Colorado River Drought Deal on the Line as Deadline Looms

Jan. 30, 2019, 9:00 PM

Western states could see the federal government step in to manage their Colorado River water if Arizona isn’t ready to sign onto a regional drought deal in the next day.

The Jan. 31 deadline set by Brenda Burman, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, marks the apex of years of negotiations among seven states, Mexico, and the federal government to address a dwindling water supply. The states will either join a set of agreements known as a drought contingency plan or have the Interior Department make water decisions for them.

Arizona is the only state that needs legislative approval to sign the deal, and water users appear to agree on how to move forward after months of contention. Lawmakers are fast-tracking an intricate plan this week to balance water cuts with incentives in hopes of approving it by the deadline.

Water managers in other Colorado River states are watching closely. At stake is a carefully crafted regional agreement that could be lost through federal intervention.

Interior Could Step In

Burman is pressuring states to finish the deal, arguing an urgent need to protect the Colorado River basin. How the river system operates is based on the water levels of reservoirs Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are inching closer to shortage conditions.

If Arizona misses the deadline, the Interior Department will give the seven states 30 days to submit recommendations for actions to reduce the risks from drought in the basin, Patti Aaron, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, an agency within the department, told Bloomberg Environment Jan. 30. The department aims to act ahead of an August forecast that could trigger a water shortage declaration for 2020.

Interior has been patient with and supportive of drought planning so far, but “the delay increases the risk for us all,” Aaron said. The regional drought agreement would still need approval from Congress before it’s implemented.

Colorado River upper basin states—Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming—and the lower basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada are united by their dependence on a river that’s over-allocated and impacted by an unrelenting drought. The issues they face under drought planning, however, are distinct.

Upper basin states are looking at water demand management measures to protect Lake Powell. Lower basin states are deciding how to leave more water in Lake Mead, which means immediate supply cuts in Arizona.

Aaron said the bureau has faced pressure from other states calling for a limit on water deliveries to Arizona if it doesn’t complete its drought contingency plan. Burman has predicted lawsuits could result.

Arizona Moves Forward

Water users in Arizona have spent months negotiating who will use less Colorado River water and what they will get in return. The debate has raised questions over how agriculture and development fit into the state’s future.

The plan being considered by lawmakers this week includes establishing a fund to pay Colorado River water users to keep their supply in Lake Mead instead of using it. The fund would include $30 million from the state in the 2020 fiscal year as well as grants and donations.

Arizona would also establish a fund providing farmers in the central part of the state with money to build infrastructure to transition to groundwater. Farmer Tiffany Shedd echoed other agricultural representatives when she told lawmakers at a Jan. 29 hearing that the money isn’t a gift to agriculture but an investment in an industry that drives the economy.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and business leaders have for weeks pressured legislators to finalize the plan. Both the state Senate and House of Representatives must pass a resolution giving the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources permission to enter into interstate drought plans.

California Holdouts?

California may also have loose ends. Two of four districts in the state have approved all the required agreements but one is seeking help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture before final approval.

The Imperial Irrigation District, which is the largest Colorado River user in California, conditionally approved the agreements in December. The district also wants state and federal officials to fund a 10-year restoration plan for the imperiled Salton Sea, which is California’s largest lake formed when Colorado River floodwaters breached a dike.

Earlier this month Imperial sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asking for help in securing $200 million from the Farm Bill to help fund restoration efforts at the Salton Sea where rising salinity levels have degraded adjacent wetlands and led to a decline in the numbers of fish and birds. Imperial spokesman Robert Schettler said the district has requested a meeting with Perdue and USDA staff.

USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Chris Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, said the water districts supported the need for drought contingency plans but some finer details still need to be worked out. As to whether the conditions placed on Imperial’s approval could create delays, Harris was not sure.

“I really don’t know,” he said. “This could all break loose tomorrow.”

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, based in Los Angeles, approved the plan agreements last year and officials said much of the focus has been on getting Arizona to agree. It’s unclear what the California holdouts may mean.

“We may be able to thread the needle and proceed but we’ll have to get input from the [Reclamation] commissioner,” said Shanti Rosset, Metropolitan’s Colorado River Program Manager. “It would be ideal if we could find a path forward.”

Hoping for Seven States

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, which have been ready to enter the agreement since December, are keeping a close eye on the last-minute developments in Arizona, James Eklund, of counsel at Squire Patton Boggs in Denver and Colorado’s representative on Colorado River issues, told Bloomberg Environment Jan. 30.

The upper basin states will put their plans into motion and begin using tools designed to remediate the effects of drought even if Arizona doesn’t meet the deadline. Those steps could include various water demand management measures, as well as sending water from upstream reservoirs, such as Blue Mesa in Colorado, Flaming Gorge in Wyoming and Utah, and Navajo in New Mexico and Colorado, down to Lake Powell.

Such moves are less than ideal, Eklund said.

“In terms of putting ink on paper, we’ve really been hoping to have a letter with seven state flags on top,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Brenna Goth in Phoenix at bgoth@bloomberglaw.com; Emily C. Dooley at edooley@bloombergenvironment.com; Tripp Baltz in Denver at abaltz@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Susan Bruninga at sbruninga@bloombergenvironment.com

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