Water leaders from the seven states that make up the Colorado River basin are one step closer to finalizing a drought contingency plan. Representatives from Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona met in Phoenix Tuesday to sign a letter to Congress asking for federal approval of the plan.
Recent heavy snows in the southern Rockies have relieved some short-term pressure on the region’s water supplies. If dry conditions in the southwest return in the next six years, the plan would force Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico to cut back the amount each takes from the overallocated river system.
If snowpack remains high the next few years the plans might never be used.
“Today is a very important day in the history of the Colorado River,” said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman, who for more than a year has pressured state water managers to agree on voluntary cutbacks. “Today the seven basin states have come to an agreement and signed together a letter to Congress memorializing that agreement. The intrastate drought contingency plans are done. They are complete.”
In the letter, water leaders from throughout the basin say they want to execute the drought contingency plan no later than April 22, 2019.
In declaring the plans done, Burman also decided to rescind her call to Colorado River basin state governors for input to craft a federal plan should the states fail to coalesce.
The plan has been cobbled together through a series of agreements over the last five months among the states that make up the Colorado River watershed. Nevada first approved its portion of the plan in November 2018. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico followed suit in December. Starting Jan. 31, 2019 California and Arizona failed to meet a series of federal deadlines while the two states attempted to calm warring intrastate factions.
In Phoenix, water officials attempted to provide closure to the drought contingency plan process, while acknowledging big hurdles remain, including projected climate impacts to snowpack and the river’s structural deficit where more water exists on paper in the form of water rights than in the system itself.
“This is definitely a euphoric high point that we’re in right now, but there are miles and miles to go before we sleep,” said Upper Colorado River Commission member James Eklund. He signed the letter on behalf of the state of Colorado.
The euphoria isn’t shared by all users in the southwestern watershed. The plan now moves forward without the support of the single largest user of the river’s water. The Imperial Irrigation District (IID) in southern California said it would only sign on to the drought plan when it received $200 million in federal funds to mitigate public health and environmental problems brought on by the shrinking Salton Sea.
“By forging ahead, what they are saying is that the only acceptable way to check the boxes marked ‘IID’ and ‘Salton Sea’ is to erase them,” said IID board president Erik Ortega in a written statement. “What they’re also saying is that getting the [drought contingency plan] done is more important than getting it right.”
IID officials have criticized the federal government, and Burman herself, for pushing for the plan’s completion.
In mid-March another California water agency, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, voted to shoulder the state’s burden under the drought contingency plan, bypassing IID, and undercutting the agency’s demands for Salton Sea mitigation funds. IID’s opposition to the plan could make Congressional approval more difficult.
“Through this drought contingency plan we have tried to have zero impacts to the Salton Sea,” said Peter Nelson, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California. “We think that goal has been achieved, with or without the Imperial Irrigation District.”
The drought contingency plan overlays onto a set of 2007 guidelines that govern how the river’s reservoirs are managed. Those guidelines weren’t able to keep up as dry conditions and chronic overuse in the basin caused reservoirs to drop to critical levels. The plan is meant to provide temporary stability while water managers negotiate a new set of operating guidelines which go into effect in 2026.
The river’s two largest reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell, have dropped over the last 19 years. After the record-breaking hot and dry conditions in 2018, the two reservoirs are currently at their lowest combined level since they were filled decades ago. The reservoirs are part of a river system that provides drinking and irrigation water for about 40 million people.
While moving through Arizona, the plan was criticized for being a small incremental step, rather than taking a more substantive look at the state’s future water demands and practices. The water managers who negotiated the drought contingency plan acknowledge it’s a temporary patch, and will help adjust to climate change, but not solve the region’s water scarcity conundrum.
“If we were aliens visiting Earth from another system years from now would we run it this way? Probably not,” said Eklund, of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “But there are history and legacy, pieces of law and policy, politics in this basin that have guided us to where we are and what we have to do. And I think given the hand we’ve been dealt this is a pretty outstanding moment.”
This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.