Drought plan misses deadline — now what?

March 5, 2019

PHOENIX — With another deadline missed Monday, the head of the Bureau of Reclamation is now looking for the governors in the states in the Colorado River basin to tell her what they think she should do to keep water levels from dropping even lower.

But there’s just two weeks for them to do that.

The move by Brenda Burman is no surprise. In fact she published a notice in the Federal Register on Feb. 1 — after she said Arizona and California had not acted by the Jan. 31 deadline for final approval of all elements of the drought contingency plan — setting up the process for gubernatorial input.

And with a shortage on Lake Mead expected to be declared next year, Burman said it ultimately will fall to her to decide how to keep the situation from getting worse if the seven affected states have not all come to an agreement in time to determine the operations of not just Mead but also Lake Powell further upstream to protect the river.

“The department is highly concerned that continued delays regarding adoption of the DCPs inappropriately increases risk for all that rely on the waters of the Colorado River,’’ the agency said in its earlier public notice. “In the circumstances that the DCPs cannot be promptly completed in early 2019, the department must be prepared to take actions — if needed — to respond to the increasing risks facing the Colorado River basin.’’

In a statement Monday, spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman said her agency does not want it to come to that.

“It is our hope that the states will complete final work on the DCPs,’’ she said. “And if they can, we anticipate terminating our requests for further input.’’

But the fact remains that federal law gives Burman broad authority over who gets to take what water out of the river to protect the levels of the two lakes.

A spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey sidestepped questions of exactly what his boss intends to propose in his own comments to Burman. Instead, Patrick Ptak would say on that the state “is committed to seeing DCP through.’’

“At this time, we are working closely with other basin states and our congressional delegation to pass enabling legislation, allowing us to sign on to the DCP,’’ Ptak said. “This remains our top priority.’’

The problem, however, is not with legislation.

State lawmakers here approved Arizona’s version of the plan by the Jan. 31 deadline. That spells out that Arizona will lose about 18 percent of the 2.8 million acre feet of water it now gets annually from the Colorado River.

But several of the side agreements among the parties have yet to be signed, with the latest tally showing that only five of the 16 pacts have been signed. And Burman has indicated she will not consider the deal done until that occurs.

The potentially bigger holdup is beyond the state’s border, with the Imperial Irrigation District in California refusing to ink its approval to the plan until it gets $200 million to create wetland projects around the artificially and accidentally created Salton Sea which is drying up.

According to the district, the current late was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River breached an irrigation inlet and flowed unchecked into the area until the sprig of 1907. But it continued to be fed after that due to agricultural flows and other sources.

District officials say the current problem is that as the lake dries up it will leave upwards of 70,000 acres of lake bed exposed, allowing potentially toxic materials to become airborne. There also are concerns that the increasing salinity of the lake will become a hazard to the current wildlife ecosystem.

Even if there is a final drought contingency plan that is approved by the state, and even if Congress gives its blessing, this is only a stop-gap measure designed to deal with water rights through 2026. There will need to be further negotiations to determine what happens beyond that date, especially if the amount of water in the river continues to be less than what had been anticipated when agreements were first signed nearly a century ago.