With Colorado River water shortages looming, feds will intervene on drought plan

Nearly two decades of drought have depleted Lake Mead, which is only 40% full.
Nearly two decades of drought have depleted Lake Mead, which is only 40% full.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

The federal government Friday moved closer to imposing water delivery cuts along the drought-depleted Colorado River after California and Arizona failed to meet a deadline for inking a broad agreement on how the seven states that depend on the river would cope with shortages.

The federal official who manages the lower Colorado River had set Thursday as the deadline for the states to agree on a drought plan. Without a deal, the Interior Department would step in and begin to develop its own shortage plans, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman had warned.

All eyes were on Arizona this week as state lawmakers took a last-minute vote on their part of the pact. They approved the plan Thursday afternoon, just hours before the deadline, but Arizona officials still haven’t finalized a variety of documents.


In addition, a California irrigation district with massive river rights has yet to sign off on the agreement.

On Friday, Burman acknowledged that the states had made “tremendous progress” on their drought contingency plan. However, she added, “close isn’t done.”

The Interior Department has broad legal authority to manage the lower Colorado River, and Burman said the agency would start the formal legal process of soliciting comments on how it should impose cuts.

She repeatedly declined to answer questions of how those cuts would be carried out. “We’re looking for ideas,” she said.

But she also said the department would end that process if all the necessary parties have signed the states’ drought plan by March 1.

“It’s better to have consensus,” Burman said.

The river that fills faucets and irrigation ditches from Colorado to California has been mired in drought since 2000. The driest 19-year period in the recorded history of the Colorado River basin has left its two biggest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, just 40% full.


Federal river managers say there is a 57% likelihood that Lake Mead levels will fall so low next year that the officials will have to declare a shortage for the first time.

The drought contingency plan spells out how the three states supplied by Lake Mead — California, Arizona and Nevada — would reduce river use to keep the reservoir from plunging even further toward disastrous levels that could end hydropower production and even releases from Hoover Dam.

A shortage has been looming over the seven-state basin for more than a decade, only to be narrowly averted time and again when rain and snow in the upper basin pushed reservoir levels above the shortage trigger.

Even without prolonged drought, it has become obvious in recent decades that the river is over-allocated. The states divvied up flows in the early 20th century, a period that in hindsight was unusually wet and presented an unrealistic picture of what the Colorado could produce year in and year out.

Add the effects of climate change — higher temperatures, more evaporation, less snow in the upper basin — and the reality of a drier future is setting in. The drought plan is buying the states time to figure out how to deal with the fact that Mead and Powell may never again be full.

The shortage deal is “both temporary and not as dramatic as what the states need to do,” said Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor and expert on water policy.

California is entitled to more Colorado River water than any other state, amounting to 4.4 million acre-feet a year. Under the drought plan, the state — which holds some of the oldest river rights — would reduce its diversions sooner than if the basin strictly adhered to the water-rights pecking order.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has been importing Colorado River water for nearly 80 years, approved the accord in December.

Metropolitan General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said he was not surprised by Burman’s announcement.

“In her shoes, I would do the same,” he said. ”You really can’t afford to take your foot off the pedal.”

But Kightlinger said he was optimistic that California and Arizona would soon finalize their agreements. If they don’t and Interior pushes ahead on its own, “I think that would be a real problem,” he said. “There would be litigation and all sorts of politics.”

The sprawling Imperial Irrigation District, which is the single largest user on the entire length of the river, has withheld its final signature on the drought pact until other parties sign and it gets a commitment from the federal government to help pay for Salton Sea restoration.

On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) urged the Trump administration to provide the money through conservation provisions passed in last year’s farm bill.

Burman declined to say whether the administration would say yes to Imperial’s demand for more restoration money.

In a statement, Imperial General Manager Henry Martinez said his district “expects the work on the [drought plan] to be completed promptly.” He added that Imperial “remains steadfast in its pursuit of federal funding for the critical conservation efforts that are necessary to mitigate the severe public health and environmental impacts at the Salton Sea.”

Arizona is the only state that requires lawmakers’ approval of the drought plan, and Thursday’s votes were preceded by months of squabbling among Arizona water users over how to absorb future cuts.

Ultimately, a number of deals were struck to get their buy-in, a sign of how tough it may to balance demand on the Colorado with what the river can reliably supply.

Under one deal, Pinal County farmers who would be the first in line to lose Colorado River water in Arizona will get millions of dollars in state funding to drill new high-capacity wells — essentially substituting groundwater for river supplies.

“This is a really horrible development,” said Glennon, who has written about the problems caused by excessive groundwater pumping in his state.

Frustrated by the lack of an agreement between the states, Burman told river users in December that they needed to finalize shortage plans by Jan. 31 or the Interior Department would start developing its own plan.

If the department decided to order cuts according to water rights, and diverters with senior rights continued to take their full share, Mead would continue to drop and “that would not be good for any of us,” said James Eklund, who represents the state of Colorado on river matters.

“We can manage our way out of this problem, but it’s not going to be without pain,” he said.

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