Feds set urgent deadline on Colorado River drought plan

Interior Dept. to Arizona and California: 'We are quickly running out of time.'

Lake Powell (Photo via U.S. Bureau of Reclamation via Flickr:Creative Commons)

LAS VEGAS – Reforming western water policy has always been an exercise in political maneuvering, stop-and-start negotiations and bureaucratic delays. Progress comes slowly and often reluctantly – a pace water wonks refer to as “water time.”

For years now, the Interior Department has been pressing the seven Colorado River states to reach joint agreements on managing their water use in the face of prolonged and record drought. Arizona and California have blown this week’s federal deadline to approve their strategies, jeopardizing progress for Colorado and the four others.

Water bosses from Arizona and California said publicly at a water conference here Wednesday that they’re close to striking deals, but privately admitted that negotiations have been stalling.

Having grown impatient with those states’ inaction, the Interior Department announced Thursday that it will give them until the end of January before it steps in and forces water cutbacks on them.

“This is absolutely not our preferred course of action,” but “deadlines matter,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said at the Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA) annual conference here Thursday.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. Photo by Susan Greene

“Today’s level of risk is unacceptable and the chance for crisis is far too high,” she added. “It is high time to wrap up these efforts.”

The plan

The past two decades have marked the longest period of drought in the Colorado River’s recorded history. An increasing number of scientists are no longer using the term “drought” because they suspect higher temperatures and lower precipitation are the new normal.

At issue is the creation of what the feds call a “drought contingency plan,” a strategic blueprint for how the seven Colorado River states will respond when water demand exceeds supply.

Lake Mead is the emergency reserve for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California. And Lake Powell serves the same purpose for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah, which must deliver a certain amount of water to the Lower Basin each year under the terms of a 1922 interstate compact known as the Law of the River.

Waters users have weathered the drought by effectively drawing from Mead and Powell, where levels have dropped to 38 and 44 percent full, respectively. If levels keep dropping, swaths of the 40 million people and 5 million acres of agricultural land relying on river water are bound to go thirsty.

That, all agree, could get ugly.

Tasked with making sure the seven states meet their obligations under the Law of the River, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation has spent more than three years pushing for each to pass plans to live within the supplies allotted them under that compact. It’s also requiring the states within each basin to collectively agree on strategies that will conserve enough water to help replenish their respective reservoirs.

The states were taking their own sweet “water time” drafting those plans until December 2017, when the Bureau ordered them all finalized by this week’s CRWUA conference so the current Congress could approve them before its lame-duck session ends in January.

In Colorado, water officials from the West Slope and Front Range, both agricultural and urban, underwent months of often complicated state-led negotiations to iron out a statewide shortage plan. The deal they reached in November sets up a “demand management” program that, among other things, is designed to prod farmers and ranchers – who consume nearly 90 percent of the state’s river water – to cut their use in exchange for money at times of shortage.

After Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah reached similar pacts in recent months, the four states voted unanimously here Wednesday to ratify the Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which will effectively release water from mountain reservoirs and bank it in Lake Powell, raising water levels there rather than letting it flow downstream to the Lower Basin for free.

“I can’t underscore enough the historic nature of this,” James Eklund, Colorado’s chief water negotiator, said of the Upper Basin’s agreement. 

The pickle

The plan can’t be implemented without the three Lower Basin states having first approved their own statewide water shortage approaches and also signed off on a collective Lower Basin strategy.

Nevada is, as its representative in interstate negotiations said, “ready to roll,” but infighting among local water agencies in Arizona and now California have kept those states from approving their shortage plans.

Of the two, Arizona is in a bigger pickle, exceeding its allotted share of Colorado River water and playing shell games with how it accounts for its consumption. Users there are sparring about whether agriculture or cityfolk should take the hit in a water shortage. In emotional pleas to the state, farmers in the agricultural Pinal County between Tucson and Phoenix are saying the plan would strip them of their water rights and put their farms and ranches out of business. They’re demanding money to tap groundwater so they can keep raising their cattle, alfalfa and cotton.

The Central Arizona Project (CAP), the state of Arizona, and conservation groups so far have come up with nearly $100 million to compensate the farmers. Ted Cooke, CAP’s general manager, said negotiations are taking so long “not because we’re slow, but because it’s difficult.”

Under Burman’s deadline, Arizona not only needs to strike a deal with Pinal County farmers, but also persuade its legislature to approve the shortage plan by the end of January.

“I don’t want anyone to get the impression that the lawyers are poised with their pens to get the document signed tomorrow,” Cooke said.

For its part, California was close to reaching a statewide deal until farmers in the Imperial Valley started demanding that the state ensure certain amounts of water keep flowing into the Salton Sea before the highly polluted inland lake dries up and further exacerbates local health problems caused by contaminated dust. The hold-up has further soured the relationship between inland farmers who double- and triple-crop their land in California’s parched desert and dwellers of urban, coastal areas like Los Angeles and San Diego who support the drought plan.

California needs the Imperial Irrigation District and Coachella Valley Water District to approve its strategy over the next six weeks.

Without identifying them by name, Burman urged water officials in those districts and in Arizona’s Pinal County “not to add unrealistic demands” that hold up the deals.

“It is time for us to pay attention,” she warned. “We are quickly running out of time.”

The politics

In the halls of Caesar’s Palace, where the Colorado River conference is held each year, it can be tough to discern the cowboy-booted rural water bosses from tourists in town for the National Finals Rodeo. Among the telling signs: If they’re carrying hydrology reports, are on the phone telling their offices “She’s putting on the squeeze,” or in the elevator apologizing to their wives and saying they didn’t expect this trip to be “so stressful.”

Burman’s threat stems from the Bureau of Reclamation’s legal authority to control water use in the Lower Basin. Although the Interior Department traditionally has let states set their own policies, it could after January swoop in and dictate which water users in Arizona and California would take the hit in case of a water shortage.

As an agricultural water district boss from California told The Independent, “That’s a pill we don’t want to swallow.”

By most accounts, the six-week deadline should be reachable, albeit uncomfortably so, for Arizona and California.

“I think it’s a fair date,” Burman said.

The deadline is meant as much to prod resolution on the drought plans as to send a strong message to all seven states that “water time” incrementalism and missed deadlines will no longer be tolerated in managing use of the river’s quickly waning water supplies.

In 2020, the seven states will start re-negotiating guidelines for how to operate lakes Mead and Powell in light of data showing climate change is drying up river supplies with unexpected speed. Many water watchdogs fear that difficulties reaching agreements on the drought contingency plan will portend even more difficulties in those higher-stake negotiations.

As with most politics, Colorado River policy-making involves some slippage between what’s spoken publicly and what’s said in private.

Burman told reporters Thursday that the “incredible history of (states) coming together” on Colorado River policy makes her confident there will be unity moving forward.

But staffers at the Bureau of Reclamation and its parent agency, the Interior Department, as well as those in congressional offices, governors’ administrations, and natural resources departments in the states say they’re being slammed with calls from and meetings with agri-business leaders, developers, environmental activists and politicians growing increasingly anxious about looming water shortages. “Coming together,” as Burman put it, will become more difficult when those sectors start facing serious cuts.

In her comments to reporters, Burman said addressing drought along the Colorado River has been a “top priority” of her boss, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and a “top priority of the administration.”

But by several accounts, Zinke has paid nearly as little attention to the issue as President Trump. In less than two years in office, Zinke has faced more than a dozen inquires into complaints about wasteful spending on office renovations and his personal and political travel expenses, allegations of ethical breaches in his dealings with energy giant Halliburton and casino companies, and his firing of the government inspector leading some of those probes.

Of greater concern to western water officials are postures by Zinke doubting that climate change is human caused. Though nobody questions Burman’s own commitment to easing the effects of climate change on already parched western water users, they wonder if she would have the support she’d need to impose cutbacks, if necessary, on states or water agencies unwilling to make the tough choices managing their shares of river water.

“She’s talking tough, which is absolutely necessary in what’s become a near-crisis on the river,” says a prominent water official who asked not to be named because her office is negotiating with Burman’s. “But I wonder, we all wonder if when push comes to shove she’d have the political weight behind her to enforce these deadlines and carry out real cutbacks.”

A recovering newspaper journalist, Susan reported for papers in California and Nevada before her 13 years as a political reporter, national reporter and metro columnist at The Denver Post. “Trashing the Truth,” a series she reported with Miles Moffeit, helped exonerate five men, prompted reforms on evidence preservation and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative journalism. Her 2012 project, “The Gray Box,” exposed the effects of long-term solitary confinement. The ACLU honored her in 2017 for her years of civil rights coverage, and the Society of Professional Journalists honored her in April with its First Amendment Award. Susan and her two boys live with a puppy named Hymie whom they’re pretty sure is the messiah.