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Drought Contingency Plan to ease pain of water shortage

September 11, 2018

BULLHEAD CITY — Current weather patterns and Colorado River water management will result in a drought by the year 2020, affecting communities and farms along the entire Lower Basin, according to officials.

Arizona’s water stakeholders, led by Arizona Department of Water Resources and Central Arizona Project, have been engaged for more than two months in crafting Arizona’s approach to the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan in an effort to protect Lake Mead, the reservoir formed by Hoover Dam, from falling to critical levels.

A joint statement released last week by ADWR Director Thomas Buschatzke and CAP General Manager Ted Cooke noted that risks to the Colorado River have increased from what was projected when the current guidelines were established in 2007 and are now insufficient to address the current risks to the system.

“By working together, Arizona, California, Nevada, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and now Mexico (through the recent treaty update known as Minute 323), we can chart a path forward so one state alone does not feel the brunt of shortage,” the statement read in part. “Once LBDCP is in place, we can work in partnership to leave enough water in Lake Mead so the lake begins to recede at a slower level — the ‘bending of the curve,’ which has been rapidly trending downward. It will take some time to get there, but by starting now, there will be more leverage and momentum to prevent the lake from falling to critically low levels.”

Recent reports from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation stated that the Colorado River Basin has avoided shortage for 2019, but has at least a 50/50 chance of a shortage declaration in 2020.

Developed by Arizona, California, Nevada and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the LBDCP creates additional contributions to Lake Mead from Arizona and Nevada, along with new contributions from California and Mexico through Minute 323.

The LBDCP is not designed to keep Lake Mead above the first tier of shortage — triggered when the reservoir drops to 1,075 feet elevation — but is meant to keep Lake Mead from further dropping to the most critical elevation levels.

In June, ADWR and CAP announced the formation of a steering committee to work out the details of a drought plan among Arizona water users to be presented to the Arizona Legislature in January.

“If they can’t get this done by November or the early part of December, they won’t have it ready to drop in January,” said Mohave County District 5 Sup. Lois Wakimoto, steering committee representative. “Therein lies critical work. Everybody is working to solve existing problems — the path that we are on says that we will be in drought by the year 2020. It is going to be painful for everyone.”

The steering committee members are breaking into small groups to address the four key elements for LBDCP implementation: agricultural mitigation, tribal intentionally created surplus, Arizona Conservation Plans and excess water, said Wakimoto, who works on agricultural water and ICS small groups.

“Agricultural water mitigation is focused on farmers in Pinal County because they are the ones that stand to lose everything,” Wakimoto said. “Pinal County farmers were guaranteed water up until 2030 — it’s not going to happen because of weather conditions, so now they’re trying to work through those circumstances.”

Pinal County is the third largest farming county in Arizona, with about 280,000 acres of farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farmers in the county receive excess water, unused portions of Colorado River allocations, through Central Arizona Project.

“In a drought, excess water goes away,” Wakimoto said. “Non-Indian agriculture is hit the same way, because they are also dependent on some of the excess water for Central Arizona. Under the (2007) plan, the river communities didn’t get hit that hard because we’re not using all our water and what we’re not using goes down the river as excess. Now it has to go someplace designated, it’s all going to be portioned out. The steering committee is working to make this less painful, more palatable, but still everyone is going to have to tighten up a little.”

Water users in the Lower Basin states have worked together over the past few years to voluntarily contribute water to Lake Mead through intentionally created surplus and other programs.

“Most of that ICS comes from Imperial, Palo Verde — California entities that have been leaving water behind the dam so that they can pull it out at some point in the future,” said Mark Clark, Arizona Water Banking Authority member and Bullhead City councilman. “We’ve put about 20 feet of water into Lake Mead. These programs that have been put in place to keep extra water behind the dam have kept us out of shortage since 2015.”

Each foot of water in the dam is about 100,000 acre-feet, with 20 feet of water comprising about 2 million acre-feet, Clark said.

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