Leaders from 7 states call for Congress to OK drought contingency plan

March 20, 2019

PHOENIX — The leaders of Colorado River basin states are asking Congress to approve the newly adopted drought contingency plan that they admit is not a long-term solution to a dryer future and less water in the river.

Officials of the seven states on Tuesday signed the request for what Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation called a historic deal designed to reduce the demand for water from the river.

The deal, which now needs congressional approval, most immediately decides who shares in cuts in the amount of water that will become necessary when Lake Mead drops below a certain level. For Arizona the state’s allocation will drop by about 18 percent, to 2.3 million acre feet.

An acre foot is considered enough water to serve two or three average families for a year.

More significant, the plan provides incentives for states to leave water in Lake Mead to avoid triggering an even more severe shortage declaration where the cuts would become more severe.

But those involved concede that even this drought contingency plan is not a long-term solution. That’s because the current guidelines for how water is allocated, adopted in 2007, have proven to be far too optimistic in its assumptions about how much water is actually available.

More to the point, the presumption is that future cuts, even deeper, will be necessary.

“It is the bridge from where we are today, or yesterday, perhaps ... until we can get those 2007 guidelines renegotiated by 2026,’’ said Patrick Tyrrell, the state engineer of Wyoming.

“We all recognize we’re looking at a dryer future,’’ said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

Burman herself put a finer point on it.

“The 2007 guidelines, they weren’t put in place forever,’’ she said. What they did, Burman said, is give her agency and the states a chance to learn more about the whole Colorado River system which provides water for about 40 million people in the region.

“And what we learned was, it wasn’t enough,’’ she said.

Put simply, Burman said, the drought contingency plan, assuming it is approved by Congress, buys enough time to avoid an actual water crisis on the river before 2026.

Within Arizona, the reduction in Colorado River water would normally hit hardest on Pinal County farmers who are the lowest on the priority list.

The Arizona version of the plan makes up for some of that with financial deals with Indian tribes for their water. And it also allows the farmers the right to pump an additional 70,000 acre feet of groundwater beginning in 2023 to offset what they will not get from the river.

“We’re going to have less water to use,’’ said Buschatzke. “But we are biting that bullet because we know we have to protect the sustainability of the lake, of the entire system.’’

But there are unresolved issues, including the demand by the Pinal farmers for the state to provide $20 million up front for the cost of drilling new wells and constructing delivery canals. The farmers hope eventually to get that cash in a federal grant but say they cannot wait until that goes through.

Legislation to provide that $20 million has so far failed to get approval from state lawmakers.

Tuesday was an important deadline.

Burman had concluded that all the participants had not reached a final deal by March 4. At that point she said the next step would be for the governors of the participating states to tell her what they think she should do to keep river water levels from dropping even lower.

The deadline for that was Tuesday. Burman said with the agreements she now is voiding the notice she put in the Federal Register for input on what to do next.

Burman said she is hoping for quick congressional ratification, noting that both the House and Senate have scheduled hearings for this coming week.

“We hope the process will move quickly,’’ she said. And Buschatzke said that all the intrastate agreements within Arizona will be “ready to go’’ by the time Congress acts.

One potential sticking point involves the Imperial Irrigation District in California. It demanded $200 million to deal with a dwindling supply of water to the Salton Sea, a situation district officials said created an environmental hazard.

When no deal could be reached with the district, the Metropolitan Water District in California agreed to step up and assume the cuts in supply that otherwise would have been taken by the Imperial district. That put the interstate deal in balance.

That decision, though, angered Erik Ortega, president of Imperial’s board of directors.

“The other water contractors, along with the Bureau of Reclamation, could have rejected the MWD proposal as a cynical, short-sighted attempt to sidestep the Salton Sea issue, but they embraced it instead as an elegant solution to the problem, which is to basically pretend it doesn’t exist,’’ he said in a prepared statement.

Peter Nelson, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said the preference would have been to have all of his state’s interest acting together, calling the decision by the Imperial district “a disappointment.’’

It may be more.

“There is some speculation that they may have an adversarial position on the legislation,’’ he said. But Nelson said California stands by the drought contingency plan “because we know that managing the river collaboratively and in cooperation is very important.’’