All eyes are on Arizona and California with Brenda Burman’s extended deadline coming up on Monday. They are dealing with the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which really should be a plan to address the declining supply and increasing demand that causes an annual deficit. (H/T Eric Kuhn over at Inkstain.
Water poured into an artificial wetland next to the Gila River near Sacaton as Arizona’s leading proponents of a Colorado River drought plan celebrated the state’s progress in moving toward a deal.
Leaders of the Gila River Indian Community touted the restoration project as an example of putting water back into a river that has was sucked dry over the years, and a symbolic step in promoting sustainable water management in the state. The inauguration ceremony on the reservation featured traditional singing by men and boys who shook gourd rattles in unison.
Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said the community, which has agreed to contribute water under the proposed Colorado River deal, is playing a vital role in helping to finish the three-state Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP.
“This is very important and very historic,” Lewis told the audience of community members, politicians and water managers. “It goes beyond politics. It goes to the benefit and the future sustainability and existence of all of us here.”
Unresolved issues remain
Yet even as Arizona’s top water officials expressed optimism about finishing the drought agreement after months of difficult negotiations, they also voiced concerns that unresolved issues in California still could upend the entire deal.
More than 250 miles to the west in California’s Imperial Valley, leaders of the irrigation district that controls the largest share of Colorado River water were still discussing a key condition of their participation. Imperial Irrigation District officials announced at a meeting on Friday afternoon that the federal Bureau of Reclamation has agreed to their condition that the drought package include linkage to funding for the Salton Sea.
They said federal officials will write a strong letter of support backing IID’s requests for $200 million in Farm Bill funding for wetlands projects around the shrinking sea. The projects are aimed at keeping down dust along the shorelines and salvaging deteriorating habitat for fish and birds.
Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, the U.S. solicitor and staff are finalizing a letter stating that “they consider the restoration of the Salton Sea is a critical ingredient of the drought contingency plans and cannot be ignored, and they stand prepared to help the IID with the Department of Agriculture to try to get funding in whatever way possible,” said IID attorney Charles Dumars.
He cautioned that it was “a building block, nothing more,” but said it was a big one that could be used to persuade Agriculture Department officials to allocate funds for the receding lake…
The board also voted unanimously to oppose a supposed “white knight” offer by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s general manager, Jeffrey Kightlinger, to provide IID’s portion of water to be kept in Lake Mead if the agency doesn’t sign on to the drought plan.
Several board members and people in the audience chided the Los Angeles-based agency for trying to interfere in their process, saying it was ignoring the public-health issues at the Salton Sea created by the withdrawal of Colorado River water…
IID officials also discussed a timeline that Burman and her staff presented at a recent meeting in Las Vegas. The aim, Martinez said, is to have agreements adopted by all parties…in Phoenix on March 14 or 15 to sign a joint letter to Congress endorsing the plan…
Arizona working to wrap up its part
The Gila River Indian Community’s involvement is key because the community is entitled to about a fourth of the water that passes through the Central Arizona Project, and it has offered to kick in some water to make the drought agreement work.
Arizona’s plan for divvying up the water cutbacks involves deliveries of “mitigation” water to help lessen the blow for some farmers and other entities, as well as compensation payments for those that contribute water. Those payments are to be covered with more than $100 million from the state and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which manages the CAP Canal. Much of the money would go toward paying for water from the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community…
Gov. Ducey signed a package of legislation on Jan. 31 endorsing the Drought Contingency Plan. Arizona still needs to finish a list of internal water agreements to make the state’s piece of the deal work.
State officials have presented a list of a dozen remaining agreements, two of which would require the approval of the Gila River Indian Community. But Cooke said not all the agreements need to be signed for the three-state deal to move forward.
Cooke said he’s focused most of all on finishing a framework agreement for Arizona focusing on “intentionally created surplus,” a term for unused water that is stored in Lake Mead.
With a Monday deadline looming, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has offered to break an impasse on a seven-state Colorado River drought contingency package by contributing necessary water from its own reserves on behalf of the Imperial Irrigation District. It’s not help that IID is seeking, but Metropolitan general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said he had no choice.
He informed IID and federal, Arizona and Nevada officials at meetings in Las Vegas on Monday of the offer.
“I told them Metropolitan would be willing to go ahead and sign off for California, in the absence of the Imperial Irrigation District being willing to do that. We would make both IID’s and Metropolitan’s water contributions,” Kightlinger said.
He said U.S Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman and the state officials were appreciative of the offer, while IID officials preferred his agency not move forward until their conditions are met.
IID, the lone holdout on the multi-pronged deal to conserve water for 40 million people and thousands of acres of farmland across the West, voted in December to only approve the plan if $200 million in federal funds was awarded to restore the fast-drying Salton Sea. The sea, California’s largest inland water body, lost imports from the river 13 months ago, sending ever greater clouds of hazardous dust across neighboring communities, farms and wildlife refuges. An avenue to provide funding was created in this year’s Farm Bill, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture…
Kightlinger said he took a good look at this winter’s significant snow pack and rainfall figures and decided his district could replace the 250,000 acre feet of water that IID might need to leave in the shrinking Lake Mead reservoir as part of the drought plan.
“It’s always possible mandatory cuts will be made, and we feel making our own plans instead … all that certainty helps,” said Kightlinger. “To have no certainty is very difficult for an urban agency. I understand IID has issues that are important to the community, but we need to have Met move forward without IID.”
Here’s the release from the Gila River Indian Community (June M. Shorthair):
Today, elected officials of the Gila River Indian Community, including the Governor, Lt. Governor and several Council members, determined that the Community had received sufficient assurances that HB 2476 was “dead” and that the Community could re-engage in the effort to finalize the Arizona Drought Contingency Plan Implementation Plan. Community elected officials came to this determination after meetings with Speaker Pro Tem T.J. Shope, and House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez and Senator Lisa Otondo.
Due to unjustified attacks on the Community through the Arizona legislative process in the form of HB 2476, earlier this week the Community informed the Chairs of the Arizona DCP Steering Committee that if the Arizona legislature continued its consideration of HB 2476, the Community would have no choice but to withdraw from the Arizona Drought Contingency Implementation Plan altogether. Based on the assurances received at today’s meetings, especially those from Speaker Pro Tem Shope, the Community officials determined that HB 2476 is dead and as a result that the Community is able to move forward with the Arizona DCP Implementation Plan despite this unwarranted attack on the Community.
Speaking for the Community, Governor Stephen R. Lewis stated, “On behalf of the Community, I want to thank Rep. Shope and Rep. Fernandez for making the effort to come and speak with us directly about this very troubling attack on our Community. They listened carefully to our concerns, and Rep. Shope assured us he would take them back to the Legislature to help others understand why we perceived this legislation as highly inappropriate and an attack on our Community. He also provided us with very solid assurances that this legislation is truly dead and that there would be no further consideration of it, as did Rep. Fernandez. Their word on this is what we need to confirm this legislation is truly not moving forward and I am pleased that the Community will be able to rejoin the State’s efforts to get DCP over the finish line.”
Rep. Shope said, “As one of the members representing the Community, and a member of House leadership, I believed it was essential to come and meet with Community leaders and hear their concerns. I was pleased to provide them with the assurances that I have received from the Speaker, and my own, which I believe make clear that this bill is truly dead and will not be raised again this legislative session”
Rep. Fernandez stated, “I completely understand why the Community would have viewed this bill as the attack that it was. It is not only bad policy, but an abuse of our legislative process, and I was pleased to commit to the Community’s leaders the support of my caucus in fighting this legislation if it ever is brought back up, which I do not think will happen.”
Senator Otondo confirmed the Senate Democratic Caucus position in opposition to the bill, and sympathized with the Community, stating “I completely understand why the Community and its members would be outraged at this kind of unwarranted attack. From what I know, far from being the bad actor that they were portrayed to be, they are actually the wronged party. While most of the farmers in the Upper Valley are doing all they can to work with Community and the Community is cooperating with them, there is a small group that simply won’t pay attention to the law of the Gila River. I think the Community is fully within its rights to try to get them to comply with the law.”
Governor Lewis concluded, “This meeting was a critical turning point in Arizona’s DCP and Rep. Shope and Rep. Fernandez, and Sen. Otondo, all deserve great credit for taking this important step to reach out to us and hear our concerns and assure us of their continued support. It is this kind of leadership that will help us all move DCP over the finish line. This was an unfortunate chapter in this historic effort, but we will now do all we can to put this in the rear view mirror, and move forward together.”
The purpose of HB 2476 is ostensibly to repeal a cardinal principal of Arizona water law, the so-called “use it or lose it” rule codified in the State’s very first water code as a rule of forfeiture. Under the forfeiture statute any water right holder who does not use his water rights for an uninterrupted period of five years, without a legitimate excuse specified in the statute, can be found to have forfeited that right. This “use it or lose it” principle is an essential element of the water codes across the arid West, and appears in 16 different state water codes in almost the same form. If HB 2476 were enacted, Arizona would become the first and only state in the West to repeal such a forfeiture statute.
On February 19, 2019, a hearing was held on HB 2476. While the hearing was supposed to focus on the forfeiture statute and its effect on certain water users, the testimony and questions instead focused on the Community’s actions in federal district court to legitimately enforce its settlement and to protect its water rights under its settlement. Most of the witnesses who testified actually stated in open testimony that they were concerned for their “hot” land farming practices, a term that refers to a practice of illegally using water from the Gila River, water to which the Community has a clear and superior right. The misstatements made during the testimony and questions posed made it very clear that this hearing was intended to be a form of “show trial” for the Community, whose real purpose could only have been to somehow intimidate the Community into not enforcing its rights. At the end of the hearing, the proponent of HB 2476 asked that his bill be “held” so that he could review its legality and perhaps refine it so it could perhaps be raised again at a future time, leaving the Community with no clear indication as to whether the bill would move forward or not.
This decision to hold HB 2476 put the Community in an untenable position, as it could not proceed with its participation with DCP until this issue was clearly put to rest. Today’s meetings provided the Community with an opportunity to discuss directly with key members of the Arizona Legislature whether this legislation is for all intents and purposes “dead” for this session. In the meeting with the Rep. Shope, as a member of House leadership he was able to convey to Community tribal leadership that Speaker Bowers had assured Rep. Shope that the Speaker did not intend to take any further action to move HB 2476 forward this session. In addition Rep. Shope also assured Community leaders that even if Speaker Bowers might decide to move the legislation forward, Rep. Shope would himself vote against it on the floor. During the meeting, Community leaders made clear why they felt HB 2476 was a purposeful attack on the Community and how the hearing had completely misrepresented the Community’s legitimate actions and efforts to enforce its water settlement rights,. Rep. Shope offered to take these concerns back to the legislature to help educate other members on this issue.
In a separate meeting with the Democratic House Minority Leader, Rep. Charlotte Fernandez, and with Sen. Lisa Otondo, they both reiterated their caucuses’ support for the Community in its opposition to this unjustified attack in the form of legislation.
In a separate decision, Community leaders authorized its water team to continue its efforts to protect the Community’s water settlement and to enforce the Community’s rights as and when necessary.
Proposed water legislation that might have upended Arizona’s Colorado River drought plan was set aside by a leading Republican lawmaker following a day of tense debate.
The dispute over the bill pitted House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who introduced the measure on behalf of a group of farmers and ranchers, against the Gila River Indian Community, whose leader threatened to pull out of the drought deal if the bill went forward.
Bowers’ decision to yank the bill from consideration on Tuesday appears to clear the path for Arizona to take a series of steps to finish its piece of the Drought Contingency Plan, which involves taking less water out of Lake Mead to prevent the reservoir from falling to critically low levels.
But even with what had seemed a difficult snag now somewhat smoothed over, Arizona still needs to finish a list of about a dozen water agreements to make its piece of the Colorado River deal work. And Arizona’s top water managers said they expect completing those deals will take longer than a March 4 deadline set by the federal government.
If Arizona and California miss that deadline and don’t sign the Drought Contingency Plan, the seven Western states that rely on the Colorado River face an uncertain process. Federal officials have said they plan to ask the seven governors for input on steps that should be taken to prevent the levels of Lake Mead from continuing to fall. It’s not clear how that process would end, or whether it would spark more disagreements.
On Tuesday afternoon, though, one big potential obstacle appeared to be out of the way after Bowers announced at a House committee hearing that he was pulling House Bill 2476.
The legislation would have repealed the state’s water-rights forfeiture law, a measure often called “use it or lose it,” under which water rights may be forfeited if water hasn’t been used for more than five years. The bill would have changed the law so that not using a water right wouldn’t result in automatic forfeiture.
The legislation was aimed at addressing the concerns of farmers and ranchers in the Upper Gila Valley in southwestern Arizona, where the Gila River Indian Community has filed forfeiture cases against some landowners.
Bowers said in a statement that he will not move forward with the bill but will “continue to fight” for landowners in the Upper Gila Valley. He said because the bill “has nothing to do with the Drought Contingency Plan, I refused to include it in those discussions.”
Bowers said he didn’t want to give the Gila River Indian Community “veto power” over water legislation, but that he also didn’t want to interfere with ongoing litigation that may affect well owners along tributaries of the Gila River. He said those factors, as well as the deadlines the state is facing, led him to hold the bill.
Bowers said he still thinks the bill focused on an important issue that has yet to be resolved.
“The concept of forfeiture of water rights is a terrible possibility for these thousands of rural folks across Arizona,” Bowers said in a statement. “And it deserves the attention of the Arizona Supreme Court in seeking a just and reliable remedy.”
FromThe Associated Press (Jonathan J. Cooper) via The Denver Post:
It’s the latest hurdle threatening the plan between seven states to take less water from the drought-starved Colorado River, which supplies 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland. Missing the March 4 deadline could allow the federal government to step in and decide the rules.
About half of the 15 agreements that Arizona needs to secure among water users will be ready by March 4, said Ted Cooke, director of the Central Arizona Project, which brings Colorado River water to the sprawling cities and farm fields around Phoenix and Tucson.
“That’s an artificial deadline, and these are very complex agreements and very complex negotiations, and we will take the time that we need to do them properly,” Cooke told reporters Tuesday following a meeting of water users working on the drought plan.
He said he hopes to finalize all the agreements within 60 days…
Arizona lawmakers have approved the drought plan, but U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Director Brenda Burman has said the state also must finalize the complex agreements needed to implement it.
If that’s not done by March 4, Burman says she will ask governors what should happen next — starting a process that could result in federally mandated cuts instead of the voluntary plans negotiated by the states. That’s particularly worrisome in Arizona, which has the lowest-priority water rights on the Colorado River.
Cooke repeatedly declined to speculate on what would happen if the state doesn’t finish its work by the deadline. But he said Arizona would probably be done before the federal government could get very far down an alternative path.
A major player in the drought contingency plan on Thursday yanked its scheduled ratification of its part of the deal, potentially upending any chance of the state meeting the March 4 deadline set by the Bureau of Reclamation.
Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, said he had called for a special meeting of the tribal council to consider and approve the necessary agreements to provide up to 500,000 acre feet of water between now and 2026. That was designed to help make up for the water that the state will no longer be able to draw from Lake Mead, much of that earmarked for Pinal County farmers.
But Lewis said he learned that House Speaker Rusty Bowers has his own hearing set for Tuesday on legislation that would affect the tribe’s rights to water from the Gila River. As a result, Lewis said he and the council have decided they won’t consider ratification.
“This step may very well prevent us from being in a position to approve the Arizona DCP implementation plan in time to meet the very real deadline established by the Bureau of Reclamation, or in fact ever,” Lewis said.
And the tribal governor made it clear who he thinks will be to blame if the whole deal falls apart.
“While Speaker Bowers’ action may have placed the future of DCP in serious jeopardy, it will not shake our determination to protect our water settlement,” Lewis wrote.
Bowers declined to comment on the latest development.
But an aide to the speaker said that, at this point, Bowers intends to pursue his legislation, even with the threat.
That echoes the comments Bowers made last month to Capitol Media Services when the tribe first said he has to drop his legislation.
“I’m not going to back down,” he said at the time.
And he lashed out at the tribe for trying to link the issues.
“This is just showing their mentality to everybody who gets in their way,” Bowers said. “It’s all ‘Our way or no way.’ ”
Gov. Doug Ducey, who has made approval of the DCP a key goal, sidestepped questions about the new hurdle, with press aide Patrick Ptak saying only that his boss is focused on working with other states to get Congress to approve necessary changes in federal law.
The legislation that threatens to blow up the deal, HB 2476, concerns at what point people who had one time had the right to divert water from the river lose those rights. As the law now reads, those rights were forfeited if the water was not used for at least five years.
Bowers wants to repeal all that. That, in turn, would affect ongoing lawsuits about who gets to claim water from the upper Gila River, water that the tribe says belongs to it because the prior users forfeited their rights.
MARICOPA — In satellite images, the farm fields in central Arizona stand out like an emerald green quilt draped across the desert landscape.
Seeing it from the ground level, the fields of alfalfa, corn and wheat are interspersed with the furrows of freshly plowed fields. After the cotton harvest, stray fluffy bolls lie scattered on the ground like patches of snow.
A large share of the water that flows to these fields comes from the Colorado River, and the supply of water is about to decrease dramatically.
Under Arizona’s plan for coping with drought, farmers who’ve received Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project Canal for more than three decades now expect to see their allotment slashed more than 60 percent, from 275,000 acre-feet to 105,000 acre-feet per year for the first three years of a shortage. After that, their supply of Colorado River water will be cut off and they plan to rely solely on pumping groundwater from wells.
The plan to shut off deliveries of surface water to farms in Pinal County shows how the demands of agriculture are starting to collide like never before with water scarcity and climate change in the Southwest. The strategy of turning to groundwater pumping will test the limits of Arizona’s regulatory system for its desert aquifers, which targets some areas for pumping restrictions and leaves others with looser rules or no regulation at all.
In Pinal County, which falls under these groundwater rules, the return to a total reliance on wells reflects a major turning point and raises the possibility that this part of Arizona could again sink into a pattern of falling groundwater levels — just as it did decades ago, before the arrival of Colorado River water…
With the imported supply of water now about to go away, the farmers in the area are bracing for changes that they see approaching much more rapidly than they had anticipated. A first-ever shortage on the Colorado River could be declared starting next year. When the flow of water through the CAP canal decreases, no other group of people will feel the direct effects as acutely as the growers and laborers who run the farms in Pinal County…
“As I lose water, I will fallow land,” Thelander said as he drove his pickup past fields of cotton and alfalfa. “We’re going to have to lay off employees.”
Drought plan maps out new future
The Colorado River irrigates more than 5 million acres of farmlands and supplies about 40 million people in cities from Denver to Los Angeles.
Nineteen years of drought and chronic overuse, combined with the worsening effects of climate change, have pushed the levels of the river’s reservoirs lower and lower. Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, now sits just 40 percent full and approaching a shortage.
Under the proposed Drought Contingency Plan for the river’s lower basin, Arizona would join with California and Nevada to take less water out of Lake Mead in an effort to prevent it from falling to disastrously low levels.
During the Legislature’s discussions of Arizona’s piece of the drought deal, the plan to provide state funding to Pinal irrigation districts prompted debate. There also was debate about how the agriculture economy will be affected.
The Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, which represents cities that supply water to more than half the state’s population, said in a Jan. 7 economic analysis that Pinal County agriculture represented about 0.2 percent of Arizona’s economy in 2016, and that about 11 percent of the county’s agriculture industry is at risk due to the water cutbacks under the Drought Contingency Plan.
While growers will have to shrink their crop irrigation by one-third on average, the association said, much of the county’s farming economy is based on dairies and beef production. It said feed for the cattle can be brought from outside Pinal County.
The county produces much of Arizona’s milk, and a large portion of the milk comes from Shamrock Farms. The dairy has about 12,000 cows…
Crop choices, groundwater use scrutinized
Given all the stresses on water supplies in the desert Southwest, the farmers in Pinal have faced questions about their choices of crops, their irrigation methods and their plan to rely on more groundwater pumping. Critics have asked whether it makes sense to continue growing thirsty crops like alfalfa and cotton in the desert. They’ve also called for more investment in using water more efficiently on the farms.
Sandy Bahr, who leads the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, criticized the plan to use taxpayers’ money for new wells and other water infrastructure. She said this goes against decades of water policy in Arizona aimed at reducing the pressures on groundwater supplies, from the construction of the Central Arizona Project canal starting in the 1970s to the passage of the state’s landmark Groundwater Management Act in 1980.
“After decades of trying to limit groundwater pumping, we see kind of this test of the Groundwater Management Act,” Bahr said. She said the plan approved by the Legislature will now promote more groundwater pumping and over-exploitation of aquifers.
If that’s going to be allowed, she asked, then shouldn’t the landowners in Pinal “have to pay for it themselves?”
Bahr said she’s concerned that the plan doesn’t involve looking at how different types of crops could help in using less water.
“Instead, almost every facet of what the Legislature passed is tied to getting water to these Pinal County interests,” she said.
Some conservationists and lawmakers have also raised questions about how efficiently water is being used on Pinal’s farms, and what steps could be taken to promote the installation of more water-saving irrigation systems.
Researchers who’ve looked at ways of improving irrigation methods have found big potential for saving water on farms, which use more than 70 percent of the water supply across the Colorado River basin. When researchers with the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based water think tank, examined water use along the Colorado River in a 2013 study, they found that irrigating alfalfa more efficiently (through a practice known as “regulated deficit irrigation”) could save nearly 1 million acre-feet of water per year.
They also estimated that replacing about 10 percent of the alfalfa with cotton or wheat across the river basin could save about 250,000 acre-feet per year. That’s nearly half of the total water cutbacks that Arizona will have to face under the first year of a shortage.
Thelander said people often ask him about his choices of crops.
“I always get the question: Why don’t you farm crops that are more water-efficient?” he said. “We spend a tremendous amount of money on water. And if I could make money farming low-water use crops, I would do that. There’s already a big carrot there for us to do that.”
One example is barley, which he said is one of the lowest water-use crops that can be grown in the area.
“But if we farm barley, we lose a tremendous amount of money,” Thelander said. “We’re always looking for lower water-use crops that we can make a profit on.”
How Pinal got Colorado River water
In the 1930s, growers in Pinal County dug wells and began irrigating farms with groundwater. The farms expanded through the 1950s and kept relying on wells.
The agriculture investors in the ’50s and ’60s included the actor John Wayne, who bought land to grow cotton and raise cattle, and also invested in building a feedlot.
When construction began on the CAP Canal in 1973, the project promised to help sustain the farms in central Arizona while allowing them to draw less from the aquifers.
After decades of heavy pumping in Pinal County, the water tables had fallen dramatically. The ground sank in places as the aquifers were depleted. The overpumping and the sinking ground left lasting symptoms: In several areas around the region, gaping fissures opened up in the earth.
In 1985, construction began on a canal system that would run from the main CAP canal to the fields in Pinal’s Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District. The district paid for the nearly $100 million canal system, issuing bonds and financing 80 percent of the cost with zero-interest loans from the federal government.
The first water deliveries flowed to farms in 1987, and the system was finished in 1989. It included the 56-mile Santa Rosa Canal, as well as the 17-mile East Main Canal and 130 miles of lateral canals. Through these arteries, the farms gained access to Colorado River water.
Brian Betcher helped design the project while working for a consulting firm in the early 1980s, and in 1988 he joined the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District as its engineer.
Under Arizona’s groundwater law, the farmlands were within the Pinal “active management area” and the regulatory system required that the irrigated areas not expand with the arrival of imported water.
“For every acre-foot of Colorado River water that was received, we had to reduce groundwater pumping by the same amount,” said Betcher, who is now the district’s general manager.
In 1989, the district assumed control of all the farms’ wells, acquiring them from the landowners with 40-year leases. The district has since delivered growers a mix of groundwater and Colorado River water.
While one of the reasons for building the CAP Canal was to help wean agriculture from groundwater, it was also to supply cities. And the Pinal farmers knew they were at the bottom of the list in the priority system.
As they began to irrigate with Colorado River water, Betcher said, the farmers were aware that the suburbs would continue to expand into farming areas and would have the highest priority for water.
“It was well-known that there would be a decreasing supply over time,” Betcher said. “It was pretty well understood that over time, the higher priority users, which were cities and industry, would grow into their allocations. And that would leave less water for agriculture.”
The irrigation districts’ initial contracts stipulated deliveries of Colorado River water through 2042. The way the system worked throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Orme said, the districts were able to use the available water that remained after cities and Native American tribes had taken their allotments.
The contracts didn’t list specific quantities of water but rather percentages dividing what was left among the irrigation districts. So, exactly how much water would be available for agriculture in any year was never certain.
In the early 2000s, efforts to settle several water disputes were underway in Arizona. Among those issues: Leaders of the Gila River Indian Community were seeking to settle their longstanding water-rights claims; Arizona officials were in a dispute with the federal government over the repayment costs for the construction of the CAP canal; and the Pinal irrigation districts were in a disagreement with CAP officials over how much they were being charged for water.
When the parties reached the landmark 2004 settlement, the farmers agreed to take a step down in the water priority system. Some of the water that they had been using went to tribes and cities. In exchange, the farmers would get water for about a third of the price that CAP had proposed to charge.
At the time, Lake Mead was nearly full and the farmers felt confident they’d have an assured supply of water until 2030. Their group of water users, who took water from what was called the Agricultural Pool, faced a schedule of decreasing water deliveries between 2017 and 2030.
But the growers and their irrigation districts saw the deal as beneficial because, as Orme put it, “an affordable 25-year water supply is better than a 40-year unaffordable water supply.”
As Colorado River water has continued to flow to farms, it has allowed groundwater levels to stabilize and recover somewhat. In some areas, Betcher said, the water table has risen significantly.
Over the years, the city of Maricopa has grown and replaced some of the farmland in Pinal. Around Casa Grande, new subdivisions have also sprung up.
Even after losing some farmlands to development, the Maricopa-Stanfield district still has about 60,000 irrigated acres.
This year, the district plans to deliver 43 percent of its water from the CAP canal and get the remaining 57 percent from groundwater pumping. Even before the drought deal, the area has been gradually relying more on wells. Betcher said the district has a program to rehabilitate old wells and has added to its groundwater pumping capacity during the past decade.
Of the $50 million sought by irrigation districts in central Arizona, about $15 million would go to Betcher’s district. The money will go toward drilling new wells and building pipelines to carry the groundwater to the canal system.
Betcher said wells in the district are pumping water from 500-600 feet underground.
When the new wells go online, they will likely pump down the water table again. Just how quickly the aquifer may decline isn’t clear. Together with another irrigation district, Maricopa-Stanfield is paying a consultant to prepare a study evaluating the groundwater supply…
The farmers still could return to their current schedule of water deliveries, Orme said, under a scenario in which heavy snow and rain ends the 19-year drought and sends Lake Mead rebounding.
But even with the snowpack in the river’s upper basin about average so far this winter, a shortage still looks likely. And federal water managers have been pressing for the states to finish the Drought Contingency Plan. It’s unclear whether that will happen before a March 4 deadline set by the federal Bureau of Reclamation.
Colorado will launch a far-reaching $20 million conservation planning effort this spring designed to ensure the state can reduce water use enough to stave off a crisis in the drought-choked Colorado River Basin.
The money, likely to be spent over a period of two to three years, will pay for a major public, consensus-based initiative to determine how to equitably set aside enough water to protect Colorado’s share of the river and how to pay farmers and potentially cities to reduce their use.
The river is critical to Colorado’s water supply, with roughly half of the supplies for the Denver metro area coming from its annual flows and even larger amounts fueling the state’s farms.
The initiative will include at least seven technical and public work groups examining the legal, economic, and environmental issues inherent in such a demand management program, according to Brent Newman, head of the Interstate and Federal water section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). Demand management is the term water officials use to describe water conservation. It will also include a feasibility study and several pilot programs.
State staffers expect the work to take more than a year to complete as they iron out whether and where to cut back use, how to measure those reductions, and how to protect the environment, local economies, and the legal rights of water users while the program is in effect.
“We’re going to do this one bite at a time,” Newman said. “It’s not something that can be slammed together.”
Water users on both the West Slope and Front Range are gearing up for the project, hopeful that a proactive conservation program will provide a sort of insurance policy should a full-blown crisis erupt on the river.
“We’re pretty anxious,” said Brad Wind, general manager of the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which manages the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. The project diverts Colorado River water from the West Slope for farmers and cities on the Northern Front Range. “We realize it’s going to take some time, but we would feel better having a little insurance than having nothing and having everything implode.”
Seven states comprise the Colorado River Basin, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming forming the Upper Basin and Arizona, Nevada and California making up the Lower Basin.
Last October, after nearly four years of work, the seven states agreed to a broad, preliminary set of drought guidelines, known as the DCP, or drought contingency plan, that begin to spell out how cutbacks will occur on the river.
Under those agreements, Colorado and its Upper Basin neighbors could set aside up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in a special drought pool in Lake Powell. That’s enough water to serve roughly 1 million homes for a year.
In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will be allowed to release up to 1 million acre-feet of water from three Upper Basin state reservoirs that, together with Powell, are part of the Colorado River Storage Project, to boost storage in Lake Powell if it reaches critical lows. Two of those are located at least partially in Colorado.
How much time Colorado and the other states have to refine these drought plans and put them into action isn’t clear yet.
On Feb. 1, after California and Arizona failed to hit a federal deadline for finishing their drought plans, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said it was moving forward to impose its own water-saving plan on the region.
Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said she would halt that federal initiative only if Arizona and California complete their work by March 4. If that deadline isn’t met, the states may have to incorporate the federal government’s directives into their own work.
Equally concerning is the weather.
The drought has pushed Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two primary storage buckets, to critical lows. If the region endures another year as desperately dry as 2018, Lake Powell’s ability to produce hydropower, the major source of revenue for complying with the Endangered Species Act, could be in jeopardy. If utilities don’t have the money to comply with the ESA, the federal government can shut down their water diversions, as it has done in the past in places such as the Klamath Basin in Oregon in 2001.
Even though early snows have helped boost mountain snowpacks across the region, they aren’t likely to be deep enough to pull the region back from the brink of a major water crisis. Inflows into Lake Powell this year, for instance, are projected to be just 64 percent of average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, well below the super-sized numbers needed for it to begin to refill.
At that rate, by August of this year, Powell will be shockingly close — within about 81 feet — of hitting its minimum power pool, a level it flirted with in 2012 and 2013, according to Heather Patno, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Salt Lake City.
In the Lower Basin, Lake Mead is already so low that Arizona is facing mandatory water cutbacks this year.
“We need as much time and space to craft and sharpen these tools as we can get,” said James Eklund, Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Knock on wood we’ll get a reprieve from the hydrology for a while.”
If not, Newman said that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation may release water from the Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado to boost levels in Powell, giving Colorado and other states more time to figure out how to execute these unprecedented conservation measures.
Water users across the state are closely watching this new water-saving initiative, with farm interests on the West Slope and out on the Eastern Plains intent on ensuring that any water cutbacks that may occur are done only on a paid, voluntary basis and that all water users shoulder the reductions equally.
At the same time large urban water users, most of whom have less favorable water rights than the state’s farmers do, want to ensure their municipal supplies aren’t radically reduced.
“We are at a point where the Upper Basin does have some time to get this demand management right,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District. Looking for ways to reduce water use, he said at a meeting of the Colorado Water Congress earlier this month, “is an incredibly threatening concept to West Slope water users. But the River District is committed to proactively engaging and working with the CWCB to figure out how we can stand a program up that truly protects all of us.”
A clearer outline of the state’s approach to developing the demand management initiative will be presented at a meeting of the CWCB March 20-21. Depending on the outcome of that meeting, the various task forces could begin work in April or May, Newman said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
At the invitation of Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress, I presented the keynote address at its annual meeting Jan. 31. My presentation was on water as a business risk and opportunity, and the role of innovation — technology and partnerships, among other things — in solving water challenges.
One of the water challenges discussed at the gathering is close to the organization’s Denver home: the Colorado River Basin. The timing of the Colorado Water Congress (CWC) meeting and my participation in the annual meeting was timely, as the Colorado River Basin states had until the end of the day to agree to finalize the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP).
The CWC is an important organization that brings together stakeholders that are engaged in managing water in Colorado. This includes state government, water utilities, NGOs and other interested parties such as the private sector. Two of the more prominent discussions at the CWC meeting were the DCP negotiations and how to fund the implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan. Central to solving both challenges is engaging the private sector. However, there was little discussion, if any, about the private sector’s critical interest in finalizing the DCP and ensuring the implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan is funded.
This essay centers on thoughts about how progress has unfolded to date and the role of the business sector in the Colorado River Basin DCP. (I will focus on funding the implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan in another article.)
The economic value of the Colorado River Basin is significant. It represents about $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity, the equivalent of about 1/12th of the total U.S. GDP, or roughly 16 million jobs. It is estimated that if 10 percent of the river’s water were unavailable, there would be a loss of $143 billion in economic activity and 1.6 million jobs in just one year.
The Colorado River Basin has two main reservoirs, Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border and Lake Powell upstream. The combined storage of these reservoirs is at the lowest level since the early 1960s. As a result, if the water level in Lake Mead falls to an elevation of 1,075 feet, water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada would be curtailed. This is a real possibility next year.
The goal of the DCP is to spread the curtailments more widely and eventually include California. Essentially, the plan advocates for keeping more water in Lake Mead to keep it from falling drastically and avoiding severe curtailments of water delivery to the Lower Basin states.
The state of play as of Jan. 31 among the seven Colorado Basin States was less than ideal, in my opinion. (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico have been designated as Upper Basin states, while Arizona, California and Nevada are Lower Basin states.)
Accordingly, on Feb. 1, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation (the bureau has broad authority to manage water supplies in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin) stated that since two states — California and Arizona — missed the deadline to reach consensus, the federal government could intervene and decide the rules.
The agency’s commissioner, Brenda Burman, said she prefers that the seven states that rely on the river reach a consensus for how to protect the basin. But she said, “We are close, and I applaud those who have worked to get us close but only done will protect this basin,” she told reporters. “Time to get the job done.” So, as of this writing, the future is still uncertain.
Arizona lawmakers did pass legislation supporting the drought plan, and Gov. Doug Ducey signed it. Arizona was the only state that required lawmakers to review the plan. Now, water users must sign 15 agreements that address water storage, conservation and other details.
James Eklund, Colorado’s representative on interstate river negotiations, said he wasn’t surprised or discouraged by Burman’s position. “You’ve got to stick with deadlines or sometimes people won’t take you seriously. She wasn’t draconian about it,” Eklund said.
While there has been much discussion of the positions of the various state and federal agencies on the DCP, the substantial interest and influence of the private sector only seems to be marshaled in times of crisis.
The Arizona business community, for example, seemed to weigh in on the DCP discussion only at the proverbial 11th hour. But the legislation it supported passed overwhelmingly.
Regardless, it is long overdue for the private sector’s strong voice on how to implement long-term solutions to manage the Colorado River Basin to be heard. A positive development: State Colorado River principals, such as Colorado’s Eklund, are asking the business community to weigh in, by engaging business groups such as the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
We are not experiencing a “drought” — in my view, this situation is a result of overallocation of the Colorado River Basin water coupled with the impacts of climate change.
It’s time for businesses to speak up and for them to ally with organizations such as the CWC, The Nature Conservancy, Business for Water Stewardship and other organizations to ensure there is sustainable water for economic development, business growth, ecosystem health and social well-being.