Arizona is once again at a critical decision point in the ongoing struggle to secure our water resources. If we fail to take the right course, we risk igniting yet another Colorado River water war.
Lake Mead, from which we draw our share of the Colorado River, is dropping to perilous levels. In order to stabilize lake levels and protect our water supply, the Department of Water Resources has negotiated an agreement with California and the other basin states to begin reducing water diversions from the Lake.
California and the other basin states are ready to sign the agreement, known as the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). Arizona is the lone holdout, mainly because our state Legislature, caught up in special interest demands, has failed to ratify the DCP agreement.
CAWCD is overstepping its role
Behind this legislative impasse are two groups threatening to block ratification.
The first is the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD), a local elected body that distributes our Colorado River water throughout central Arizona.
CAWCD is now reaching beyond its proper role by attempting to intervene in the interstate Colorado River negotiations.
These interstate negotiations are the exclusive job of the Department of Water Resources, whose director is appointed by the governor to represent all Arizonans…
Pinal County districts also are a threat
The second threat to legislative ratification of the DCP comes from the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, the Central Arizona Irrigation District and several other agricultural districts located in Pinal County.
In 2004, these Pinal districts signed onto a far-reaching water settlement agreement worked out under the leadership of Sen. Jon Kyl. In that settlement the districts agreed that their use of Colorado River water would be phased out not later than 2030, after which they would go back to full reliance on groundwater.
In exchange for giving up long-term rights to Colorado River water and pumping more local groundwater, the districts bargained for and received heavily subsidized Colorado River rates to be paid for by property taxes levied on landowners in Phoenix, Tucson and throughout central Arizona…
It matters a lot. If the Drought Contingency Plan is not ratified soon California and the other Basin states may decide to proceed without us. That could be the beginning of another Colorado River water war.
Arizona has blundered into Colorado River wars in the past, and we usually lose. We must not go that way again. It is up to the Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey to promptly ratify the Drought Contingency Plan as negotiated by the Department of Water Resources.
The agency that delivers Colorado River water to parts of Arizona offered a new proposal Thursday amid difficult negotiations on a proposed deal aimed at preventing the declining levels of Lake Mead from dropping even further.
The Central Arizona Water Conservation District’s board members voted to pass a motion they described as an “interim mitigation plan.” The proposal lays out a scenario in which the agency could provide “mitigation water” to soften the blow for farmers in central Arizona who have the lowest priority in the state’s pecking order of water users.
The proposal quickly faced questions, however, because it calls for using some of the Central Arizona Project’s stored water in Lake Mead — called “Intentionally Created Surplus” or “ICS” water — at a time when the larger goal is to prevent the reservoir from falling to critically low levels.
“The broader community has not yet produced a consensus proposal. We’re working very hard on it,” CAP General Manager Ted Cooke told the district’s board. “We have brought the interim plan forward because we think it will work.”
Still uncertainty about details
A meeting billed as the committee’s final gathering is scheduled for Nov. 29, and both federal and state water managers have said they hope to finish a deal by December.
“There have been some productive conversations over the past few days,” said Suzanne Ticknor, CAP’s director of water policy. “Discussions are helping to move things forward.”
But she said three proposals have come and gone, and there is also uncertainty about the availability of funding to help compensate parties that would transfer some of their water elsewhere.
That proposal, intended to renew lagging DCP talks, was a bare-bones version that board members said they did not expect everyone to agree with. Nevertheless, they authorized Board President Lisa Atkins and Director Karen Cesare to present it to the next DCP Steering Committee meeting on November 29. Arizona had hoped to agree on a drought contingency plan by then, before meeting with California and Nevada officials in mid-December to discuss a broader Lower Basin DCP…
[Ted] Cooke said that the complexities of the plan could be worked out later, after a Drought Contingency Plan had been agreed upon by other states, passed by the Arizona legislature, and approved by Congress.
Cooke also said that his foremost concern was the cost of water: “What’s this going to do to our rates? I know that’s very important to our customers,” he said. He presented graphs showing that CAP’s fixed rates would increase if its water deliveries to customers decreased, as would occur without mitigation.
The seven Colorado River states are developing a DCP because an ongoing drought, now in its 19th year, is on track to worsen sooner than existing drought guidelines can accommodate.
Those guidelines, passed in 2007, were supposed to last until 2026. But Lake Mead, the reservoir on the Colorado River that supplies Arizona, Nevada, and California, has been given a 57 percent chance of falling into shortage in the year 2020. The DCP is supposed to be a six-year plan bridging the years 2020 to 2026.
During the meeting’s public comment period, representatives of other Arizona water users focused on several concerns. One was the new proposal’s reliance on intentionally created surplus (ICS) water sitting in Lake Mead. Another was the question of whether the latest plan was fair.
Like money in a savings account, ICS water has been stored by states in Lake Mead, with the idea that keeping it in the reservoir could help stave off shortage, which is declared when the reservoir’s level dips below 1,075 feet above sea level.
The ICS program, created by interim drought guidelines in 2007, allows states to pull that water out of the reservoir in the future, as long as no shortage has been declared.
The CAWCD board’s $36 million to $54 million proposal would cover three years. It would compensate users in the Non-Indian Agriculture (NIA) pool — mainly tribes and cities — 100 percent for their losses under a DCP. It would also compensate agriculture and developers for their cuts. For farmers, it promised to provide them with the 595,000 acre-feet of water through 2026 that the sector has been seeking.
To compensate these users, the proposal suggested pulling up to 400,000 acre-feet of water out of Lake Mead. To many participants in the DCP talks, who attended Thursday’s meeting, that sourcing was a problem, because that would mean using Lake Mead to compensate Arizona water users for reductions to their water supply from… Lake Mead.
“The CAP proposal in its current form does not conform to the state of Arizona’s guiding principles,” Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the other co-chair of the Steering Committee, told the board Thursday. “The state wants to continue discussing the proposal and other proposals to synthesize the meritorious elements of each one, into a package acceptable to all.”
He pointed out that the proposal did not align with several principles for any DCP plan laid out by Governor Doug Ducey in an opinion article in the Arizona Capitol Times on Tuesday. Among them were that water must be left in Lake Mead, not taken out.
Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community echoed that point in his remarks. He reiterated a point the Community has made before — that it was “strongly opposed” to using water from Lake Mead, including ICS water, unless offset by other contributions to the reservoir. Mitigating cuts with other sources of water would raise costs, but that was something the Community was prepared for.
“Rates will have to go up, because DCP will have to become the new normal, and it is best to transition to that new reality sooner than later,” Lewis said.
Lewis reiterated, too, that the water cuts had to be shared equitably and fairly. “DCP cannot be used as subsidy for one affected group,” he said.
The Arizona agricultural sector seeks compensation of 595,000 acre-feet of water from 2020 to 2026, which many other stakeholders see as unfair, given that farmers would fare better with mitigation under DCP cuts than without. These stakeholders also point out that farmers gave up their legal contract to Colorado River water in a 2004 settlement.
Still, the agricultural sector pushed back against calls for equity and criticized the CAP plan.
“I’m disappointed that there are still some folks who think that is too much for agriculture,” said Paul Orme, general counsel for Pinal County agriculture districts. He argued that although agriculture interests had been trying to find ways to use groundwater instead of surface water from the Colorado River, the expectation of farmers had been that they would not have had to figure that out until 2031…
Bas Aja, a lobbyist for agricultural interests, tried to draw a distinction between equity in priorities and contractual agreements, and equity in the impact of cuts. “There’s no equity in impact in these proposals,” he said.
Despite these disagreements, during its meeting, the board added an important clause to the initial proposal, agreeing to “continue to negotiate a mitigation plan” within the general parameters of that proposal…
Cynthia Campbell, water advisor for the city of Phoenix, said that the new CAP plan had some “fundamental issues” in its use of ICS. “It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to us,” she said. “We think that there have been other discussions going on of other ways to do it, and that today’s action represents the board being expedient. This is the ‘easy button.'”
“Kudos to them that they’re trying to put a proposal forward,” Campbell added, “But we think that we can still do a little bit better to help protect Lake Mead.”
A major Colorado River water user has proposed an interim plan for Arizona as the state faces looming a looming deadline to manage expected shortages. The Central Arizona Project board said its proposal could jumpstart talks after previous ones failed to gain consensus among water users.
The agency wants to draw up to 400,000 acre-feet of water it stored in Lake Mead and 50,000 acre-feet in Lake Pleasant, and implement a $60 million conservation program to lessen the burden of shortages on mainly farmers and developers. Another program would help improve groundwater systems but doesn’t have a price tag.
The agency said the proposal theoretically would result in a net benefit to Lake Mead because it could not pull out as much water under regular deliveries in shortages, stabilizing the lake before it reaches a level where no one could get any water.
Arizona water users had a mixed response to the proposal presented at a board meeting Thursday. It covers only three years of a required seven-year, multistate plan to manage the shrinking Colorado River.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said this week that any drought contingency plan has to align with four principles, one of which is to build on efforts to prop up the lake that determines how much water can be sent to Arizona, Nevada and California from the river’s lower basin.
“I will not sign a bill that does not adhere to these important principles, or any bill that does not adequately help to secure our state’s water future,” Ducey wrote in an opinion piece.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman has said she wants a plan from the seven states that relies on the river by the end of the year. The upper basin states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – are working on a separate plan…
An Arizona drought contingency committee is scheduled to meet later this month to consider the Central Arizona Project proposal and any others. The Colorado River Indian Tribes recently offered 50,000 acre-feet of water to help reach agreement, with strings attached.
State Sen. Lisa Otondo struck an ominous tone in a recent letter to fellow committee members.
“The longer we argue and delay, the more we risk,” she said. “Time is our enemy. We are facing a common crisis and will all have to take a hit or face the judgment of history.”
Dan Thelander, whose family farms 5,000 acres in Pinal County, said he will have to fallow 2,000 acres under the Central Arizona Project proposal.
“This is a tough pill to swallow, but we understand it,” he said at Thursday’s meeting. “We’re ready to do it.”
In a 6-0 vote Thursday, the Southern Nevada Water Authority board officially signed onto its portions of an interstate agreement aimed at keeping more water in the shrinking river system through voluntary cuts.
The so-called Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan seeks to protect critical water levels in lakes Mead and Powell while giving the states that share the river more flexibility to store and use water in dry years to come.
Nevada became the first of the seven river states to ratify the agreement with the approvals granted this week by the water authority board and the Colorado River Commission of Nevada.
“It is a huge step in restoring equilibrium to the system,” said authority General Manager John Entsminger. “We’re going first.”
But the groundbreaking deal is far from finished.
California and Arizona still need to work out internal disputes over how to divvy up the cuts among water users in those states…
Entsminger said valley residents have already conserved more than enough water to absorb any of the voluntary or mandatory cuts expected in the near future.
“It’s well within our pain tolerance,” he told board members Thursday. “We’ve been planning for this for 20 years.”
In addition to protecting the water level in Lake Mead, Entsminger said, the new plan would dramatically increase the amount of water Nevada is allowed to “bank” in the reservoir and free the state to make withdrawals from that bank even when the river is in shortage — something he described as “a major tool in our chest.”
The plan also would trigger the provisions of an earlier deal with Mexico, under which that nation could store more water in Lake Mead while shouldering an equal share of cuts in river water usage…
Meanwhile in the river’s upper basin, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are closing in on their portion of the contingency plan, which seeks to keep enough water in Lake Powell to protect hydro-power generation at Glen Canyon Dam and allow that reservoir to be used as a bank for conservation savings made upstream.
After Thursday’s vote, Entsminger said he thinks the talks among the upper basin states are “in pretty good shape,” and California seems close to signing on as well.
The board’s vote allows the water authority’s general manager, John Entsminger, to execute the Drought Contingency Plan, a result of years of negotiations between the seven states with rights to use Colorado River water. The plan’s goal is to stabilize Lake Mead, the dwindling reservoir outside of Las Vegas that stores water in Arizona, California and Nevada. Under the proposal, the states would temporarily cut their water use to leave more water in the reservoir.
For instance, at low lake elevations, Nevada would leave up to 10 percent of its total right to Colorado River water, or about 30,000 acre-feet (the amount of water that can fill one acre of land up to one foot). In past interviews, Entsminger has said that Nevada could sustain those cuts. Because of conservation efforts, Las Vegas, he said, already leaves water in the lake…
With the board’s authority, Entsminger now has the authority to sign the drought plan when it is approved by the other states. Other states, including California and Colorado, are still resolving in-state issues before their state negotiators can sign on the plan. But all eyes are on Arizona, where there remains an ongoing debate over how the cuts should be implemented.
The Northern Integrated Supply Project and the Windy Gap Firming Project, both projects managed by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, have been decades in the making, and once they’re complete, they’ll result in three new reservoirs intended to address a growing Front Range population.
During the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s fall water users meeting Wednesday in Fort Collins, officials took an audience through the progress of both projects.
The Northern Integrated Supply Project, which would affect Windsor and Evans, hit a major milestone in July after an Environmental Impact Statement was released.
“In 2019, we’re hoping for a really big, exciting year, in addition to the really big year we had this year,” said Stephanie Cecil, water resources project engineer for Northern Water.
The Windy Gap Firming Project, which would affect Greeley, is moving forward even as the project has been hit with a federal lawsuit.
In July, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its final Environmental Impact Statement on the project — a process that took 14 years.
“It’s a really significant step in the project to be able to have all of those things done,” Cecil said.
Right now, the group is focused on design, particularly for the Glade Reservoir and the Galeton Reservoir. One pressing step in the project will be to relocate a section of U.S. 287 to allow for construction of the reservoir.
Additionally, the organization is working on mitigation projects, including one to help pass fish though a diversion structure and measure the amount of water the group is handling.
The group is also working on permitting with counties and the state, and developing a financing plan.
“How is this over $1 billion project going to be financed, and how is the construction schedule going to line up with the financing plan?” Cecil asked.
Construction could start by 2021, Cecil said, and the projects that will likely get started first are the Glade Reservoir and the U.S. 287 relocation. Cecil said the group hopes that the reservoir will be filled in 2026 and able to serve water in 2030.
“We’re looking at about a five-year timeline, but it’s dependent on weather,” she said. “Hopefully by 2026, we’ll have some really wet years and we can fill it really fast.”
The Windy Gap Firming Project, a collaboration between 12 northern Colorado water providers, including Greeley, will result in a new reservoir — the 90,000 acre-foot Chimney Hollow Reservoir — and the largest dam on the Front Range.
When it’s complete, the project intends to make water supplies more reliable by installing the reservoir west of Carter Lake in Larimer County.
For the past year, the project has been in the middle of a lawsuit filed by environmental groups against federal agencies. The lawsuit questions the need for the project, saying it would make significant water diversions from the Colorado River, and that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Crops of Engineers did not have enough information before they issued initial permits to the district.
Still, Jeff Drager, director of engineering for Northern Water, said the project hasn’t been stalled by the lawsuit, especially because funding from the Natural Resource Conservation Service requires the group to use the money within the next five years…
Right now, the project is in the permitting process. So far, the organization has $11 million and is seeking ways to fund the final $4 million…
The project has been in the process of permitting the project for 15 years, Drager said…
Drager said the group hopes to start construction in 2021 or 2022.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The Division of Water Rights last week heard from project proponent Aaron Million and from numerous entities that oppose it, before deciding to request more information from Million before a decision can be made.
Million, a Fort Collins resident, filed the Utah application through the company Water Horse Resources LLC, seeking to divert 55,000 acre-feet a year and pipe it east to Wyoming and then south to Colorado…
The idea is being opposed by federal agencies including the Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service. Other opponents include western Colorado’s Colorado River District, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District in Colorado, multiple water conservancy districts in Utah, conservationists, and notably the Utah Board of Water Resources and Division of Water Resources. That board works to conserve and develop the state’s water, and is worried that the proposal would let Colorado benefit at Utah’s expense…
Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River District, questions the project’s economic feasibility.
“Water Horse’s application has not shown that it has any significant committed recipients who are willing to pay for the water that’s supposed to be diverted,” he said…
The decision on Million’s water right application will be made by Utah’s state engineer, who heads the state’s Division of Water Rights.
Million said he thought the hearing went well and he’s awaiting a letter from the state engineer detailing what additional information is needed…
He said probably one-third or one-half of the 28 or so objectors didn’t show up at the hearing.
In the case of those who testified, “every point they made we’ve already looked at inside and out and so we’ll answer the issues related to the permit and move on,” he said.
A 30-day comment period will be provided after Million responds to the request for more information.
Ariel Calmes, a staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates, said in a news release after the hearing, “This application is the latest episode in Aaron Million’s decade-long effort to profit off of the private sale of Green River water. Million is proposing to divert water from Utah to the detriment of multistate water agreements, the recovery of endangered species, and millions of dollars in recreation spending.”
Here’s the release from Denver Water (Travis Thompson):
At its meeting today, the Denver Board of Water Commissioners adopted rate changes to fund essential upgrades and new projects to keep Denver Water’s system running smoothly. The new rates take effect Feb. 1, 2019, and monthly bills for most Denver residents will increase by 55 cents if they use water the same as they did in 2018.
“While the cost to maintain and upgrade the water system continues to increase, rapid development inside the city of Denver has brought in more fees from new taps sold, helping to minimize the 2019 rate increase for Denver customers,” said Jim Lochhead, Denver Water CEO/Manager. “The surrounding suburbs, however, had less development than in the past, reducing the amount collected from new tap fees, which means we’ll need to collect more revenue from suburban water rates in 2019.”
Suburban customers who receive water from one of Denver Water’s 65 distributors will see an additional monthly increase added to their volumetric charges. The Denver City Charter requires that suburban customers pay the full cost of service, plus an additional amount. Learn more about how this works: “Why Denver water costs more in the ‘burbs.”
If you live outside Denver and receive water from a distributor under contract with Denver Water, you can expect to see an annual increase between $23 and $41, which is between $1.90 and 3.40 a month (based on an annual use of 102,000 gallons of water).
Pat Fitzgerald, general manager of four Denver Water distributors including the Platte Canyon Water and Sanitation District and chairman of the suburban districts’ Technical Advisory Committee, which reviews Denver Water’s rates annually, provided this statement:
“The advisory committee supports the rate increase. The cost-of-service study used to determine the difference between inside city and outside city customers is fair and reasonable, and the committee had no objections to the results. The expenses are going up, but they’re all projects that are necessary to provide a reliable and safe source of water.”
The major multiyear projects that water rates fund include building a new, state-of-the-art water treatment plant, installing a new 8.5-mile water pipeline to replace a pipeline that was built in the 1930s, expanding Gross Reservoir to provide a more reliable future water supply, constructing a new water quality lab to ensure the highest water quality standards, investing more than $100 million to repair and replace water pipes, and more. There are 158 major projects identified in Denver Water’s five-year, $1.3 billion capital plan.
A customer’s bill is comprised of a fixed charge, which helps ensure Denver Water has more stable revenue to continue the necessary water system upgrades to ensure reliable water service, and a volume rate. The fixed monthly charge — which is tied to meter size — in 2019 is increasing by 55 cents for most residential customers both inside the city and out.
Denver Water’s rate structure includes a three-tiered charge for water use (called the volume rate). To keep water affordable, indoor water use — like for bathing, cooking and flushing toilets — is charged at the lowest rate. Essential indoor water use is determined by averaging the customer’s monthly water use on bills dated from January through March each year. This is called average winter consumption. Water use above the average winter consumption — typically for outdoor watering — is charged at a higher price.
Volume rates for Denver residents will remain the same, but will increase on suburban bills.
Denver Water operates and maintains more than 3,000 miles of pipe — enough to stretch from Los Angeles to New York — as well as 20 dams, 22 pump stations, 30 underground storage tanks, four treatment plants and more. The water provider’s collection system covers more than 4,000 square miles, and it operates facilities in 12 counties in Colorado.
Denver Water does not make a profit or receive tax dollars, and reinvests ratepayers’ money to maintain and upgrade the water system. The utility is funded by water rates, bond sales, cash reserves, hydropower sales and fees for new service (called System Development Charges).
Customers will see more information about 2019 rates in their bills and on Denver Water’s website over the next few months.