#ColoradoRiver: #MX and #US close to signing Minute 323 #COriver

Colorado River Basin, USBR May 2015

From The Palm Springs Desert Sun (Ian James):

Mexican and American officials are finalizing a water-sharing deal for the Colorado River, and a newly released summary of the accord’s key points shows negotiators have agreed on a cooperative approach geared toward boosting reservoir levels and trying to stave off a severe shortage.

The document, which federal officials have circulated among water agencies, outlines a series of joint measures that build on the current 5-year agreement, which expires at the end of this year.

The new accord – titled Minute No. 323 to the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty – is expected to be signed sometime this fall, perhaps as early as September, and would remain in effect through 2026.

It would extend provisions in the current agreement, known as Minute 319, that specify reductions in water deliveries during a shortage, as well as increases in water deliveries during wet periods. The agreement also provides for Mexico to continue storing water in Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, helping to boost the reservoir’s levels, which in the past few years have dropped to historic lows.

The accord would also establish a “Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan,” in which Mexico would join U.S. states in temporarily taking less water out of Lake Mead to reduce the risks of the reservoir reaching critical levels.

Those commitments by Mexico would only take effect if California, Arizona and Nevada finish their own Drought Contingency Plan, under which the states would forgo larger amounts of water than they’ve previously agreed to as the reservoir’s level declines.

“The Mexicans have demonstrated their interest in pursuing this, and it’s a clear benefit to the river to have more storage in Lake Mead,” said Bart Fisher, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California. He said the agreement would benefit water suppliers in California, Arizona and Nevada by giving them “certainty in case of shortage that Mexico will also share in the shortage.”

“All of those things put together, it’s a big win-win for both countries,” Fisher said…

Talks on the U.S.-Mexico agreement began during President Barack Obama’s administration and have continued with negotiating sessions held on both sides of the border by the International Boundary and Water Commission, which includes representatives of both governments. Representatives of U.S. states have also participated in the talks.

Even as political tensions have grown over Trump’s immigration policies and his vows to have Mexico foot the bill for a border wall, the Colorado River negotiations seem to have moved ahead relatively smoothly – pressed on by the approaching expiration of Minute 319.

“We largely concluded the framework for these negotiations a year ago,” Fisher said, “and the only fine-tuning has been the drought contingency portion, and cleaning up a little bit of inconsistent language.”

The agreement itself has not yet been publicly released. The summary provided by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was presented Wednesday at a board meeting of the Imperial Irrigation District, which holds the biggest single entitlement to water from the river.

In a memo, IID officials said in order to implement the U.S. commitments under the deal, several agreements must first be completed between the states, water agencies and the Interior Department.

Those agreements include a U.S.-funded program to invest $31.5 million in water conservation projects in Mexico, including infrastructure upgrades such as concrete lining for leaky canals and other improvements to reduce water losses from distribution systems.

The federal government will provide $16.5 million, while the remaining $15 million will come from four water agencies, including IID, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.

Each of the water agencies will contribute a fourth of the funding. In return, they will receive a portion of the water freed up through conservation in Mexico.

The conservation projects are intended to generate a total of 229,000 acre-feet of water – enough to cover an area two-thirds the size of Los Angeles with a foot of water. Of that, 50,000 acre-feet will be used to give a boost to the Colorado River system and 70,000 acre-feet will be used to “satisfy the U.S. commitment to provide water for the environment.”

The accord lays out a cooperative strategy for Mexico and the U.S. states to jointly put the brakes on water use to reduce the risks of a crash in the system if the drought persists.

As of this week, Lake Mead stands at just 38 percent full, with its level at an elevation of nearly 1,080 feet, not far above the initial shortage threshold of 1,075 feet…

In April, the Bureau of Reclamation estimated the odds of Lake Mead hitting shortage levels in 2019 at 31 percent. A previous projection had put the odds at 50-50 before the winter brought a substantial snowpack, which was measured at 113 percent of average across the Colorado River basin.

The government’s summary of Minute 323 says the United States and Mexico “share a common vision on a clear need for continued and additional actions to reduce the risk of reaching critical reservoir elevations at Lake Mead.”

The document details how continued declines at the reservoir would trigger a rising scale of cutbacks in water deliveries, with Mexico contributing alongside the states – as long as the states have a similar plan in place.

By developing this type of plan to reduce water use effectively, the aim is to reduce risks of severe shortages threatening water deliveries and the generation of hydroelectricity, said Jennifer Pitt, who leads the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River project.

“It’s avoiding the shocks of sudden disruptions in water supply that is most important,” Pitt said. “But with these agreements, where the states and countries … commit together to a planned decrease in water use, I think the prospects for sustainable management increase greatly, and likely without severe economic impacts.”

The U.S.-Mexico deal includes a list of other measures, including establishing several joint working groups to focus on issues such managing the river’s salinity and optimizing flows to benefit the environment.

One of the groups, according to the government’s outline, will focus on studying the potential for desalinating seawater from the Sea of Cortez…

Under Minute 319, which was signed in 2012, the U.S. and Mexico agreed to an experiment: a one-time release of water into the parched delta that would resemble a natural flood.

That “pulse flow,” which gushed into the delta for eight weeks in 2014, temporarily reconnected the river with the Gulf of California, bringing a bloom of cottonwoods and willows along its path and attracting birds.

In Minute 323, there is no mention of plans for another “pulse flow.” This time, the focus is instead on securing a more steady flow of water to sustain wetlands south of the border. Goals include expanding restored habitat areas from about 1,000 acres to 4,300 acres.

Under the agreement, Mexico, the U.S., and nongovernmental organizations will team up to secure water for environmental purposes, plus $18 million for habitat restoration and monitoring.

“It seems like everybody’s in agreement on how to address these challenging issues,” said Tina Shields, IID’s water manager, who presented an overview of Minute 323 to the district’s board.

#ColoradoRiver: Time running out for #MX and #US to work out Minute 32x

Colorado River Basin, USBR May 2015

From WhoWhatWhy.org:

Under a 1944 treaty, the US shares water rights to three rivers that cross the US-Mexico border — the Tijuana and Colorado Rivers, and the Rio Grande. Historically, water-sharing on these rivers involves complex, often difficult, discussions. Today, drought conditions in the American West and growing political tensions with Mexico give those talks a new sense of urgency — and uncertainty.

Among the many diplomatic challenges the United States faces with its southern neighbor are international water rights on the Colorado River — a river system in the midst of a lengthy, 16-year drought. The 1944 treaty guarantees Mexico 1.5 million square acres of water from the Colorado River annually. However, it is vague on how that water is to be shared during years when the river comes up short. Minute 319, a 2012 amendment to the treaty, established, among important water conservation policies, a drought contingency plan. That five-year pilot program is set to expire at the end of this year.

Despite the Obama administration’s efforts to get a new water-sharing deal, known as Minute 32x, signed before January’s inauguration, it remains stalled. Anne Castle, former Assistant Secretary for Water and Science in the Department of the Interior, told WhoWhatWhy that this issue needs immediate action.

Water levels in the Colorado River have been in steady decline for nearly two decades. Ongoing drought conditions place considerable stress on the system and the reservoirs it serves throughout the Colorado River Basin. Among them, Lake Mead — America’s largest reservoir — today sits at historically low levels; about 41% capacity. According to Castle, there is a “substantial probability” — approximately a one in three chance — that levels at Mead will fall below the established “drought trigger point” — 1,075 feet — requiring the Secretary of the Interior to declare a water shortage. “This river,” says Castle, “is in crisis.”

Commonly called “America’s Nile,” the Colorado River is the most heavily litigated and managed river in the United States. On its 1,045 mile journey south from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado to the Gulf of California in Mexico, coursing through seven US and two Mexican states, the Colorado River serves 40 million people, supports major metropolises like San Diego, Las Vegas and Phoenix, and provides 75% of the water used in local agricultural districts.

What is left of the river by the time it reaches Morelos Dam on the US-Mexico border, the last dam in the system, is diverted to irrigate fields in the Mexican state of Mexicali. A 2015 New Yorker article compared the carefully controlled system, of which every drop is claimed, to a “fourteen-hundred-mile-long canal.” That major waterway, say experts, is currently over-allocated and slowly diminishing.

The Colorado River, which cuts through nine national parks including the Grand Canyon, is integral to what John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Programs, calls the southwestern identity. He points out that border communities, such as San Luis Rio Colorado, have seen little of their namesake’s waters for nearly half a century.

“Imagine,” he told WhoWhatWhy, “living by a river taken away from you.” Decades of overuse, he said, turned the Colorado River Delta — once described by naturalists as a lush wetland — into the “dry channel” we find today.

Fleck cites a recent study by Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck that fingered climate change “as one of the main causes” of the Colorado River’s diminished flow. While the greater River system will not dry up, like its delta, anytime soon, it will, continue to experience critical decreases in water flow.

In March of 2014, a landmark environmental project laid the groundwork for restoring life to the Colorado’s barren delta. As part of a technique designed to mimic seasonal snowmelt, known as “pulse flow,” the gates of Morelos Dam were opened. Eight weeks of increased flows followed. The people of San Luis Rio Colorado celebrated the temporary return of their town’s namesake with live music and water games. Secretary Castle remembers the response as “amazingly affecting.”

The project was made possible in the midst of a drought by the cooperative policies outlined in Minute 319. The amendment not only works to promote the ecological health of the Colorado River Delta, it also contains a plan for shortage sharing, commits funds to improve water infrastructure and allows Mexico to store its allotted water in Lake Mead.

The greatest asset the US has for managing the effects of climate change on the River, according to Thomas Buschatzke, Arizona’s Director of Water Resources, is its relationship with Mexico.

“I can’t say enough how important it is to have Mexico as a partner,” he told WhoWhatWhy. “The more partners you have the more opportunities you have to develop effective tools.”

Allowing Mexico to store its water in Lake Mead helps keep water levels high enough to offset the drought trigger point. Additionally, in the event of a drought, both Mexico and the US must take the same proportion of shortages — meaning the burden of shortages is decreased by the number of stakeholders shouldering it. The agreement has thus far effectively staved off cutbacks and is enormously popular among Basin states. Minute 319, along with other water agreements signed over the past 10 years, says Buschatzke, represent a “relatively new relationship” with Mexico — one defined by a high degree of cross-border cooperation.

Current diplomatic policy and recent political rhetoric under the Trump administration, however, has already strained US-Mexico relations. The water-sharing agreement should be allowed to stand on its own, says Secretary Castle, but she fears it has the potential to become a “negotiating point” amidst “unrelated disputes” over issues such as NAFTA, the wall, and immigration.

Foreign Affairs Officer Sally Spener at the International Boundary and Water Commission, which oversees negotiations concerning the 1944 treaty, told WhoWhatWhy her agency’s work “seeks to find technical rather than political solutions,” to water disputes between the US and Mexico. Keeping politics out of a River that is a “vital” municipal and industrial resource, “affecting tens of millions of people in both countries,” is important to maintaining a constructive relationship.

Although, according to Fleck, there should be no partisan frame to this issue, this could be “one of a number of examples throughout history…where an agreement over a river was influenced by a broader relationship between two countries.” While water infrastructure development during the Second World War made cooperation between Mexico and the US mutually beneficial under the 1944 treaty, world events in 2017 may prove to negatively influence cooperative amendments to that original pact.

Fleck says he, and other water experts, were surprised by the outcome of the 2016 election and had expected to work with an administration that was “more sympathetic” to the water-sharing deal signed under Obama’s presidency. It’s furthermore possible, adds Secretary Castle, spending could be tight in terms of federal dollars going toward water conservation projects.

With a number of important deadlines coming up, Castle and a team of researchers published the Colorado River Future Project last fall. The study interviewed more than 65 Colorado River management experts on the present crisis and outlined suggestions for immediate policy action. That research was then disseminated to the Trump transition team in an effort to “accelerate the learning curve” that any turnover in the White House typically necessitates. The Trump administration, says Castle, is “fully cognizant of the importance and urgency” of the deal with Mexico.

Castle says she’s confident that Interior Secretary Zinke “is a thoughtful, considered person who will be listening hard to his advisors and the various stakeholders in this potential agreement.”

But vacancies in key Interior leadership positions continue to stall Minute 32x’s progress. “The really important positions at Interior are the Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, and the Commissioner of Reclamation, and those jobs haven’t been filled yet,” says Fleck.

Meanwhile, new appointments in Mexico — including Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and Mexican ambassador to the US Gerónimo Gutiérrez — also need to be brought up to speed on pending negotiations.

In the event that Minute 32x does not pass by December 31, 2017, Lower Colorado Regional Director, Jennifer McCloskey said, “Our expectation is to continue to work.” Neither McCloskey or Buschatzke wanted to speculate on the potential consequences of unsuccessful water talks.

Castle, however, says Mexico is unlikely to go along with drought reductions if there is no deal in place that enforces a drought contingency plan. More crucially, she says, we may “go back to a situation where we don’t know what the treaty means anymore.”

For his part, Buschatzke is “cautiously optimistic” Minute 32x will pass. During negotiations his department often calls upon this axiom: “No one state, no one entity, no one water user.”

@AmericanRivers: Lower #ColoradoRiver most endangered #COriver

Las Vegas circa 1915

From The Las Vegas Review-Journal (Brooke Wanser):

The nonprofit American Rivers had placed the entire Colorado River and upper river atop its list of “most-endangered rivers” in previous years. But this is the first time the lower Colorado, which supplies Las Vegas with 90 percent of its water via Lake Mead, has been designated as in danger.

“The main criteria we use is whether there’s a key decision point in the year,” said Amy Kober, a spokeswoman for the group. In the case of the lower Colorado, much of the impact could come from President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which would cut funds to the Department of Agriculture’s regional conservation partnership program and the Department of the Interior’s WaterSmart program, she said.

Trump also has issued an executive order that would eliminate a 2015 water rule issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which asserted federal power over small waterways like wetlands and streams for the purposes of controlling pollution under the Clean Water Act. The order had no immediate impact but could eventually lead to the rule’s repeal.

But Patricia Mulroy, who has worked within the international water community for 25 years, expressed frustration that the river is being used as “political arrow” to score public relations points.

“There was obviously a lot of emotion in this,” Mulroy, former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said of the river’s appearance atop the list. “It has now created an atmosphere where it will be harder, not easier, to forge the agreements that need to be forged this year on the river.”

Mulroy was referring to a 2012 agreement on the Colorado River between the U.S. and Mexico set to expire at year’s end and continuing negotiations on a drought contingency plan among Nevada, California and Arizona to keep Lake Mead from shrinking enough to trigger a first federal shortage declaration. That would force Nevada, which receives most of its water from the Colorado, and especially Arizona to slash use of river water.

“Those agreements have to be entered into,” Mulroy said.

Despite the political rhetoric, Bronson Mack, a Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman, said the agency expects the agreements will get done.
“Water cuts across party lines,” Mack said.

Boring machine for Las Vegas lower Lake Mead intake.

Mack said even if water levels do reach shortage, Nevada residents won’t go without water.

“Should Lake Mead get to that severe of an elevation, Nevada has taken steps to ensure that we would be able to access that supply,” he said.

From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

American Rivers’ annual report, published since 1984, ranks the 10 most threatened rivers nationwide. The group said it tries to spotlight rivers that are subject to influential policy decisions, not necessarily the most polluted.

This year, it chose the lower portion of the Colorado River for greatest attention based on ongoing concerns about dwindling flows due to increasing water consumption and adverse impacts from global warming.

It’s unclear what effect, if any, the spotlighting will have. For decades, all manner of people — federal and state officials, scientists, environmentalists, recreational organizations — have sounded the alarm about drought and excess user demand causing the Colorado’s water levels to keep dropping. Yet relatively little has been done to change those dynamics.

From The Arizona Republic (Brandon Loomis):

American Rivers focused its 2017 report on the part of the river that flows from Glen Canyon Dam and past Arizona, Nevada and California because federal support for water conservation is at a crossroads. The states are counting on federal leadership and financial support for conservation at a time when the Trump administration proposes slashing the Interior Department’s budget up to 15 percent, said Matt Rice, the group’s Colorado River program director.

“There’s a real concern that the new administration has taken their eye off the ball on Colorado River issues,” Rice said.

Some water managers aren’t feeling quite the pressure they once did to reach a shortage-prevention deal thanks to a snowy winter in the Rocky Mountains that has reduced the urgency. But Arizona Department of Water Resources officials say it remains a priority for them because relying on favorable weather isn’t a plan.

The department had sought big cutbacks in consumption this year to keep water levels higher at Lake Mead through 2020. Now, spokeswoman Michelle Moreno said, the wet winter appears likely to have managed that on its own — for now.

The evolving drought plan “must adapt to the new conditions,” Moreno said, perhaps with a goal of forestalling mandatory reductions for even more years. The department is currently reviewing “an appropriate new target date and potential volume of water to get to that end.”

The department will not seek authorization for a drought plan from the Arizona Legislature this year, Moreno said. It previously had planned to do so, but, Moreno said, Central Arizona Project officials determined the state’s conservation proposal was no longer viable. The water delivery proposal has raised concerns about losing out on possible releases from Glen Canyon Dam upstream if the lower-basin states keep too much water in Lake Mead.

The federal government releases extra water through Glen Canyon Dam during wet years like this one to equalize the holdings in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The higher Lake Mead is at the start, the less extra water it gets from Lake Powell that year. The result could be that conserving water in Lake Mead without regard to the year’s weather could actually result in less water filling the reservoir to last through future dry years, CAP Colorado River Programs Manager Chuck Cullom said.

CAP objected to a plan that would designate specific conservation volumes every year instead of parceling the savings out over drier years. But the agency still supports a state effort to save water, Cullom said…

Drew Beckwith, a water policy expert with Western Resource Advocates, said he remains hopeful that Arizona can still reach agreement among various water users this year, even if it can’t get immediate legislative approval. Putting off conservation makes little sense on a river system that is routinely overextended, he said.

“Fundamentally, Arizona is still on the hook first for the largest amount of water (losses) if there’s a shortage in Lake Mead,” Beckwith said…

One alternative to a drought plan is to wait and hope for more wet winters to keep resetting the clock and buoying Lake Mead above elevation 1,075 feet — the level at which a 2007 federal-state agreement starts curtailing Arizona’s water without any compensation.

That’s a plan that American Rivers considers no plan at all. A big snow year in 2011 broke a long string of dry years and raised hopes throughout the basin, Rice noted, but ultimately proved just a blip on the drought chart.

The three lower-river states still consume more than the river can give long-term regardless of any one winter, he said.

Conservation funding isn’t the only requirement for sustainability, Rice said. The Southwest also needs federal leadership to help strike new deals like the one that the last administration made allowing Mexico to store water in Lake Mead and help prevent an earlier shortage that could have affected Arizona, he said.

The Hispanic Access Foundation joined American Rivers in calling on state and federal leaders to keep water in the river and reservoir. Foundation president Maite Arce said the group held a gathering at the Grand Canyon and learned that Latino leaders from Yuma and San Luis feared the loss of river water threatened cultural and economic values, from riverside baptisms to farm jobs.

As a result, the non-profit produced a film, “Milk and Honey,” documenting generations of river users from the area. Its release online coincided with the American Rivers report.

From National Geographic (Alexandra E. Petri):

The Lower Colorado River, which provides drinking water for more than 30 million Americans—including those in major cities like L.A., Las Vegas, and Phoenix—tops the list as the most endangered river this year. Second most endangered is the Bear River in California.

Similar to 2016’s list of the most endangered rivers, water scarcity, rising demand, and climate change put the Lower Colorado and Bear River at risk, says Amy Souers Kober, national communications director for American Rivers.

“The takeaway is that we can’t dam our way out of these problems,” Kober says. “On all of these rivers, we need 21st century water management solutions. We need political support and funding for water conservation.”

The Lower Colorado is challenged with water demands that outstrip supply and effects from climate change, the report says. Trump’s proposed cuts to the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture put the river at risk, the group argues. The reduced funding, if it passes Congress, could eventually lead to cutbacks on water deliveries to Arizona, California, and Nevada in the years ahead.

Additionally, the Lower Colorado is of particular importance to Latino communities, one-third of which live in the Colorado River Basin.

“From serving as the backbone for the agricultural industry to providing a cultural focal point for faith communities, the Lower Colorado River is essential to the livelihood of the Southwest,” said Maite Arce, president and CEO of Hispanic Access Foundation, in a press statement.

From The Walton Family Foundation (Ted Kowalski):

Two years ago, when the American West was reaching peak drought, The New Yorker published a lengthy story rather depressingly titled, “The Disappearing Colorado River.” The article described a parched river in crisis, its water in such high demand that in most years it runs dry before reaching the Gulf of California.

Because more water is allocated to users than the river provides reliably, “even if the drought ended tomorrow problems would remain,” the story noted.

That admonition is well worth remembering this spring, following a wet winter that produced an above-average snowpack in the Rocky Mountains. In some quarters, the prospect of a robust spring runoff is washing away persistent worries of impending water shortages.

Unfortunately the fundamental problems plaguing the Colorado persist and, if anything, require more immediate attention than ever.

The challenges are laid out in sobering detail in a new report from American Rivers that lists the Lower Colorado River – the section that runs through Arizona, Nevada and California – as the “most endangered” in the nation.

In its annual ranking of rivers in peril, the environmental group said the Lower Colorado has reached a “breaking point” that could “threaten the security of water and food supplies and a significant portion of the national economy.”

As recently as last August, the federal Bureau of Reclamation warned there was more than a 50% chance that water levels on Lake Mead – the Colorado’s measuring stick – would fall low enough to trigger a mandatory shortage declaration that would restrict water use in the lower basin.

While water levels at Lake Mead have recovered by about eight feet from the start of the year, the reservoir is still only 41% full. It’s expected Lake Mead’s level will begin falling again later this year as water is delivered to lower basin states and Mexico.

Adding to the challenges, the report from American Rivers warns that possible funding cuts to important federal programs – including the Bureau of Reclamation’s Water Smart Program and the System Conservation Pilot Program, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program – risks reversing the progress made in recent years to reduce water consumption in the Lower Colorado basin.

Thankfully, there is a path forward that can reduce the threats of a shortage on the Colorado and assure stability and water security for the region’s businesses, agricultural economy and environment.

The most immediate priority for the federal government and the lower basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada – should be the completion of a Drought Contingency Plan to help stabilize water supplies in the Lower Colorado. If successfully negotiated, the states could agree to voluntary reductions of water deliveries if Lake Mead reaches certain critical elevations. This would benefit all of the water users in the Lower Basin because it would assure that there is a plan in place to stabilize Lake Mead if difficult hydrology continues to persist.

“One of the points we want to get across is that this is exactly the right time to push this drought contingency plan across the finish line, because we have a little bit of space with the hydrology this year basin wide,” says Matt Rice, Colorado Basin director for American Rivers.

“The Lower Colorado basin is kind of teetering on the edge. The heavy snowpack might stave off a shortage declaration for a year or two. But one good winter does not stabilize a system.”

In addition to supporting a drought contingency plan, the federal government should also prioritize the renewal of a U.S.-Mexico agreement, which was negotiated in 2012 and is set to expire this December. Under the agreement, both countries share water shortages and surpluses. They work together to conserve water, increase agricultural and municipal water efficiency and improve water management for a variety of purposes including benefiting the environment.

This binational agreement is a vital tool for managing water supply, with Mexico agreeing to receive less water from the Colorado in dry years while being allowed to store some of its water in U.S. reservoirs. No one should underestimate what’s at stake if new water-sharing drought contingency plans are not reached, or shortages are declared.

The Colorado River is indispensable to the prosperity of the Southwest. It provides drinking water to almost 40 million people in several of the country’s fastest-growing cities. It irrigates more than 5 million acres of farmland that grow $600 million worth of crops each year – including about 90% of the winter vegetables grown in the nation.

For native American tribes, it holds sacred and spiritual value. For millions of others, its landscapes inspire reverence.

The river’s problems are significant and can, at times, seem overwhelming. But over the past two decades, by the collective will and cooperation among water users, we’ve started to find ways to address them. Now is not the time to hit the pause button.

Administration, Western storms cast uncertainty on #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Lake Mead from Hoover Dam December 13, 2016.

From The Las Vegas Sun:

The situation last summer was as clear to accept as it was sobering. Prolonged drought had strained an already overallocated Colorado River, and nowhere was this more visible than at the reservoirs along the river. Behind the Hoover Dam, surface levels at Lake Mead, from which Las Vegas draws most of its water, dropped to a low not seen since the lake was filled in 1935. Water managers said states likely would face cuts to their supplies.

As this threat swelled last year, the states that pull municipal and agricultural water from the lake — Arizona, California and Nevada — started negotiating a Drought Contingency Plan. Under the agreement, which was supported by the Obama administration, the states would voluntarily reduce Lake Mead intake during times of drought to prevent more severe mandatory cuts. The plan would provide the states, especially Arizona, with more flexibility to plan for less water.

At the same time last year, the Obama administration and state water managers were pushing for an accord with Mexico that would make it easier to share water during shortages. A draft agreement was finalized and negotiators rushed to complete it before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who had pledged to alter the U.S.-Mexico relationship by renegotiating NAFTA and building a wall between the two nations.

Months later, neither agreement has been completed, although state water managers remain confident they will proceed, citing recent progress and stressing the need for more tools to manage a waterway that supports 40 million people across the Southwest and Mexico. Some are concerned about how quickly the deals will progress, citing shifts in hydrology and the political climate.

The binational talks

In early March, Western water officials wrote a letter to Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, pressing the Trump administration to provide leadership in sealing the two deals.

“The Basin states urge you to support the completion and execution of (the U.S.-Mexico deal),” wrote negotiators for Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

The Trump administration has made no official statements on the Mexico agreement. It is still staffing out the Bureau of Reclamation, the Interior Department agency that manages the river. But since sending the letter March 8, state-level negotiators have received some assurances that Mexico appears willing to agree to the accord, as it was finalized toward the end of 2016.

“We’re still not 100 percent sure where everyone in the Trump administration is on this,” said Tom Buschatzke, who directs the Arizona Department of Water Resources and signed the letter to Secretary Zinke. “But the staff-level people who worked on this with us are still there.”

Yet increasingly antagonistic U.S.-Mexico foreign policy concerns some observers of the Colorado River, including water users, environmentalists and conservationists.

In a report last month, the Congressional Research Service wrote that any new deals “are likely to be influenced by the general character of the relationship between the two countries in 2017.”

[…]

Mexico splits Colorado River water with Western U.S. states under a 1944 treaty. The deal under negotiation, known as Minute 32x, amends the treaty with a pathway for conservation and water-sharing during shortages. It would replace a similar agreement that expires this year.

Under the accord, Mexico would bank water in Lake Mead, helping stave off shortages by keeping elevations high. In return, it would receive U.S. funding for conservation projects…

Mumme said the Trump administration would be foolish to turn its back on a deal that could avoid a future conflict between the two countries over water shortages. “Mexico has a treaty right,” he said. “This is an area where the Trump administration has no room for maneuver if it’s uncooperative. There is every incentive to want to consolidate the diplomatic gains.”

An Interior Department spokesman said in a statement that it is “hopeful that a new agreement can be reached this year.”

The domestic agreement

Two days before Trump’s inauguration, outgoing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the agency, soon to have new political appointees, to continue working with states on the Drought Contingency Plan. If successful, the agreement — between Arizona, California and Nevada — would slow Lake Mead’s dropping elevations through conservation and water storage.

During shortages, the states would voluntarily cut their lake intake. Arizona would accept the steepest cuts and California would only start cutting when the lake dropped to severely low elevations.

“We are sort of on a hiatus,” Harris said of that plan, which must gain the support of municipal and agricultural water users in all three states before it gets federal approval.

If the political climate could endanger the binational agreement, the physical climate could slow the Drought Contingency Plan. The Colorado River’s hydrology has changed in recent months; winter storms have replenished Rocky Mountain snowpack, the Colorado River’s lifeblood.

In an article for the Arizona Daily Star, officials from the Central Arizona Project, which distributes much of the state’s water, have suggested reviewing conservation efforts in light of the improved hydrology. In an interview with The Sunday, CAP Director of Water Policy Suzanne Ticknor said CAP supports the plan and that “good hydrology has given us a reprieve but not a solution.”

State officials insist on moving ahead with the plan. “One good year is not going to solve our problem,” said Buschatzke, Arizona’s top water official.

But it remains complicated because of issues internal to each state. In California, for instance, there had been some hesitance to move ahead before the state had finalized a separate proposal to mitigate dust at the shrinking Salton Sea, a problem that could be intensified by river cuts. In late March, the state unveiled its Salton Sea plan, which could alleviate some of that resistance.

State negotiators still agree on the importance of the Drought Contingency Plan and speak multiple times per month. Bronson Mack, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said Nevada still supports the drought plan, despite the winter snowstorms.

Senate confirms Zinke as Interior Secretary

Arizona Water News

The new Zinke team, including appointments to Bureau of Reclamation, will need to learn quickly about the complexities of Colorado River water law and the drought-induced woes facing Lake Mead

zinke-confirmation-photo

By a comfortable 68-31 margin, the U.S. Senate today confirmed President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke.

The former Montana member of Congress will head a department that manages around 500 million acres of land and waterways in the United States.

Zinke’s department also includes the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the agency responsible for the system of dams and reservoirs on the Colorado River, the waterway that is integral to the livelihood of 40 million U.S. citizens living in the Southwest.

In a statement declaring his approval of the appointment, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said he looked forward to working with Zinke’s department, notably on behalf of Arizona’s Colorado River allotment.

“I was pleased to vote to…

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Colorado River Water Users Association Annual Conference recap

Lake Mead from Hoover Dam December 13, 2016.
Lake Mead from Hoover Dam December 13, 2016.

From HavasuNews.com (Sandra Dibble):

Water managers on both sides of the border say the accord [Minute 32x] will be crucial in spelling out how the U.S. and Mexico would take cuts when a shortage is declared on the river, a lifeline for some 40 million people in both countries.

The draft also contains provisions for continuing the restoration of wetlands in the Colorado River delta and extending agricultural water conservation programs in the Mexicali Valley, as well as allowing Mexico to continue storing water in Lake Mead.

The proposed agreement, known as a “minute,” is an extension of the 1944 U.S.-Mexico water treaty on the Colorado River that allots Mexico 1.5 million acre-feet annually — enough for up to 3 million households. The agreement would succeed an existing bilateral agreement, Minute 319, that is set to expire at the end of 2017.

“We’re trying to build on the trust that we had in Minute 319,” said Edward Drusina, who as head of the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) is the chief U.S. negotiator. The proposed minute “is good for the United States and good for Mexico, and we will do what we can to move it forward,” Drusina said in remarks delivered in Las Vegas this month at a conference organized by the Colorado River Water Users Assn.

Because many of the key players at the federal level are expected to leave office in January, there is rising uncertainty over how much support for such an agreement can be expected under future Trump appointees. Beyond that, some are fearful that the collaboration between the United States and Mexico on the issue could be tainted by the politically heated rhetoric that the new administration has brought to other bilateral issues with Mexico such as trade and immigration.

“This great example of binational cooperation should not be derailed by unrelated political issues,” said Anne Castle, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of the Interior and now a senior scholar at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado.

“The collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico on binational management of this river that we share is extraordinary, and that is something to be celebrated and continued and supported,” Castle said.

Members of Trump’s transition team did not respond to requests for comment.

While a shortage has never been declared on the river, water managers say this could happen as early as 2018 if the levels in Lake Mead continue to drop. Earlier this year, the reservoir fell to its lowest level since the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s.

“These are two countries that badly need each other at a time of water shortage on the Colorado,” said Stephen Mumme, a political science professor at Colorado State University and an expert on water and environmental issues on the U.S.-Mexico border. With treaty rights to its water, “Mexico has a pretty good hand to play, but it wants to cooperate with the United States, and it needs the storage upstream,” Mumme said.

The talks between the United States and Mexico, which have been taking place since 2015, are being led by the IBWC and its Mexican counterpart, Comision Internacional de Limites y Aguas. “The minute will have the same basic sections as Minute 319 but will be updated appropriately,” said Sally Spener, foreign affairs officer for the IBWC.

Signed in 2012 in Coronado, Minute 319 involved unprecedented binational cooperation on the Colorado River and for the first time in the treaty’s history recognition of the environment as a water user.

Its provisions included a “pulse flow” of a large volume of Colorado River water during an eight-week period in 2014 delivered to wetlands in Mexico that have been getting little water due to diversion upstream for urban and agricultural users.

Another component of Minute 319 involved a collaboration among three U.S. water agencies — the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Central Arizona Project and the Southern Nevada Water Authority — and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to pay $18 million for water conservation projects in Mexico.

In exchange, they were to receive 124,000 acre-feet of Mexican water being stored at Lake Mead.

“The value of working with Mexico is key,” said Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River Resources manager for the Metropolitan Water District. “If we’re not done by January, that doesn’t mean we still don’t have an agreement with Mexico. We want to make sure it’s done right rather than done fast.”

Approving the agreement before the end of January “is going to be a challenge, because we’re running up against the clock,” said Tina Shields, water department manager of the Imperial Irrigation District. “Obviously people are moving very quickly now.”

The Lower Colorado Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada are working on their own drought contingency plan which must be approved before the water scarcity provisions in the binational agreement can be made effective.

The states’ agreement would parallel the binational water scarcity provision with Mexico under the new accord, so that if the lower basin states take cuts under their contingency plan, so would Mexico, said Tanya Trujillo, who is representing California in the bilateral talks.

Trujillo, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, was doubtful that the provisions would be worked out.

#ColoradoRiver: Sharing Water: A Special Presentation from Author John Fleck Wednesday, November 30 #COriver

Young girl enjoying the river restored temporarily by the pulse flow March 2014 via National Geographic
Young girl enjoying the river restored temporarily by the pulse flow March 2014 via National Geographic

Register here. From the website:

When the governments of the United States and Mexico released water from Morelos Dam on the Colorado River in the spring of 2014, it marked the culmination of one of the most important environmental restoration experiments in arid western North America. In the midst of deep drought, water returned to the river’s desiccated delta, and with it birds, riparian plant communities, and even beavers. But while all nature is ultimately local, bringing water and wildlife back to that landscape required linking those local environmental concerns to water management in the entire Colorado River Basin, spread across seven U.S. states and two in Mexico. John Fleck will talk about his new book “Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West,” which chronicles the environmental success in the delta and the broader problem solving that made it possible.

waterisforfightingoverandothermythsaboutwaterinthewestjohnfleckcover