Arizona Clinches Colorado River Water Deal By Deadline

Feb. 1, 2019, 12:54 AM

Arizona can join a regional deal addressing drought on the Colorado River after lawmakers passed a state water plan nearly unanimously on Jan. 31, meeting a federal deadline with just hours to spare.

Brenda Burman, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is expected to address Feb. 1 whether Colorado River basin states met the cutoff she set to be ready to sign onto a seven-state agreement. It’s unclear the impact California will have on that designation.

Arizona legislators had until the end of the day to give the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources permission to sign onto multi-state Drought Contingency Plan agreements, under the cutoff set last year by Burman. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey immediately signed the state measures that will soon implement water cuts to protect Arizona’s future supply.

“We did it by bringing everyone to the table, putting party labels aside, and placing Arizona first,” Ducey said before signing the legislation.

Arizona narrowly avoided missing a deadline that could have jeopardized water management in seven Colorado River basin states. Burman has threatened federal intervention to address drought and over-allocation of the river if the states couldn’t come to an agreement.

Water managers, businesses, and other leaders across the region watched Arizona closely this week to see if the state could finish its deal. American Airlines and Intel were among companies asking lawmakers to pass the measures, according to a letter sent to the Legislature.

Eyes on California

The drought plan centers on keeping more water in Colorado River reservoirs Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Arizona was the only state that needed legislative approval to sign the overall deal.

Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado have been ready for weeks to enter the agreement. In California, multiple water districts are at various stages of approval to proceed with the drought plan.

Despite Arizona’s approval, Imperial Irrigation District in California is holding out. The district has signed intra-state agreements last year but will not approve others until they see the final agreements from other states and Salton Sea restoration money from the Farm Bill is approved.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called on the Trump administration in a Jan. 31 letter to implement Salton Sea drought provisions in the Farm Bill.

“Until we receive the final [drought contingency plan] agreements and documents, the IID will not be taking any further action,” Imperial Irrigation District’s Government Affairs Officer Antonio Ortega said.

Ortega said the district had been and continues to talk with both Reclamation and USDA staff. They are waiting on if a meeting with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue will be scheduled.

“We will certainly work through tomorrow, through the weekend, as long as necessary,” he said, adding that he was hopeful.

USDA did not respond to requests for comment.

Living With Less

Arizona’s agreement came down to softening the blow for water users who will lose some of their Colorado River supply. Various government and other groups are providing money to encourage keeping water in the system as well as helping farmers in the central part of the state transition to groundwater.

The eleventh-hour approval wasn’t without contention and followed months of debate. Farmers lamented fields that will lay fallow while others said the plan doesn’t do enough to plan for Arizona’s long-term water future.

The drought contingency plan sets the stage for future negotiations over Colorado River management guidelines that recognize the need to live with less water, said Ted Kowalski, senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River Initiative. The foundation is among groups that committed to filling funding gaps for Arizona’s conservation plan.

The negotiations highlighted the importance of sharing the water sacrifices among different types of users and the fact that the fate of Colorado River basin states are linked, Kowalski told Bloomberg Environment.

—With assistance from Emily C. Dooley.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brenna Goth in Phoenix at bgoth@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Andrew Childers at achilders@bloombergenvironment.com

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