado River supplies in coming years. Depending on the scenario, that could cost between $80 million and $954 million, though those numbers are pretty rough and would be divided up among 19 million people who get water from the district.