Here’s a report from Emily Benson writing for The High Country News. Click through and read the whole analysis. Here’s an excerpt:
For many people, the 2014 “pulse flow,” a large release of water from Morelos Dam, on the U.S.-Mexico border, was the defining feature of the 2012 agreement. The agreement also addressed drought, reservoir storage and environmental restoration in the Colorado River Delta. The 2014 release reunited the Colorado River with the Gulf of California for the first time since the late 1990s; it was both a scientific and symbolic success as communities along the Colorado River saw its dry channel once again fill with water. But the pulse flow also showed that a single release of water may not be the most efficient way to revitalize the Delta. So while the new agreement, called Minute 323, includes environmental water releases, it doesn’t specifically call for another pulse flow.
…a second round of releases is headed to the delta that won’t be nearly as dramatic [as the Minute 319 pulse flow]. But these flows will restore more riverfront with cottonwoods and willows than the last time and their impacts will likely last longer.
The new U.S.-Mexico Colorado River agreement, announced last week, sets aside 210,000 acre-feet of river water for environmental restoration in the delta over nine years, starting next year. This 2017 agreement also calls on the two countries to share shortages on the river in equal proportions in times of drought.
The earlier, 2012 agreement under which the huge pulse flow was unleashed also enabled the more gradual release of another 53,000 acre-feet over four years that will end Dec. 31, 2017.
The first round of flows has restored about 1,100 acres of cottonwood, willow and mesquite habitat, said Osvel Hinojosa, water and wetlands program director for Pro Natura Noroeste and a co-chair of an environmental working group that developed restoration ideas for the new agreement. Pro Natura is headquartered in Ensenada, Baja California.
In that time, more than 230,000 native cottonwoods and willows were planted along the river, said a coalition of six U.S. and Mexican conservation groups calling itself Raise the River. The groups raised more than $10 million for restoration work and to buy water rights for those releases.
This time, the goal is to restore about 4,300 acres over the next nine years, the new agreement says.
Now, “We will see a resurgence of the Colorado in its delta, the ribbon of green that is re-emerging in the Sonoran Desert,” said Jennifer Pitt of the National Audubon Society at last week’s signing ceremony in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “It offers relief to every living being that seeks rest in the cool shade of a cottonwood, renewal in the bounty of life that flows from the waters of the Colorado River. We are finding new ways to share the water, among our communities, but also with hundreds of thousands of egrets, herons, flycatchers, rails and other birds that need it to survive.”
Although smaller pulse flows may be released later, the immediate plan is to focus on lesser, steadier amounts of base flows, Hinojosa said. Pulse flows release lots of water over short periods from a single point such as the dam. Base flows deliver lesser amounts, often over longer periods to specific restoration sites.
“At this point, the best way to proceed with restoration is base flows. That’s the best use of the water,” said Karl Flessa, a University of Arizona geosciences professor who oversaw the scientific monitoring of the 2014 pulse-flow impacts and hopes to be involved in similar work this time.
A lot of the 2014 pulse flow infiltrated into deep groundwater and was not available to nourish cottonwoods and other trees, he said.
“By applying base flows to restoration sites, you make sure water gets to the right place at the right time,” Flessa said.
Hinojosa said he considers base and pulse flows equally valuable, and may want to use smaller pulse flows for social purposes — allowing people living nearby to enjoy water in the river and reconnect with nature.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Lori Kuczmanski):
UNITED STATES AND MEXICO CONCLUDE COLORADO RIVER AGREEMENT
Officials with the International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico, today announced the conclusion of a new Colorado River agreement, Minute 323, “Extension of Cooperative Measures and Adoption of a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan in the Colorado River Basin.” Commission officials signed the Minute on September 21 in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua and both governments approved it on September 27. The Minute’s entry into force was announced during a ceremony held at the Water Education Foundation’s Colorado River Symposium in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Minute follows more than two years of negotiations among federal and state authorities from both countries, taking into consideration recommendations from the works groups, which included water users, scientists, academics, and nongovernmental organizations.
The agreement, which will remain in effect through 2026, extends or replaces key elements of Minute 319, a previous agreement that expires at the end of 2017. Minute 323 contains the following provisions:
Allows Mexico to defer delivery of a portion of its Colorado River allotment in the event of potential emergencies, such as earthquakes, or as a result of water conservation projects in Mexico. This water, known as Mexico’s Water Reserve, will be available for subsequent delivery to Mexico as determined through its planning processes. This gives Mexico greater flexibility in how it manages its Colorado River allotment while also boosting Lake Mead elevation to the benefit of all users.
Provides additional quantities of Colorado River water to Mexico during certain high elevation reservoir conditions at Lake Mead when additional water is available to users in the United States, providing benefits to both countries.
Establishes proactive basin operations during certain low elevation reservoir conditions at Lake Mead by applying water delivery reductions in order to deter more severe reductions in the future, giving certainty in both countries’ operations when these conditions occur.
Establishes a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan so that, should a Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan be put into effect in the United States, then Mexico will also undertake water savings in parity with U.S. savings. These savings will be recoverable when reservoir conditions improve.
Implements measures to address salinity impacts stemming from the joint cooperative actions, in conformance with the provisions of Minute 242, entitled, “Permanent and Definitive Solution to the International Problem of the Salinity of the Colorado River,” dated August 30, 1973.
Identifies measures to address daily flow variability in Colorado River water deliveries to Mexico.
Through a cooperative effort among the Governments of the United State and Mexico and nongovernmental organizations, provides water for the environment and funding for environmental monitoring and habitat restoration.
Provides greater U.S. investment in water infrastructure and environmental projects in Mexico than Minute 319 in order to modernize and improve Irrigation District 014 in the Mexicali Valley in areas that wish to participate. This will generate additional volumes of water that will be shared between both countries and the environment, in accordance with the Minute’s provisions.
Notes the ongoing efforts of the binational All-American Canal Turnout Project Work Group to examine resources associated with a potential binational connection between the All-American Canal in the United States and Mexico’s Colorado River Tijuana Aqueduct Pump Station PB 0.
“Minute 323 is the result of many rounds of technical discussions involving a broad group of stakeholders from both countries. This agreement puts us on a path of cooperation rather than conflict as we work with Mexico to address the Colorado River Basin’s many challenges,” said U.S. Commissioner Edward Drusina of the International Boundary and Water Commission.
Mexican Commissioner Roberto Salmon said, “This agreement provides certainty for water operations in both countries and mainly establishes a planning tool that allows Mexico to define the most suitable actions for managing its Colorado River waters allotted by the 1944 Water Treaty.”
Joining the Commissioners at the ceremony were David Bernhardt, United States Deputy Secretary of the Interior; Thomas Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources; Hillary Quam, Border Affairs Coordinator, U.S. Department of State Office of Mexican Affairs; and, from Mexico, Director General for North America Mauricio Ibarra of the Ministry of Foreign Relations.
The International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico, is responsible for applying the boundary and water treaties between the two countries. Under the 1944 Water Treaty, Mexico is allotted 1.5 million acre-feet (1850 million cubic meters) per year of water from the Colorado River
Minute 323 Agreement boosts water security for Colorado River water users, continues Delta restoration
(September 27, 2017) – Today, policymakers, water agencies, and conservation organizations from the United States and Mexico gathered to confirm the signing of Minute 323, an addendum to the 1944 Water Treaty between the United States and Mexico. The successful negotiation and signing of this agreement demonstrates the power of collaboration and cooperation between the United States and Mexico governments, and supported by the Raise the River coalition of non-profit organizations, to achieve progress on water security for Colorado River water users.
Raise the River Coalition’s public statement of support for Minute 323:
We applaud the leadership and vision of water managers and state and federal officials in United States and Mexico in adopting the Minute 323 Agreement to provide for a more secure water future for all Colorado River water users, and support continued restoration of the Colorado River Delta.
This new binational water sharing agreement shows the best of what collaboration can do, improving the reliability of the Colorado River water supply for everyone who uses it”. –Jennifer Pitt, Raise the River spokesperson and Colorado River Project Director, National Audubon Society
Officially titled “Extension of Cooperative Measures and Adoption of a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan in the Colorado River Basin”, Minute 323 commits the United States and Mexico to work together to address potential Colorado River water shortages and to meet new water conservation and storage objectives. It represents the joint efforts of local, state, and the federal governments of both countries to set a course for a more secure water future for the more than 36 million people who rely on the Colorado River in the United States and Mexico.
“This is an exciting day for both countries,” said Osvel Hinojosa, Water and Wetlands Program Director at Pronatura Noroeste, a Mexican non-profit conservation organization. “Especially for those of us who have worked in the delta for decades.”
The Colorado River is one of the most critical sources of water in the West, supplying water to 36 million people and 5.5 million acres of agricultural land in seven states in the U.S. and two states in Mexico. More than 17 years of drought have diminished the reliability of the Colorado River water supply, putting an enormous population and economy at risk of disruptive water shortages. Proactive investments in water conservation, paired with agreements among Colorado River water users about how to share when the water supply is limited, will create the certainty needed to ensure that the region’s economies continue to thrive.
As the Colorado River is shared by both the United States and Mexico, it is subject to various binational agreements extending back to the 1944 Water Treaty for the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande.
The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and its Mexican counterpart (CILA) are the U.S. and Mexican federal agencies that negotiate and implement binational water treaties and water allocations. In 2012, the IBWC and CILA successfully negotiated Minute 319, an agreement that helped the two countries better implement the 1944 U.S.-Mexico Water Treaty (these types of supplementary treaties agreements are referred to as ‘Minutes’). The result of this extraordinary binational collaboration, Minute 319 provided multiple benefits for water users on both sides of the border. It broadly provided for the United States and Mexico to share surpluses in times of plenty and reductions in times of drought and provided for water flows for the environment. The agreement also served to recognize the Colorado River Delta as a place of ecological significance for both countries.
Minute 319 concludes on December 31, 2017. Its successor agreement, Minute 323, promotes a more secure water future while scaling up ongoing environmental restoration projects in the Delta.
Specifically, Minute 323:
Provides for Mexico to continue to store its water in Lake Mead, helping to keep reservoir levels high enough to avoid triggering dramatic cuts to Colorado River water users.
Includes an agreement between both the United States and Mexico for voluntary water cutbacks in times of droughts that further staves off triggering a shortage declaration. Should a shortage be declared, these new commitments will slow progress towards even larger water shortages.
Commits US water managers to invest $31.5M in water efficiency projects in Mexico that will result in savings of more than 200,000 acre-feet of water. In return, the U.S. entities will receive a one-time water exchange, and over the long term, Mexico will benefit by generating additional water from these conservation programs and improved infrastructure.
Obliges both the United States and Mexico to each provide water and funding for continued habitat restoration and scientific monitoring in the Colorado River Delta through 2026, with Raise the River contributing matching amounts.
“We have worked closely with the governments of Mexico and the United States to demonstrate the Colorado River Delta’s tremendous resilience,” states Hinojosa. “Through a combination of limited water deliveries and on-the-ground work to restore natural habitat, native vegetation is sustaining a great diversity of life in these sites and there has been a renewal of the community relationships and engagement that promote long-term stewardship of the river.”
Raise the River has been a leading advocate of – and active participant in – the negotiation and drafting of Minute 323 to support continued cooperative Colorado River management between Mexico and the United States.
“Minute 323 recommits the United States and Mexico in their successful partnership with NGOs to restore the Colorado River in its long-desiccated delta; this is a big win for people and for nature,” says Pitt.
Raise the River’s successful habitat restoration under Minute 319 helped lay the foundation for Minute 323. Between 2013 and 2017 Raise the River provided active management of restoration sites, including base flows – smaller, periodic releases of water – to restore over 1,000 acres of riparian habitat along the river’s main channel, where more than 230,000 native cottonwoods and willow trees were planted. Raise the River was also an active participant in the scientific monitoring of the results of these environmental water flows.
In addition to these restoration results, Raise the River established a water trust in Mexico that permanently acquired water rights from voluntary sellers in the Mexicali Valley to support their commitments. This was funded by raising more than $10M for restoration and water acquisition from US and Mexico foundations, corporations, federal agencies, and individuals.
Raise the River engaged over 9,800 local residents, school children, and volunteers from around the world in on-site restoration work and environmental education programs, as well as created more than 140 jobs in 2016 alone, related to completing the restoration work.
“Minute 323 represents a global model for managing shared watersheds in response to declining water supplies or long-term drought,” explains Pitt. “It also sets a standard of international cooperative management for countries working together to achieve mutually desired outcomes both for water users and for the environment.”
Raise the River’s primary goal is to bring water and life back to the Colorado River Delta, and in doing so, create a model for future trans-national river restoration efforts throughout the world. In meeting our goal, we will rebuild the habitats that support local communities and wildlife.
Officials from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border on Wednesday signed a new water pact that brings Mexico in as a full partner on the Colorado River and could boost Lake Mead.
The historic agreement, known as Minute 323 to the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944, spells out how much Mexico would have to reduce its river use in the event of a shortage on the Colorado and how much extra water the nation would get in a surplus.
It also opens the door to more cross-border cooperation on water efficiency projects — including some paid for by the Southern Nevada Water Authority — that could help slow the declining water level in Lake Mead.
To that end, Mexico has agreed to a series of voluntary reductions in its Colorado River use to prop up the reservoir east of Las Vegas and stave off more severe mandatory cuts.
Nevada, Arizona and California have agreed in principle to similar voluntary cuts as part of a so-called Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan. Water managers hope the three states will finalize that plan sometime next year.
The treaty amendment was signed by representatives from the International Boundary and Water Commission of the United States and Mexico during a Sept. 21 meeting in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. It took effect Wednesday, after the governments of the two countries approved it.
The treaty amendment also sets aside some river water and funding to support environmental restoration work south of the border, where the Colorado River Delta has been left dry by upstream diversions to farms and cities in the U.S. and Mexico. Aside from a few isolated floods, the river stopped emptying into the Gulf of California in the 1960s with the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and the creation of Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border.
The new agreement extends and expands upon a 2012 deal between the two countries that allowed Mexico to store some of its unused river water in Lake Mead. That pact, known as Minute 319, was due to expire at the end of the year.
Under Minute 323, the water authority, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and water agencies in Arizona and California will provide up to $31.5 million for water efficiency improvements in Mexico through 2026. In return, the contributing agencies would share as much as 229,100 acre-feet of Colorado River water, which is almost enough to supply the entire Las Vegas Valley for one year.
Mexico is expected to use the money to line canals, repair pipes, curb runoff from farm fields and make other water-saving improvements, mostly to its thirsty agricultural sector.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority will get 27,275 acre-feet of water for its initial $3.75 million investment south of the border.
If additional projects are identified after the first round of work in Mexico is done, the authority would chip in up to $3.75 million more in exchange for another 27,275 acre-feet from the river.
One acre-foot of water will supply two average valley homes for just over a year. About 90 percent of the valley’s water supply comes from the Colorado by way of Lake Mead.
The signing of the agreement in Santa Fe, N.M., was led by the International Boundary and Water Commission. The agency is responsible for overseeing water treaties between the United States and Mexico and is composed of representatives from both countries…
Several water agencies in California, Nevada and Arizona have anticipated the agreement for weeks and were optimistic the conservation efforts aimed at Mexico would ultimately lead to more secure water supplies for residents and farmers who rely on Lake Mead and the Colorado River.
Some of the conservation efforts in Mexico funded by the United States would include relining leaky canals, improving water pump systems and using more advanced runoff capture systems that allow water to be reclaimed and stored, according to officials familiar with the agreement.
Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger, who attended the signing in New Mexico, said in a statement that the agreement was critical for long-term sustainability…
Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said that the river is already close to a critical shortage and that the agreement helps all parties navigate the effects of climate change on the river’s future.
The commission said officials from the two nations signed the agreement in a ceremony in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Wednesday. Under the deal, the U.S. government and Southwestern water users will invest up to $31.5 million in water delivery systems and farm efficiency upgrades south of the border.
In exchange, Mexico will parcel out a portion of its river allotment to various U.S. water agencies over nine years and will reduce the risk of shortages for all of the Southwest by storing some of its water in Lake Mead near Las Vegas.
“This agreement puts us on a path of cooperation rather than conflict as we work with Mexico to address the Colorado River Basin’s many challenges,” U.S. Commissioner Edward Drusina said in a statement.
After the deal’s signing, he added that it’s “not necessarily the complete fix,” given the region’s long-term drought, but is a “monumental achievement in collaboration.”
Water certainty during drought
The deal “provides certainty for water operations in both countries,” Mexican Commissioner Roberto Salmon said, and allows Mexico to better plan its water use.
A 2007 rule adopted by the states allows the federal government to restrict some of Arizona’s water whenever Lake Mead’s elevation drops below 1,075 feet above sea level to start a year.
That reservoir had threatened to drop that low before a healthy snowfall in the Rocky Mountains last winter raised levels, but officials project there’s still about a 1-in-3 chance it could happen by 2019.
Here’s the release from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (Bob Muir/Armando Acuña):
METROPOLITAN GENERAL MANAGER’S STATEMENT REGARDING BINATIONAL AGREEMENT ON COLORADO RIVER DELIVERIES, STORAGE
Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, issued the following statement regarding the conclusion of Minute 323, the new binational water agreement between the United States and Mexico addressing Mexico’s Colorado River deliveries and storage through 2026:
“Today’s milestone continues the spirit of cooperation and collaboration forged among users of the Colorado River in both the United States and Mexico. This agreement carries on and augments the progress made under Minute 319 and recognizes that management of the Colorado River is most effective when the two countries jointly manage the river’s available resources.
“Under the measures announced today, Metropolitan and the Imperial Irrigation District once again will join with agencies in Arizona and Nevada to provide critical funding for conservation projects in Mexico that will benefit both countries for the next decade. In exchange, the funding agencies will receive a portion of the water conserved that will be stored in Lake Mead to help meet future water supply needs, increase lake levels and help address long-term drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin.”
With an eye to long-term, binational cooperation and to managing a more stable Colorado River System, representatives of the United States, Mexico and the Colorado River Basin States of the U.S. on Wednesday celebrated the “entry into force” of an agreement deemed essential to the System’s future.
The American signing, conducted at an “entry into force” ceremony in Santa Fe, N.M., applies the final flourish to the intensely negotiated agreement known as “Minute 323.”
“The State of Arizona appreciates the efforts of the United States and Mexico to continue binational cooperation on long-term water management,” said Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Buschatzke participated in the Santa Fe ceremony and played a central role in the portions of the complex negotiations that were conducted among the U.S. Lower Basin participant-states.
“This agreement provides substantial benefits to Arizona, particularly regarding opportunities for augmenting existing water supplies, which is a top priority for Governor Ducey,” he said.
“In addition to the diligent efforts of the Commissioners, we’d also like to acknowledge the hard work and commitment of all the parties involved.”
The implications of the agreement for helping stabilize and augment Arizona’s water supplies are significant.
Officially, Minute 323 is the “Extension of Cooperative Measures and Adoption of a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan in the Colorado River Basin.” It is an implementing agreement for the 1944 United States-Mexico Treaty on Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande.
On the U.S. side, Minute 323 was negotiated among representatives of the U.S. International Boundary and Waters Commission (IBWC), the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and the seven Colorado River Basin States, including Arizona, which was represented by Director Buschatzke.
The Minute 323 entry establishes a program of joint cooperative actions to improve Colorado River water management through 2026.
Like Minute 319, the new Minute 323 provides for the U.S. and Mexico to share proportionately in Lower Basin shortage and surplus, and allows Mexico to create water savings in the Colorado River System in the U.S.
Also like Minute 319, the updated agreement opens up opportunities for U.S. water users to fund conservation programs in Mexico, which in turn create “Intentionally Created Surplus,” or ICS, in Lake Mead, which benefits all of Lake Mead’s 35-million-plus water users in the Southwest.
The new agreement’s most important features, many of which are carried over from Minute 319, include:
Allowing Mexico to defer delivery of a portion of its Colorado River allotment in the event of potential emergencies, such as earthquakes, or as a result of water conservation projects in Mexico.
This gives Mexico greater flexibility in how it manages its Colorado River allotment while also boosting Lake Mead elevation to the benefit of all users.
Providing additional Colorado River water to Mexico during certain high elevation reservoir conditions at Lake Mead when additional water is available to users in the United States.
Establishing a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan so that, should a Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan be put into effect in the United States, Mexico will also undertake water savings in parity with U.S. savings. The Minute stipulates that the savings will be recoverable when reservoir conditions improve.
Providing for U.S. investment in water infrastructure and environmental projects in Mexico – investments that provide initial water benefits to the U.S. agencies while generating water efficiencies for Mexico in the long term.
New features that are unique to Minute 323 include the extension to 2026; creation of the Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan; measures addressing salinity; measures addressing daily flow variability; and, providing water for the environment and funding for environmental monitoring and habitat restoration.
Speaking on behalf of the Basin States, Director Buschatzke acknowledged the “trust and friendship we built as part of the process” during the signing ceremony in Santa Fe.
“That same spirit of cooperation and collaboration served us well in the negotiations that led to Minute 319 and now in Minute 323.”
Throughout much of the long negotiations, which straddled two U.S. presidential administrations, the Treaty’s update was known as “Minute 32x.” The execution and implementation of Minute 32x required a series of domestic agreements among the U.S., the IBWC, Reclamation, the Basin States, and U.S. water users.
Nowhere in the U.S. were those negotiations more challenging than in Arizona, which – unique among the Basin States – required Director Buschatzke to seek the approval of the Arizona Legislature before he could agree to “forbear” portions of the State’s Colorado River allotment.
The agreement allows Arizona water users to join users in California and Nevada in benefitting from the intentionally created surpluses generating from the water-savings projects the states fund in Mexico.
On March 2, 2017, Governor Ducey signed House Joint Resolution 2002, authorizing the director of Water Resources to execute the forbearance agreement on the assumption it met certain conditions and that the final form of Minute 32x – now, Minute 323 – would not harm Arizona water users.
In a letter to Arizona legislative leaders, the Director noted the establishment of a Binational Desalination Work Group, which will investigate desalination opportunities in the Sea of Cortez.
Minute 323 creates opportunities to augment Arizona water supplies, including a binational desalination plant near the Sea of Cortez.
“As you are aware,” wrote Buschatzke, “a binational desalination facility in the Sea of Cortez could be a critical component in Arizona’s long-term future water supplies.”
The following statement is from Ted Kowalski, director of the Colorado River initiative at the Walton Family Foundation, in support of the U.S.-Mexico Colorado River agreement announced today:
“This agreement is a home run for the long-term health of the Colorado River basin, the security of water for the future and the river environment in the United States and Mexico. The agreement also includes important incentives that encourage lower basin states to complete a drought contingency plan.”
The Walton Family Foundation joined several other foundations in releasing a letter today pledging support for the implementation of the agreement. Ted Kowalski:
“The philanthropic and nonprofit communities are eager to do their share to make sure the agreement is implemented and successful.”
The agreement to be signed Wednesday calls for the U.S. to invest $31.5 million in conservation improvements in Mexico’s water infrastructure to reduce losses to leaks and other problems, according to officials of U.S. water districts who have seen summaries of the agreement.
The water that the improvements save would be shared by users in both nations and by environmental restoration projects
The deal also calls on Mexico to develop specific plans for reducing consumption if the river runs too low to supply everyone’s needs, said Bill Hasencamp of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to about 19 million people in and around Los Angeles.
Major river consumers in the U.S. would be required to agree on their own shortage plan before Mexico produces one, he said.
The deal will extend a previous agreement that both countries would share the burden of water supply cutbacks if the river runs low, Hasencamp said.
The International Boundary and Water Commission, which has members from both countries and oversees U.S.-Mexico treaties on borders and rivers, declined to release a copy of the agreement before Wednesday’s signing ceremony in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Officials with the Mexican foreign ministry said in an email Tuesday they had no immediate comment, but U.S. officials who have been briefed on the details said the deal will help both sides.
“It’s good news for both nations, for water users in the U.S. and Mexico,” said Chuck Collum of the Central Arizona Project, another Colorado River user that will help fund the infrastructure improvements in Mexico.
The agreement provides more certainty in how the two countries will deal with the risk of a shortage and recognizes the danger the river faces, he said.
“It’s an acknowledgement that the U.S. and Mexico both share risk due to a hotter and drier future,” Collum said.
Sitting in an overcrowded hotel ballroom in Santa Fe, New Mexico, late yesterday afternoon, I was privileged to see that happen. In the midst of bellicose rhetoric about border walls and NAFTA trade battles, of “rapists” and “bad hombres”, representatives of the two nations’ border and water management community signed the final paperwork for the entry into force of a sweeping new Colorado River agreement.
The deal extends the core terms of “Minute 319”, a landmark agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that enabled a rich new suite of collaborative measures to managing the shared river – Mexican storage of water in U.S. reservoirs, shared surpluses and shortages, opportunities for U.S. water agencies to collaborate with their Mexican counterparts on conservation measures and a shared effort to restore water to the Colorado River Delta environment.
Two years of work by Obama administration folks and their Mexican counterparts had led to an near-agreement they came to call “Minute 32x” because of the quirks of the numbering system, but it didn’t quite get over the finish line before the change of administrations.
Yesterday, despite the fears of many (including myself), we saw the agreement survive, as Petersen-Perlman put it, “conflict … being waged over other issues.” Here was the Trump administration’s new Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, standing at the podium before an international audience praising his predecessor, Obama administration Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor, who stood quietly leaning against the back wall.
Connor and Estevan López, his Commissioner of Reclamation during the final years of the Obama administration, stood together. They two of them had led a determined push in the months after the election to try to get the deal done before the new administration took office, amid fears that a souring U.S.-Mexico relationship might make a Colorado River agreement impossible.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.