The changes were negotiated earlier this year by Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, and California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, both Democrats. The bill’s inclusion of the Salton Sea could also nudge California closer to approving a Colorado River drought contingency plan.
Officials said for the first time the Salton Sea now has access to guaranteed federal funding to help clean up environmental and public health issues caused by farming and water withdrawals. The sea, the state’s largest lake, is rapidly drying and releasing toxic dust clouds…
State officials have allocated a minimum of $10 million for a first phase program to build ponds and wetlands to cover growing stretches of dusty lake bed. The federal programs could provide matching funds or more.
The bill could also indirectly help with seven-state drought contingency plans to conserve Colorado River water.
The Imperial Irrigation District, which is entitled to the largest share of the river water, has signaled their support for one plan, but set conditions for signing it, including an ironclad guarantee of funding for the shrinking Salton Sea…
During talks in Las Vegas last week on the drought plans, Bureau of Reclamation chief Brenda Burman said, “I would caution folks … not to add unrealistic demands.”
IID president Jim Hanks fired back at her comments at a board meeting on Monday.
“It’s one thing to make bold statements from a Washington D.C. office or the luxurious Caesar’s Palace hotel ballroom. It’s something entirely different to see the shrinking sea or widening shoreline with your own eyes, or to witness a child or grandchild struggling to breathe due to their worsening asthma,” he said. “A shrinking sea … will blow untold quantities of fine dust in the air. … Matching federal funding for the Salton Sea makes up one-tenth of one percent of the $900 billion 2018 Farm Bill. That seems entirely reasonable.”
Meanwhile, down in the San Luis Valley the farm bill is welcome. Here’s a report from the Valley Courier via the Center Post Dispatch:
On Wednesday, Dec. 12, the House of Representatives passed the 2018 Farm Bill 369-47. The Senate passed the bill on Tuesday 87-13.
The Farm Bill, which among other provisions removes hemp from the list of federally controlled substances, now moves to the president’s desk for signature. The San Luis Valley is one of the areas in Colorado embracing hemp as a viable crop, and Colorado was the number-one hemp producing state in the nation last year with more than 10,000 acres.
Corbett Hefner, vice president of Research and Development for Power Zone Agriculture, a Valley company that has designed farm equipment to accommodate hemp production, said, “As an innovator developing hemp fiber-specific manufacturing technology, Power Zone is thrilled to see clarification at the federal level on industrial hemp in this Farm Bill. Thanks to this key step, we can take our business to the next level in rural Colorado and across the nation.”
Colorado State Senator and hemp producer Don Coram said, “As the sponsor of establishing hemp regulations in 2013 and actually becoming a hemp grower in 2017, I am thrilled that Colorado is leading the nation in this burgeoning new industry. The lack of clarity for hemp in federal law has long stalled the hemp industry from taking off. I appreciate Senator Bennet’s work on behalf of Colorado hemp growers to fully legalize the cultivation of industrial hemp. Colorado’s hemp industry will certainly benefit from this provision.”
Other agricultural leaders were also pleased with the passage of the Farm Bill.
For example, San Luis Valley resident and Colorado Farm Bureau President Don Shawcroft said, “The passage of the 2018 farm bill is welcome news for Colorado farmers and ranchers. Not only will it ensure the safety net for producers, maintain and expand environmental stewardship programs, promote international trade and provide needed support to disadvantaged families, it removes future uncertainty for an industry struggling amongst low commodity prices.”
Colorado Potato Administrative Committee Executive Director Jim Ehrlich said, “The new Farm Bill continues to make great investments for specialty crop producers in the research arena, including fully funding the Specialty Crop Research Initiative at $80 million annually, and reauthorizing the Specialty Crop Block Grant program. The potato industry has truly benefited from these programs. In addition, the bill provides important trade promotion funding through the Market Access Program and Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops program. Twenty percent of the U. S. potato crop is exported annually so a healthy trade environment is vital to the industry.”
Ehrlich added, “There are other provisions in the bill that will have potential positive impacts on the Valley as a whole, including making hemp legal nationally and eligible for crop insurance, and enhancements to the conservation title. In my opinion it represents a job well done by congress and how congress should function.”
Zoila Gomez, lead coordinator at San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition’s Cooking Matters, said, “The reauthorization of the Farm Bill only strengthens our commitment in The San Luis Valley and across the state to continue to educate and motivate our participants to make healthy and physical activity choices within a limited budget through the Cooking Matters Campaign by Share Our Strength. We are grateful for all of those who advocated and voted for the Farm Bill … In an era of social media, people do love learning about nutrition, cooking healthy meals and dining together. The passing of the Farm Bill allows us to continue to bring together more people and move on with our mission.”
“On behalf of beef cattle producers in Colorado, we support the hard work toward passage and the outcomes of the 2019 Farm Bill, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association President Mike Hogue said. “The bi-partisan legislation will continue the meaningful work of ranches and farms in conserving our natural resources while opening up the world to our high-quality foods, like beef. Furthermore, CCA is pleased with funding that will go toward protecting our livestock from foreign animal diseases through additional research and preparedness. These points and others contained in the 2018 Farm Bill support the global approach to food security and stewardship our producers have.”
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said, “The passage of the 2019 Farm Bill is good news because it provides a strong safety net for farmers and ranchers, who need the dependability and certainty this legislation affords. This Farm Bill will help producers make decisions about the future, while also investing in important agricultural research and supporting trade programs to bolster exports. While I feel there were missed opportunities in forest management and in improving work requirements for certain SNAP recipients, this bill does include several helpful provisions and we will continue to build upon these through our authorities. I commend Congress for bringing the Farm Bill across the finish line and am encouraging President Trump to sign it.”
Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown said, “The passage of the 2018 Farm Bill is more than a success for U.S. farm and ranch families; it’s a powerful win for all Americans. This country relies on a strong, abundant supply of the food, fiber, and fuel provided by America’s agricultural community. The programs within the 2018 Farm Bill provide true value to the people of Colorado, including expanding the Conservation Reserve Program acreage and legalizing hemp to help create more consistent programs as a U.S. crop. In particular, adjusting the Agriculture Risk Coverage/Price Loss Coverage program provides a vital safety net for producers.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Bob Broscheid said, “Colorado’s wildlife and agriculture will both benefit from the 2018 Farm Bill; it’s a win-win. A long list of Colorado’s wildlife and recreation depends on working agricultural landscapes for food and cover, and the farm bill has several provisions that provide substantial incentives for farmers and ranchers to invest in practices that maintain wildlife habitat, as well as voluntary public access programs. Private lands are critical to Colorado’s quality of life, and this farm bill will provide the funding needed to ensure continued conservation of our soil, water, and wildlife.”
Arizona has worked over the course of several years with the other States in the Colorado River Basin and the United States to develop an interstate Drought Contingency Plan to protect Colorado River supplies. Within Arizona, stakeholders have been working to develop an Implementation Plan, a series of agreements that will govern the way that certain terms of the DCP will be implemented within Arizona once the DCP is effective.
The Implementation Plan is nearly in place. However, we’re not yet able to say it’s “done.”
Last week, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman announced a deadline of January 31, 2019, for the states to complete their work on the DCP.
“To date, (the Department of) Interior has been very supportive and extremely patient with the pace of progress on the DCP,” said the Commissioner at the annual meetings of the Colorado River Water Users Association. “But delay increases the risk for us all.”
“I am here today to tell you all that we will act if needed to protect this basin.”
So, what needs to happen for Arizonans to officially say “the plan is done?” And further. . . then what?
Arizona’s participation in the interstate DCP requires a resolution by the Arizona State Legislature authorizing the Director of ADWR to sign the necessary interstate agreements. To facilitate a smooth legislative process, some additional discussion regarding the Implementation Plan is needed. To that end, ADWR and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (the CAP) are in the process of outlining agreements necessary to turn the Implementation Plan into action. With about six weeks to go, the timing is tight, but all agree it’s “doable.”
Several interstate agreements must be signed to effectuate the DCP. Those agreements include:
Lower Basin DCP
Parties in Arizona, California and Nevada will sign the LBDCP agreement, which includes a document known as the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Operations. In combination with guidelines adopted in 2007, the LBDCP agreement will control operations in the Lower Basin.
Upper Basin DCP
The Upper Colorado River Commission, which includes representatives of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, has approved the Upper Basin documents – the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement and the Upper Basin Demand Management Storage Agreement. This means that, as a group, the Upper Basin states are prepared to sign the DCP.
The “Companion Agreement”
A Companion Agreement will bind the Upper Basin and Lower Basin agreements together.
Federal legislation will be required authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to sign the interstate DCP agreements as well.
The AZDCP Steering Committee will meet again to discuss the AZDCP Implementation Framework at a meeting to be held from 1 to 3 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 8, at CAP headquarters, 23636 N. 7th St., Phoenix.
Native American tribal leaders attended the Colorado River Water Users Association conference and spoke on opportunities and challenges for tribal communities.
“The Colorado River Indian Tribe was blessed with senior water rights on the river so what our purpose is in this is to offer whatever help or assistance we can to the state of Arizona because we all live together in this area,” said Keith Moses, vice chairman for the tribe in La Paz County in western Arizona. “Everything that we do affects each one of us be it our tribe or those around us.”
Moses said his community is working with people including farmers in the Yuma area to mitigate any impact of water cutbacks.
During a session at a Caesar’s Palace ballroom, leaders from the Jicarilla Apache and Navajo nations and the Cocopah and Fort Mojave Indian tribes applauded the long awaited release of a tribal water report.
“The tribal study has come to fruition and it will be a resource to learn about the tribes’ diversity, tribal water rights and what we plan to do in order to be a good community partner and help with the drought contingency plan when that comes into play,” said Rosa Long, a councilwoman for the Cocopah.
The Ten Tribes Partnership, which took part in the Las Vegas conference, was formed in 1992 by 10 federally recognized tribes with federal Indian reserved water rights in the Colorado River or its tributaries. Among these tribes are the Ute Indian Tribe and the Quechan Indian Tribe in southwestern Arizona.
A final deal will require federal legislation and approval by Arizona’s legislature before it can be put in action.
Arizona has six weeks to finalize its plan to deal with looming shortages on the Colorado River. Otherwise, the federal government will step in.
At a major water conference in Las Vegas last week, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told the Colorado Basin states that they needed to get it together by January 31…
Last year, the Bureau of Reclamation pushed states to finish their plans by the end of the month and spell out how they will deal with cuts to their supply of Colorado River water. The Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming have already done so.
Of the Lower Basin states, only Nevada has settled on a plan. Arizona and California have not…
If they don’t finalize their plans by the end of January, the Department of Interior will ask states to recommend actions that it could take before August 2019. That is the soonest Interior would declare a shortage that would lead to cuts in states’ supply of Colorado River water.
“If Arizona doesn’t act, it seems to me that the other six states, or the Lower Basin, will sit down with the Secretary and put together a secretarial order of administering cuts to Arizona,” said former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, who served as Secretary of the Interior under President Bill Clinton. “That’s never a good idea.”
Here are some of the key issues that Arizona has to figure out, or else:
Number one: Who will sign for Arizona?
The board of the Central Arizona Project, which operates the 336-mile canal bringing water from Lake Mead to Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties in central Arizona, has insisted it should be able to co-sign. It has an elected, 15-member board representing those three counties, and it has set aside $60 million to help pay for the Drought Contingency Plan.
Not so fast, says the Arizona Department of Water Resources, which represents the state and is currently the signing designee.
This turf war, which goes back decades, won’t be resolved in the next six weeks. But the CAP board, the Department of Water Resources, and the Bureau of Reclamation have been working on an agreement that will satisfy CAP’s demands…
Number two: Where will the money come from to help Pinal County farmers?
If a shortage is declared on the Colorado River, Arizona will lose at least 512,000 acre-feet of the 2.8 million acre-feet of water it takes from the river each year. One of the groups that stands to lose the most water, and first, is farmers in Pinal County.
As drought negotiations lurched through the fall, the question loomed of how to compensate farmers for the water they would lose. For several different reasons, no one could agree.
But the plan that was proposed November 29 offered a solution that most Arizona water negotiators could get behind. In a best-case scenario, for the first two years of the Drought Contingency Plan, farmers would receive water that CAP had stored in Lake Mead. That water would be phased out starting in 2022, to be replaced by groundwater…
Number three: The legal stuff
Water might be fluid, but in Arizona, moving it from one place to another is not simply a matter of putting it in a pipe and letting it flow. A ridiculously complex legal framework governs what water can go where and for what and to whom.
For example, Arizona takes surface water directly from the Colorado River. Much of that is used immediately, but some of it is stored below ground. Not all users are legally allowed to store water underground. Those who do can receive credits to withdraw the same amount of water in the future.
This system is so complex that not even the state’s own drought negotiators are clear on how all of this will be worked out. What is clear, however, is that Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan will require some legislative changes, because part of the way the plan would compensate farmers and other users, including cities and tribes, is through an exchange of credits.
Pinal County agricultural districts were hoping that some cities could be persuaded to store some of their water in Pinal County, Orme said. But those cities wanted to be sure they could store water in the Pinal area and still receive credit in their own areas.
Arizona’s Water Banking Authority, which holds credits in all areas, could facilitate that exchange, but “that requires some legislation,” Orme said.
Another needed law change has to do with a statutory definition called WaterBUD, which is shorthand for “Water that cannot reasonably Be Used Directly.” It essentially prohibits users from taking Colorado River water and storing it underground in order to obtain credits if the water could have been used right away. The mitigation plan put forward in November would require a partial repeal of WaterBUD.
Otondo said she would love to see the legislature vote on the Drought Contingency Plan at the beginning of session, in mid-January. “But I just don’t see the language being there and all the details hashed out.” She hoped things would be clearer after Christmas.
If water managers in Arizona and California are able to finalize agreements on drought-management plans by Jan. 31 — as the head of the Bureau of Reclamation on Thursday directed them to do — and if required federal legislation is passed, it will give water managers in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico a green light to develop voluntary water-use reduction plans in each state.
Such plans, which water officials call demand-management programs, are meant to send as much as 500,000 acre-feet more water downstream to Lake Powell to meet the water-delivery obligations that the four upper-basin states have to the three lower-basin states — the third is Nevada — under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
Representatives of the upper-basin states serving on the Upper Colorado River Commission voted [December 12, 2018] to approve agreements that are intended to set up a new legal pool of water in Lake Powell, one that can be purposely filled with water that otherwise would have been used to grow crops, primarily hay and alfalfa.
If water levels in Lake Powell fall below an elevation of 3,490 feet, hydropower production ceases and then less and less water can be sent downstream through the outlets in Glen Canyon Dam.
However, the broad agreements approved this week by the upper-basin states did not set up any specific demand-management programs, just a “framework” for such programs.
The agreements say that each of the upper-basin states must figure out a water-use reduction plan that not only works for their particular state but also meshes with each of the other states’ plans.
A key common consideration is making sure that the conserved, or saved, water — that which is not consumed by crops in fallowed fields — is actually reaching Lake Powell, which is fed by water running down the Colorado, Green and San Juan river basins.
No deadline or schedule has been agreed upon by the upper-basin states to develop their water-use reduction plans, which are supposed to be “voluntary, temporary and compensated.”
John Stulp, the special adviser to Colorado’s governor on water issues, said Friday he did not think the demand-management programs would be ready for the irrigation season in 2019, but they may be ready by 2020.
Stulp also said Friday that officials in all the upper-basin states have been thinking a lot about how demand-management programs will work and that a recently concluded four-year pilot effort — the System Conservation Pilot Program — provides a good working model on which to build.
He also suggested that the process to set up such a plan, at least in Colorado, could be as important as some of the details in the plan itself.
“I think it’s going to be important that we have a process that is really transparent and that folks feel like they know what is going on and that the right people are at the table,” Stulp said Friday. “(Western Slope and Front Range) interests, anybody that touches in any way the Colorado River system needs to be able to know what’s going on there.”
Stulp said he expected that the directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency charged with managing the Colorado River Compact, would discuss a process for setting up a demand-management program at their January board meeting.
“I think it is important that we start right away,” he said.
Stulp was asked about the potential demand-management plans at the end of a three-day regional water meeting in Las Vegas, where a panel discussion on demand management, which featured the four commissioners on the Upper Colorado River Commission, took place.
Pat Tyrrell, the Wyoming commissioner who also serves as the state’s water engineer, was asked whether it was in the upper-basin states’ best interests to voluntarily cut back on water use to avoid violating the 1922 compact, which could lead to mandatory curtailment of water diversions.
“If headgates are going to be off anyway, if the pipelines are going to be off anyway due to shortage, why not do it in a way that lays the most lightly on our people?” Tyrrell said. “That’s what demand management does, that’s what the drought contingency plan does — it allows us to maintain those uses and maintain compliance with that important ’22 document.”
Tyrrell also said he was surprised how enthusiastic ranchers in Wyoming were about the System Conservation Pilot Program, which ran from 2015 to 2018.
“Water rights, especially the old ones, are often viewed, essentially, in religious terms in many of the upper-basin states,” Tyrrell said. “It’s anathema to these people to hear ‘Don’t use your water right, let the water go.’”
Tyrrell said even if the pilot program wasn’t perfect, “we have to kick the training wheels off and turn it into a demand-management program that is fully fledged.”
All four commissioners acknowledge that there are technical and legal challenges in setting up water-use reduction programs that work across state lines, including verifying how much water is not used, securely “shepherding” the water past downstream diversions to Lake Powell and finding funds to compensate irrigators for fallowing their fields.
Funding may be the biggest challenge, Colorado’s Stulp said.
But he pointed to the significant funding — $100 million — that is coming together in Arizona (from its water districts and state government, from the federal government and from philanthropists) as a sign that a water-use reduction program is worth trying in Colorado.
“The worse-case scenario — the fallback of all this — is a curtailment without compensation,” Stulp said. “Nobody wants to go there.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Times published this story on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018.
The Upper Colorado River Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to execute three agreements designed to bolster Lake Powell’s and Lake Mead’s water levels, which have been falling due to persistent drought and encroaching aridification in the Colorado River system.
The members of the commission, established in 1948 to help administer the Colorado River Compact, include representatives from the “upper basin” states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, as well as a federal representative.
The three agreements — and a set of companion agreements still being worked out in the “lower basin” states of California, Arizona and Nevada — are contingent upon federal legislation, which the involved parties hope to obtain during the current “lame duck” session of Congress.
Before the vote, James Eklund, who represents Colorado on the commission, said the set of “drought contingency planning” agreements were “historic” in their importance.
Asked after the meeting to put that into context, Eklund said, “I think we’re going to look back at this moment and realize that this was the opportunity we had to stand some tools up to keep the river system from crashing, or at least mitigate the impacts of it crashing.”
The first agreement OK’d by the commission allows the upper basin states to coordinate with the Bureau of Reclamation on releasing water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs to send downstream to Lake Powell, currently 43 percent full and at a surface elevation of 3,585 feet above sea level.
If Lake Powell, a huge reservoir formed by Glen Canyon Dam, falls to an elevation of 3,525 feet, then the “coordinated reservoir operations” agreement will kick in and water will be released from the three big upstream reservoirs to ensure that Lake Powell does not fall to 3,490 feet, which is the “minimum power pool” level when the dam’s hydropower generation ceases.
It’s also the level at which it becomes harder to release enough water from the dam to meet the upper-basin states’ obligations, under the terms of the Colorado Compact, to annually deliver more than 8 million acre-feet of water to the lower-basin states.
The second agreement approved Wednesday sets up a program where water can be stored in Lake Powell without the water being subject to a 2007 agreement that seeks to equalize the water levels of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which today is 38 percent full. Under the terms of the compact, Lake Mead is considered to be in the lower basin.
The water eligible under the agreement to be stored in Lake Powell, which would not be subject to being sent down to Lake Mead, must come from “conserved consumptive use,” or water that otherwise would have been mainly used in the growing of crops — such as alfalfa and hay — in the upper basin.
Such a water-use-reduction effort is called a “demand management” program, and the details of programs in each of the upper-basin states still need to be worked out. But the second agreement approved Wednesday will create a way for the upper basin to securely store such “conserved” water in Lake Powell.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, which manages water-supply planning in the state, recently adopted a policy saying it is committed to setting up a demand-management program that is “voluntary, temporary and compensated,” although there are fears, especially on the Western Slope, that such a program could become mandatory, long-term and uncompensated.
The second agreement approved Wednesday allows for as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water to be stored in a demand-management pool in Lake Powell. By comparison, Ruedi Reservoir, above Basalt, holds 100,000 acre-feet of water.
The third agreement is a “companion agreement” to a set of agreements that are still being negotiated in the lower basin that provide for water entities in California, Arizona and Nevada to reduce their water use and store the water in Lake Mead in an effort to keep operational that reservoir, formed by Hoover Dam.
Patrick Tyrrell, who represents Wyoming on the upper-basin commission, echoed Eklund’s sentiments about the nature of the drought-management agreements, saying before the vote that “it is necessary and important to get this done at this time.”
Tyrrell said the upper-basin states were going to keep urging the lower-basin states, especially Arizona, to come to terms on their draft agreements, as it was important for all the entities that depend on the river.
Not ‘done done’
The approval of the three agreements happened in Las Vegas, the location of the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association, where it is customary for water managers from both the upper basin and lower basin to meet for three days in mid-December in the conference center at Caesar’s Palace.
There has been intense pressure for months on the lower-basin states to approve their set of “drought-contingency planning” documents during the conference, as the upper-basin states did Wednesday, but there are still complicated issues to be worked out among water entities in Arizona.
Terry Fulp, the regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation in the lower Colorado River region, on Wednesday told the ballroom full of water managers from the upper basin that the lower-basin entities were making progress and were closer than ever to reaching consensus.
He also said he’s learned to distinguish between agreements that are “done” and those that are “done done,” or truly finalized.
“We’re definitely not ‘done done,’” Fulp said of the lower basin. “And we’re probably not ‘done,’ but we’ve come a long way.”
He also said that over the past three months, the process has managed to step over any number of stumbling blocks that could have set back the entire process.
“It’s within our power to keep ourselves on the trajectory that this basin has been on for two decades,” Fulp said, referring to the overall Colorado River basin. “And that trajectory is one of collaboration and problem solving and doing it together, and not waiting until the secretary of the Interior, or someone, has to come in and solve it for us.”
Fulp’s boss, Brenda Burman, is the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, which is part of the Interior Department.
If the upper- and lower-basin states can’t find a way to keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead functioning, it’s up to Burman to intervene.
On Thursday, Burman spoke to the attendees at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting and set a Jan. 31 deadline for parties in Arizona and California to approve the proposed drought contingency agreements.
“It is high time to wrap up these efforts,” she said.
If the parties have not do so by then, Burman said Reclamation will publish a notice in the federal register and give the parties 30 days to submit proposals to the Secretary of the Interior on what next steps he should take to avoid a crisis in the basin.
“We will act, if needed, to protect this basin,” Burman said.
The possibility of direct federal intervention on the Colorado River system is something that many water managers in the seven basin states want to avoid.
Burman said the combined level of storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell is at 46 percent, the lowest combined level since 1966, when Lake Powell was filling for the first time.
“It is time for us to pay attention,” Burman said. “We are quickly running out of time.”
She praised the upper basin states for reaching agreement, and she challenged the entities involved in California and Arizona to “step up, compromise and contribute.”
She also said just getting close to an agreement was not the point.
“Close isn’t done, and we are not done,” she said. “Only done will protect this basin.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Post Independent published a version of this story on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2018. This version was updated on Thursday to include Commissioner Burman’s comments.
Federal Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman set a firm deadline for Western states to finish a set of Colorado River drought agreements, telling Arizona and California they need to sign on by Jan. 31.
If states fail to meet that deadline, Burman said, the federal government will get involved and step in to prevent reservoirs from falling to critically low levels.
“We are quickly running out of time,” Burman told water managers from across the West at an annual Colorado River conference. “Today’s level of risk is unacceptable and the chance for a crisis is far too high.”
She pointed out that Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two main reservoirs, are together at their lowest level since Glen Canyon Dam was built and Powell was filled in 1966.
“To put it in more personal terms, these are the lowest reservoir levels in my lifetime,” Burman said. “We are teetering on the brink of a shortage today, and we see real risk of rapid declines in reservoir elevations, particularly at Lake Mead, in the very near future.”
Burman’s remarks met resistance in Arizona, where legislative leaders cautioned against rushing into action and said they wanted time to study the final version of the agreement…
“Close isn’t done, and we are not done. Only done will protect this basin,” Burman said. “It is high time to wrap up these efforts.”
She said based on current trends, the level of Lake Mead, which now stands at an elevation of 1,079 feet, is projected to fall about 30 feet, below 1,050 feet, by the summer of 2020 — a level that would put the biggest reservoir in the country deep into a shortage.
“It is time for us to pay attention,” Burman said. She said she’s encouraged by recent progress in the negotiations, and Arizona has made “remarkable progress” in developing the outline of an agreement for the state to participate in the larger three-state deal with California and Nevada.
She warned, though, that the Interior Department can’t wait much longer for the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP, until it takes action.
Commissioner Brenda Burman said she would take unspecified actions to protect Lakes Mead and Powell and the river itself if the states don’t approve drought contingency plans by the end of January. Acknowledging that both states are close to approving plans, she emphasized, “almost is not done.”
While it’s unclear what she would ultimately do, officials of the basin states have long speculated that Reclamation would order specific cuts in river supplies to individual states to keep the reservoirs from crashing.
The states have their own legal allocations to water supplies from the river due to the 1922 Colorado River compact, which all basin states have signed. But given federal control over management of the entire river basin, state water officials have long feared such federal intervention if they couldn’t come up with their own drought plans to adapt to river flows that have steadily declined since 2000.
Burman’s statement and a subsequent talk she gave Thursday at a Colorado River conference in Las Vegas focused on the ailing reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell. They store drinking water and generate electric power for the basin states. Mead stores water for the Central Arizona Project that is Tucson’s main source of drinking water.
Burman noted that Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada have all adopted drought contingency plans although Arizona and California have not.
“This is not the (Reclamation) department’s preferred course of action, but action must be taken to protect the basin,” said Burman, who received a University of Arizona law degree and worked in the past for Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and for the Phoenix-based Salt River Project.
Reaction to Burman’s warning was very favorable from many Arizona water officials, experts and activists.
“Right on Commissioner Burman! That’s what she should be doing — keeping the pressure on,” said former Arizona Department of Water Resources director Kathy Ferris.
This isn’t the first time the feds have threatened a takeover of river management to prod the states into action on drought plans. But Burman’s threat is more specific and more imminent than those made during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
Looming in the background of her comments was Lake Mead. As nearly two decades of drought and overuse has strained water supplies, the country’s largest reservoir — impounded by the Hoover Dam about 30 minutes outside of Las Vegas — has dropped to nearly 38 percent of its capacity. That means less water stored for users at farms and cities across the arid Southwest.
“We are teetering on the brink of a shortage today,” said Burman, after offering a sobering hydrologic assessment. “It is time for us to pay attention. We are quickly running out of time.”
Even before Jan. 31, Lake Mead will feel the effects of not having a drought plan in physical and concrete ways. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California plans to begin taking stored water out of the reservoir starting in January, said its general manager, Jeff Kightlinger.
The district, a wholesale water provider for Southern California cities, currently stores surplus water in Mead to keep reservoir elevations above a shortage level. With a drought plan in place, it would not be able to access that water in times of shortage. Because of uncertainty with the drought plan, Kightlinger said his staff is planning to begin removing the water in early January. That would further lower the reservoir level, making a shortage at Lake Mead even more likely.
“That’s not what we want to do,” he said, noting that the district needed to protect access to its water but that it could put the water back in the reservoir when a drought plan is agreed to.
“This is not something we do lightly,” he said. “But I don’t want to jeopardize my constituents.”
During a panel Thursday, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger applauded the commissioner for “laying down the gauntlet” to get a drought plan completed.
“I think the states need it,” Entsminger said. “I think this is the appropriate juncture to have it.”
But Entsminger said the Drought Contingency Plan was still the preferred approach. When Lake Mead slips into shortage, that plan would require the states to take additional cuts in their river allocations, which were set forth in the Colorado River Compact of 1922. Because of conservation, the water authority has long argued that it would be able to weather the cuts in its supply.
The idea is that by taking voluntary cuts, the states can avoid even more severe cuts in the future or cuts that might be required by the federal government if it took unilateral action.
The water authority approved the drought plan in November, as have most large-scale users in California (with stipulations to see the final approvals). The primary holdout is Arizona, where cuts in the drought plan would be the most significant for agriculture and some developers.
Arizona negotiators Tom Buschatzke, the head of the state’s Department of Water Resources, and Ted Cooke, the general manager of the Central Arizona Project, said they are close to a deal. But echoing the theme of the Colorado River conference, they both said close is not done.
Unlike in Nevada and California, where state negotiators like Entsminger can sign on behalf of the state, any Arizona drought plan must receive approval from state legislators, making an already complex problem of water law an even more complex problem involving state politics.
In a joint interview after the morning panel, Buschatzke and Cooke said they are working to execute side agreements with stakeholders to ensure that there is enough political support among cities, tribes and agricultural interests to convince the Legislature to pass a resolution…
Kathryn Sorensen, the director of Phoenix Water, said that what Arizona is going through is a challenging discussion of how to lose less water in a basin where that is a reality amid drought and climate change. There is more water on paper than there is actual water to go around.
“Central Arizona is looking at losing potentially half of its [Colorado River] water supply through the [drought plan],” she said. “Every single drop of water is accounted for and being used. So of course, those are really difficult conversations. So we have to come up with a way to make those reductions in a collaborative manner because everyone holds veto power over everybody else in some fashion. And plus, you want to look at the equity of the proposition as well.”
In Arizona, agricultural interests have pushed for the state and federal government to provide funding to offset the water they would lose under the drought plan. Under the plan, farmers would receive water for three years and then be required to switch to groundwater. The state and federal government plan to commit funding to help farmers make that transition to wells…
What concerns Entsminger and others is the forecast that federal water managers are likely to declare a Lake Mead shortage as early as 2020. Such a declaration would be unprecedented, and water managers have stressed that they want to be prepared before a shortage, not after.
“I don’t think responsible water managers can go into Water Year 2020 without a plan,” he said…
James Eklund, the negotiator for Colorado, said the approval was a big deal for the states. But he noted that a full drought plan would not be complete until the Lower Basin states signed on. Even though the short-term plan to use less water across the Colorado River is attempting to address drought, Eklund said that it is, in some ways, also addressing climate change.
For nearly 20 years, the Colorado River Basin has faced a drought that has challenged the assumptions that the watershed would be able to provide the amount of water that states are legally allowed to take from it. Studies have linked warm temperatures with reduced streamflow in the river and have predicted that climate change to continue drawing down future supplies.
“It is inextricably linked with climate,” Eklund said. “There is an existential question on this river about how we deal with climate. It’s not so much climate itself. It’s how we respond — if we respond. And the Drought Contingency Plan is an answer, but it is unlikely to be a panacea, a silver bullet that fixes this for all time. But we have to do what we can when we can.”
Officials from the federal government and seven states are meeting in Las Vegas this week to discuss the future of the Colorado River. The original plan was for the states to unveil an unprecedented set of drought contingency plans to adapt to continually dropping Colorado River levels. But due to protracted negotiations within California and Arizona, that isn’t happening.
Instead, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned everyone that if all drought contingency plans are not submitted by January 31, 2019, the federal government will prepare to potentially mandate cuts in 2020. How might this affect Nevada, how are we preparing for prolonged drought becoming permanent “aridification”, and how might we have to change to ensure we’re never left high and dry?
At last year’s Colorado River Water Users’ Association (CRWUA) annual conference, newly confirmed U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman encouraged all seven Colorado River states (Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California) to present their drought contingency plans (DCP’s, or comprehensive agreements that include voluntary water cuts) by December 2018. Federal and state officials then prepared to present all seven states’ DCP’s here in Las Vegas this week.
That’s not happening. Though California may be close to finalizing their own DCP, Arizona stakeholders continue to debate what exactly will constitute their DCP, from Phoenix’s City Council at a stalemate over a water rate hike to pay for infrastructure improvements to the Arizona Legislature preparing to debate the overall DCP when they convene next month. The Arizona officials who spoke at the conference claimed all sides have made considerable progress in nearing a final agreement, a sentiment that Burman herself also expressed today.
In June, High Country News’ Emily Benson wrote about how the word “drought” is no longer the most accurate way to describe the Southwest’s ongoing dry spell. Instead she used the word “aridification”, and Esquire‘s Charlie Pierce followed suit this week as he described the tension that’s led into this year’s CRWUA Conference. Due to that (not-so-little) thing called climate change, this frightening terminology is becoming less of a far-off “worst-case scenario” and more of a clear and present danger that must be solved right here and now.
So how does this aridification affect our already very arid expanse of Southern Nevada? According to Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) General Manager John Entsminger, it’s something they’ve already been preparing for: “Anyone who has lived in Southern Nevada has seen Lake Mead declining. The drought contingency plan […] makes sure more water stays at Lake Mead, but it also gives users flexibility to make sure our supplies are sufficient.”
Unlike Arizona, Nevada has already approved its DCP, as Nevada only needed the SNWA board’s approval and the Nevada Colorado River Commission‘s approval. So what exactly does this DCP entail? According to Entsminger, “For Nevada, that contingency plan requires us to leave more water at the lake at certain levels. It also gives us more tools to bring water into the lake, and take it out when we need it.”
And how exactly will Nevada make this work? For Entsminger, this is why it’s made sense to “stay water smart”. As he put it, “Our community has done a fantastic job with conservation. As a result, we have extra water to leave at the lake. This deal will allow us to leave water in the lake for future use.”
“When you live in the driest state in the union, everything is on the table […] But again, if we can take care of the conservation, we’re not going to need to worry about new sources of water for decades to come.” – John Entsminger, SNWA
So what else can we do? For Entsminger, removing more ornamental lawn grass and reaching the goals set by the conservation standards we already have on the books will make a huge difference: “I believe that removing the 5,000 acres of nonfunctional turf [grass] from the valley and enforcing the rules we have on the books will guarantee us a safe and reliable water supply for the next 50 years.”
To a gilded Caesars Palace conference room of more than 1,000 attendees of the annual Colorado River conference, the message from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman was simple: Finish these deals before the federal government is forced to step in.
“We are teetering on the brink of shortage today,” Burman said. “And we see real risk of rapid declines in reservoir elevations.”
“We all know it is high time to wrap up these efforts,” Burman added.
Out of the seven U.S. states that pull water from the river, Arizona has struggled the most to figure out which water users would see cutbacks first, by how much and under what conditions. The debate has pitted farmers against the cities, home builders and tribes who rely on deliveries of Colorado River water from a 336-mile canal.
Completion of the plans became more urgent after the record hot and dry conditions within the Colorado River Basin this past year, Burman said. Portions of Colorado and Arizona experienced their record hottest and driest summer during 2018. Snowpack this winter is hovering around average levels.
A final deal will require federal legislation and approval by the Arizona Legislature before it can be put into action.
From the Associated Press (Ken Ritter) via The Denver Post:
Burman identified California and Arizona as the holdouts.
“Close isn’t ‘done,’ ” she told a standing-room crowd at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference at a Las Vegas Strip resort. “Only ‘done’ will protect this basin.”
The river that carries winter snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico is plumbed with dams to generate hydropower and meter water releases. It provides drinking water to 40 million people and cities including Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas. It irrigates crops in wide areas once deemed as reclaimed desert in the U.S. and Mexico.
The keys to contingency plans are voluntary agreements to use less water than users are allocated from the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell behind the Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah state line and Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam just east of Las Vegas…
Indian tribes also are involved, and Burman on Thursday announced publication of a report called the Colorado River Basin Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study . It charts water claims and use by tribes that hold rights to divert almost 20 percent of the water in the river.
A drought-shortage declaration next year would cut 11.4 percent of Arizona’s usual river water allocation beginning in 2020, and 4.3 percent of Nevada’s share. That amount of water, combined, would serve more than 625,000 homes. California would voluntarily reduce its Colorado River use by about 6 percent…
In California, the largest municipal suppliers have signed on, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California serving some 19 million people.
However, the sprawling Imperial Irrigation District, which holds some of the largest and oldest rights to river water, has so far granted only tentative approval. James Hanks, board president, said in an interview the district wants to be last to sign so it can see what others agree to.
It also wants government help to save the Salton Sea, a briny shallow desert lake east of Palm Springs, California, that is fed primarily by agricultural irrigation runoff. Dusty hot winds blowing across exposed former shorelines are blamed for asthma by area residents who also complain of sometimes brackish smells…
“Everyone thinks their own water use is justified and no one else’s is,” observed Kathryn Sorensen, Phoenix city water services director.
Keith Moses, vice chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribal Council in Arizona, offered what he saw as a key to complex water questions.
“To me, the best way of conserving water is not to use it,” he said before adding that he knew that would mean limiting growth so as not to continue to drain the Colorado River.
“Realistically,” he added, “looking at it, that’s not going to happen.”
A major public meeting in Arizona that was scheduled for Thursday to discuss plans to deal with a potential drought on the Colorado River has been canceled. Again.
For the second time in two weeks, the 38-member steering committee for Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan needs more time to negotiate and will not meet as planned, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project said in two announcements on Monday and Tuesday.
Sally Lee, spokesperson for the ADWR, said that steering committee members were notified at around 2 p.m. on Monday and on Tuesday. Last month’s canceled October 25 meeting was called off with even less notice — less than 48 hours’ worth.
Initially, organizers said Thursday’s steering committee meeting would be replaced with a private workgroup meeting to discuss mitigation. But by Tuesday, that private meeting had been canceled too, per steering committee co-chairs Tom Buschatzke, director of the ADWR, and Ted Cooke, general manager of CAP…
“Stakeholders participating in mitigation discussions have indicated that there are still major areas of conceptual disagreement that are not likely to be reconciled” before Thursday, the cancellation notice on the Central Arizona Project’s website read on Tuesday…
By the end of November, the committee is supposed to negotiate how potential water cuts would be distributed among the Arizona’s water users, if Lake Mead enters into an official drought in 2020. Arizona’s own negotiations are part of a broader effort by seven states to deal with the potential drought on the Colorado River.
The odds of this are about 50/50, according the federal Bureau of Reclamation. A Tier 1 drought shortage is declared if the Lake Mead reservoir’s levels drop below 1,075 feet above sea level. At 5 p.m. on November 6, its levels stood just above 1,078 feet. Lake Mead supplies Arizona with 40 percent of its water.
Heather Macre, a board member of the Central Arizona Project who does not sit on the steering committee but is familiar with the negotiations, said that everyone was concerned about making the November deadline. But she also suggested it was somewhat flexible, because Arizona needs to get legislative approval for its plan, and the legislative session doesn’t begin until January.
“Even if we have it mostly done by November and we’re still tweaking in December, we can get it to the Legislature in January,” Macre said. No one really wanted to do that, she added.
“I don’t want to push the deadline any more than anyone else does,” she said. “I think we can get it done by the end of the month. And if we don’t, we still do have a little bit of time.”
Science is all about experimentation, and one of the more spectacular experiments in the movement of Colorado River sediment is set to begin in a matter of days.
Beginning November 5, the Department of Interior will begin a High-Flow Experiment (HFE) release of water out of Glen Canyon Dam, slowly ramping up the volume to 38,100 cubic feet per second, which it will maintain for 60 hours over three days.
The forceful water release is intended to mimic the floods that once drove enormous volumes of sand through the river canyons prior to the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, which rebuilt eroded sandbars downstream.
Those reconstituted, enlarged beaches serve a number of valuable purposes – from providing camping space for river-rafters to creating backwater habitat for native fish populations. The enlarged eddies and pools enhanced by those bigger sandbars also encourage the growth of riparian vegetation that provides habitat for birds and other wildlife.
The upcoming “HFE” release is the first under the newly minted 2016 Record of Decision for the Glen Canyon Dam, which provides a framework for adaptively managing Glen Canyon Dam over the next 20 years. The goal of the “ROD” is to create certainty and predictability for water and power users while protecting environmental and cultural resources in Grand Canyon National Park and the Colorado River ecosystem.
The high-volume water release experiment, meanwhile, is a component of the 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act, which mandated that Glen Canyon Dam be operated in a manner that protects the values for which Grand Canyon National Park and Glen Canyon Recreational Area were established. The first-ever release was conducted in 1996. Known as the Beach Habitat Building Flow, it was designed to mimic the dynamics of a natural system, including building high-elevation sandbars, depositing nutrients, and restoring backwater channels.
Given its unprecedented mission – imitating the sediment-rich flood conditions of a pre-Glen Canyon Dam river – the HFE releases have been genuinely experimental, adapting and changing as more data were accumulated about their impact.