Arizona’s Groundwater Replenishment Program Facing an Uncertain Future

PHOENIX — A key water management tool that sustains housing development in central Arizona does not have a rosy future, according to a new report from Arizona State University.

The report looks at the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, which the Legislature established in 1993 to assure the replenishment of groundwater that’s tapped for development.

Developers and, by extension, home buyers, can pump and purchase groundwater and then pay into the program; the district then has to replenish the water that serves those homes. This is a way to meet the state’s water management goals and comply with the legally required 100-year water supply.

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But the report outlines several concerns about the specific rules that govern the replenishment district and casts doubt on the district’s ability to find water to meet expected obligations.

One concern is that the replenished water does not have to be returned to the same place where it originally was pumped. The district only has to put water back into the larger active management area, and the recharged water doesn’t necessarily migrate to where it’s needed.

“It’s an unsustainable practice,” said Kathy Ferris with ASU’s Kyl Center for Water Policy, the report’s co-author. “There are so many different aquifers and layers. There are seven subbasins. And water doesn’t just move around like it’s in a bathtub. Sometimes it doesn’t move at all, depending on where it’s recharged.”

There are five active management areas in central Arizona. The one in Phoenix, for example, covers 5,646 square miles.

Another concern is financial. As water in Arizona becomes more expensive, some homeowners enrolled in the replenishment district have looked for water that’s cheaper than the original source the developer identified for its required 100-year water supply. A different source may free homeowners from paying an annual charge for replenishment.

The problem, the report said, is that the district still must find and pay for water “to meet the member’s long-term replenishment obligation.”

Depending on how many homeowners use this cheaper-source strategy, it could mean consistent expenses but lower revenues for the replenishment district, which has fixed costs that do not fluctuate depending on how much water needs to be replenished that year.

Ferris cited a consultant’s report from 2017 that said if all of the Phoenix area lands enrolled in the replenishment district used this workaround, the result would be “financially catastrophic.” The consultant’s policy recommendations involved legal or regulatory changes that have not been enacted.

The ASU report also raises concerns over the amount of water the replenishment district is expected to need to meet its current and projected obligations, especially at a time of shortage conditions on the Colorado River, the state’s largest source of surface water.

The district’s board also runs the Central Arizona Project canal system. In a statement, the agency pointed out it “was charged with the statutory obligation to manage the CAGRD since its inception more than 25 years ago,” saying it “has fulfilled this duty effectively, demonstrating fiscal responsibility while securing a robust water supply portfolio that will be available through the mid-2030s.”

CAP also acknowledged in the statement that its part of the discussion over where growth will happen in urban areas especially Maricopa County.

“CAP welcomes the opportunity to be part of it, but given that the focus of this conversation would be beyond CAP’s CAGRD responsibilities, CAP may not be the appropriate entity to convene and lead this conversation.”

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The agency does not have the legal authority to reject new enrollees in the groundwater replenishment program. The Arizona Department of Water Resources does have some oversight because it approves a 10-year plan for the district and can later reverse an approval.

But the report said “such a decision will be politically difficult, will not stop the sale of previously enrolled but unconstructed lots, and will not address CAGRD’s continuing replenishment obligations for its current members.” It recommends authorizing the program to deny accepting new members if needed.

A spokeswoman at the water resources department declined to comment on the ASU report, saying it had not yet been reviewed.

The report comes on the heels of the state releasing its own water bombshell: a new model for the Pinal Active Management Area that shows an expected shortfall of more than 8 million acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is enough water to cover 1 acre of land with 1 foot of water, enough to supply a family of four for a year.

“I think that the Pinal situation demonstrates that as time has gone on, we’ve learned more and more about our groundwater resources,” Ferris said. “And our scientific ways of assessing how much groundwater is there have dramatically changed. Nobody’s talking about the fact that, well, even if there was enough groundwater, if it’s all used up, it gets all used up.

“Then what?”

Utah Presses Forward on Lake Powell Pipeline Despite Strains on Colorado River

ST. GEORGE, Utah – The drive behind an enormous water project in southwestern Utah, the Lake Powell Pipeline, shows no signs of slowing even after the seven Colorado River Basin states signed a new agreement this spring that could force cutbacks and more conservation.

Despite the shrinking of the overtapped Colorado, four Upper Basin states – Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico – are pushing forward with planned dams, reservoir expansions and pipelines that would allow them to capture what they were promised under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That agreement, which has been amended and added to for decades, reserves 7.5 million acre-feet for the Upper Basin and 7.5 million acre-feet for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California.

Residents of Upper Basin states contend that Arizona, California and Nevada have been using “their” water for nearly a century.

President Donald Trump signed the basin-wide drought contingency plan in April, just weeks after Utah declared in a news release that the river, which serves 40 million people in the Southwest, is “a reliable source of water.”

“What they need to do, the lower states, is use their right that’s allocated to them and we will use our right that’s allocated to us,” said Mike Styler, who retired recently after 14 years as director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

If completed, the 140-mile Lake Powell Pipeline would draw about 86,000 acre-feet a year from the lake, which straddles the Utah-Arizona line. That’s enough water to support nearly 100,000 households in Utah’s burgeoning Kane and Washington counties.

Gary Turner, who grows turf on 114 acres in Washington City, said the project is needed to ensure the area’s continued growth.

“We absolutely have to have it,” he said as he prepared to harvest 42 pallets of sod for local customers. “I don’t know of any other option.”

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The houses and apartments that have sprouted up around Turner’s farm are evidence of a years-long population boom in southwestern Utah. The St. George area was the third-fastest growing in the nation last year, according to Census Bureau data released in April. Past data showed the area as the fastest growing in 2017 and the fifth-fastest growing from 2010 to 2018.

Pipeline proponents expect that growth will continue, from about 171,000 residents now to about 509,000 by 2065. That’s why they insist the $1.1 billion pipeline is necessary.

Turner irrigates his manicured green grass with water from the Virgin River, now the area’s sole source. He said pioneer-era water rights provide what he needs to maintain his turf farm, so he doesn’t need the pipeline to stay in business. But more water will be needed for the people expected to move to southwestern Utah and the lawns they’ll want, Turner said.

“We grow houses better than we can grow any other commodity,” he said.

The state has spent more than $30 million on its application to build the pipeline, which, according to LPP Utah, would include five pumping stations and six hydroelectric facilities to serve the project. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is reviewing the pipeline’s environmental impacts. The Washington County Water Conservancy District, a project partner, estimates that the license could be finalized in two years, construction would begin a few years later and the pipeline would be operating by about 2030.

But pipeline critics call the project too risky, too pricey and unnecessary. They contend that too much Colorado River water has already been promised to too many people; in addition, climatologists predict the vast basin will continue to get drier and warmer in the decades ahead.

“We are way beyond the budget of what the Colorado River can deliver, and when you just look at how much water is in the river and how much everyone else wants to take out, it’s just not there,” said Nick Schou, conservation director for the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council.

Schou said the Lower Basin states are facing cuts of as much as 500,000 acre-feet at the same time the Upper Basin states are planning nine projects that will draw about 400,000 acre-feet.

“Not only are we overusing the water, but there’s going to be a lot less to go around in the future,” Schou said.

Instead of a pipeline, opponents insist the smartest and cheapest solution is conservation.

Lisa Rutherford of Ivins, Utah, has been tracking the Lake Powell Pipeline for Conserve Southwest Utah. She and partner Paul Van Dam are among the project critics who say that conservation – not a billion-dollar pipeline – is the better answer to southwestern Utah’s water needs. (Photo by Judy Fahys/KUER News)

“We don’t think there will be the water,” said Lisa Rutherford, who tracks the pipeline proposal for the nonprofit Conserve Southwest Utah. “We do not think that we need the water.”

Rutherford said she’s worried that pipeline proponents will hinder sorely needed conservation efforts, which already are stymied by low prices for water in the St. George area.

A survey last summer by KUER compared what customers pay in other Western cities for 28,000 gallons of water, the average used by St. George residential customers in July. It was $111 in Las Vegas; $144 in Denver and $235 in Tucson. In St. George, however, the bill was $61.

The project’s overall cost is another big concern for critics. Proponents estimate the pipeline’s cost between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion. Critics say the price tag will probably be $3.2 billion or higher. And water users would be saddled with the cost because federal subsidies for big water projects, which once were plentiful, have evaporated.

Rutherford’s partner, former state Attorney General Paul Van Dam, said the roots of the controversy go beyond facts and figures. He said many Utah residents are convinced that Nevada, Arizona and California have been allowed to take precious resources that belong to Utah.

“That’s just absolutely almost part of the DNA of people out here,” Van Dam said. “And it’s just like treason if you don’t fight for the water that is your water.”

This story is the last part of “The Final Straw,” a series produced by the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, KUER and Wyoming Public Radio.

On Stressed Colorado River, States Test How Many More Diversions Watershed Can Bear

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 1 of a three-part series.

COAL CREEK CANYON, Colo. – The Colorado River is short on water, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at a slate of proposed water projects in the river’s Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

The river and its tributaries provide water for 40 million people in the Southwest. For the past 20 years or so, demand for water has outstripped the supply, causing its largest reservoirs to decline.

In the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, you can pinpoint when the lines crossed somewhere near 2002. It’s a well-documented and widely accepted imbalance.

That harsh reality – the river’s water is promised to too many people – has prompted all sorts of activity and agreements within the seven Western states that rely on it. That activity includes controversial efforts in some Upper Basin states to tap every available drop before things get worse.

‘There’s Nothing That We Get From This’

Tyson Long drives his black pickup truck in the foothills outside Boulder. The narrow dirt road twists and turns through pine forest, past houses with yard signs that read: “Stop Gross Reservoir Expansion.”

We stop at an intersection, near an electrical provider and across the road from a community center. It’s an almost 180-degree turn from the main highway onto the road to Gross Dam.

The utility that owns the reservoir, Denver Water, wants to increase the height of the dam by 131 feet and fill it with water from the headwaters of the Colorado River via the Moffat Tunnel through the Continental Divide.

Imagine a tractor trailer hauling dam-building materials making this turn, Long said.

April Lewandowski and Tyson Long live in Coal Creek Canyon, a community near Golden, Colorado, that would see increased truck traffic and noise as part of the Gross Reservoir expansion. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

“If they truck all of this material up our canyon,” Long said, “people in our community are going to get killed by those trucks. Period. There’s a lot of other issues here, but the safety thing should really be a serious priority.”

Long and his wife, April Lewandowski, live near the reservoir in a sparsely populated community called Coal Creek Canyon. Like many of her neighbors, Lewandowski commutes to her job on the state’s densely populated Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Her daily commute on the canyon’s two-lane highway is the same as a haul route for trucks that would be needed to raise the dam.

Long pulls up to a small parking area that overlooks the dam. It’s a deep wall of concrete, stretched between the tree-lined canyon walls of South Boulder Creek.

“I mean, you look at how the land splays out, you can see why they want to (build it),” Long said. “It’s so much wider all the way around.”

If the expansion goes through, the place where we’re standing will be submerged in water. Raising the crest of Gross Dam to 471 feet would make it the tallest in Colorado.

Long and Lewandowski are concerned about the safety of neighbors who commute down the canyon each day and would have to compete for road space with enormous trucks. They wonder what effect the five years or more of construction could have on the value of their home. They want to know how they can keep a water agency of appointed officials accountable for promises made.

“We don’t vote for them or fund them,” Lewandowski said. “There’s no way that we can have a voice. There’s nothing that we get from this. We don’t get the water from it. We’ve never been told we were going to get a better road or a wider road.”

‘This is a Project That’s Needed Today’

Denver Water began to seriously consider expansion of Gross Reservoir after the dry winter of 2002 and exceptional drought conditions took hold across the Mountain West. In the midst of those historic dry conditions, a portion of its service area nearly ran out of water, said the utility’s CEO, Jim Lochhead.

“This is a project that’s needed today to deal with that imbalance and that vulnerability and to give us more drought resiliency,” Lochhead said.

Jim Lochhead is the CEO of Denver Water, which has been trying to expand Gross Reservoir since 2003. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Since then, Denver Water has filed federal permits to start construction and negotiated an agreement with local governments and environmental groups on Colorado’s Western Slope to mitigate some effects of the additional water being taken from the headwaters.

Before leaving office, former Colorado Democratic governor (and current presidential hopeful) John Hickenlooper threw his weight behind the project, giving it an endorsement and suggesting other water agencies in the West take notice how Denver Water approached the process.

But despite the political heft behind the project, it faces considerable headwinds.

Environmentalists are suing, arguing the expansion would harm endangered fish. Local activists say the additional water will spur unsustainable population growth along the Front Range. In recent months, the utility has sparred with Boulder County officials over whether it was exempt from a certain land use permit.

Building a 131-foot dam addition does come with baggage, Lochhead said. But he argued his agency has done its part to address some of the concerns, such as reducing the number of daily tractor-trailer trips up Coal Creek Canyon and planning upgrades to the intersection where trucks where turn onto Gross Dam Road.

“It is a major construction project. I don’t want to gloss over that. It will have impacts to the local community,” he said.

Denver Water staff members are doing more outreach in the canyon as well, Lochhead said.

“We are committed to the project and seeing it through. We’re also committed despite the opposition to working with the local community in doing this the right way,” he said.

‘There Really Isn’t Unused or Excess Water Out There’

The latest scuffle with Boulder County has brought the Gross Dam expansion squarely back into public view. At a county commissioner’s meeting in March, residents criticized Denver Water on all fronts, from specific concerns about the construction itself, to broader concerns about water scarcity in the Colorado River basin.

“No one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Gee, I hope there will be a seven-year dam construction project in my backyard,’” Anna McDermott, who lives near the shore of Gross Reservoir, said at the hearing.

Gross Reservoir is a key piece of Denver Water’s delivery system. A proposal to expand the dam has galvanized opponents. (Photo by Nick Cote for KUNC/LightHawk)

“This project represents an effort by Denver Water … to actually grab water while they can, before federal legislation and management of the Colorado River Basin is imposed,” McDermott said.

What McDermott is referring to is a stark disconnect in the Colorado River watershed. States downstream on the river – Arizona, Nevada and California – signed a new agreement in May called the Drought Contingency Plan that keeps them from becoming more reliant on the Colorado River. It requires cutbacks to water deliveries should levels in Lake Mead, the river’s largest reservoir, continue to drop.

No such agreement was made upstream in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. Those states wound up agreeing to study the feasibility of a program that would compensate farmers to stop irrigating their cropland if reservoirs dropped, with no solid way to pay for it. They also agreed to better coordinate releases from their biggest reservoirs to aid an ailing Lake Powell. While they figure out how to develop those two concepts, the Upper Basin states keep inching along on their development projects to divert more from the river.

The 1922 Colorado River Compact, the river’s foundational governing document, gives Upper Basin states the legal cover to continue developing projects like the Gross Reservoir expansion. In the compact, each basin is allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of the river’s water.

Over the decades, the rapidly growing and intensely farmed Lower Basin has used much more than that. The less-populated Upper Basin has never reached its full allotment. Those states have been using roughly 4.5 million acre-feet for the past 13 years, with the rest flowing downstream for the Lower Basin to use as it sees fit.

The Gross Reservoir expansion and other proposed water projects are an attempt to even the score, even if they add some additional pressure to the overallocated resource, said Doug Kenney, an expert on Colorado River policy at the University of Colorado Boulder. (Some of Kenney’s work has received funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

“There really isn’t unused or excess water out there, and so every new water project we build is undercutting the reliability of every other water project we’ve already built,” Kenney said.

The additional water to fill Gross Reservoir – if the expansion goes through – will have to come from somewhere.

“They might have in the back of their mind this thought that this is something that will make up for elsewhere in the basin through another mechanism,” Kenney said. “And if that happens, then it all looks very reasonable. But if it doesn’t happen, then this doesn’t look very reasonable.”

Water managers are able to look at the entire Colorado River watershed and recognize its fundamental supply and demand imbalance, Kenney said, and still find ways to siphon off new supplies in smaller pockets. It’s one of the conundrums of Colorado River governance. No one agency or commission exists to consider and manage the system as a whole.

Conservation programs tend to be less expensive than huge new projects, Kenney said. But additional water supplies stored in reservoirs give more security and reliability. It’s why water leaders push for them, even when the economics don’t make sense.

“I used to think the limiting factor would be the economic cost to these projects, but currently there is little evidence to suggest that’s what stops these things,” Kenney said. “It’s politics and it’s how well-mobilized the political opponents are to these projects.”

This story is part of “The Final Straw,” a series produced by the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, KUER and Wyoming Public Radio. KUNC’s Colorado River coverage is supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Lower Colorado River Basin Can Still Expect Water Shortage Next Year

PHOENIX – The Lower Colorado River Basin does not avoid a shortage in 2020 despite the plentiful snowpack on the Rocky Mountains this past winter.

Why? Well, the new Drought Contingency Plan defines different “tiers” of shortage. The Lower Basin will not drop into a Tier One shortage next year because Lake Mead will almost certainly remain above 1,075 feet in elevation.

At the same time, Mead will likely remain under 1,090 feet. That triggers a Tier Zero shortage.

“Under Tier Zero conditions, Arizona takes a reduction of 192,000 acre-feet in its annual Colorado River entitlement,” said Suzanne Ticknor, assistant general manager at the Central Arizona Project.

An acre-foot of water can cover one acre of land with one foot of water, or 325,851 gallons. The EPA says the average person uses 88 gallons of water a day at home, which equates to 32,120 gallons a year.

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Arizona’s reduced supply in Tier Zero will affect certain users of the Central Arizona Project canal system. There will be a slight reduction to some Pinal County farmers, and the pool of so-called “excess water” will be eliminated.

Regular buyers of excess water have included the United States, the Arizona Water Banking Authority and the agency that replenishes groundwater in Central Arizona, which enables new home building.

The CAP is writing a new policy for excess water if and when it returns.

Southern Arizona Farmers Again Ask for $20 Million for Water Infrastructure

PHOENIX – Farmers in Pinal County are again pushing for an extra $20 million in the state budget for wells and other groundwater infrastructure. This would be in addition to the $9 million in general fund dollars and $5 million from Central Arizona Project taxpayers they received as part of the Drought Contingency Plan earlier this year.

Climate change and overuse have sapped the Colorado River’s two main reservoirs. That spurred water leaders from the seven Colorado River basin states to negotiate a plan for cutbacks in order to reduce the risk of dangerously low levels. That deal, the DCP, was finalized earlier this year and signed into law by President Trump in April.

Irrigation districts in Pinal County are facing the brunt of water reductions due to their place near the back of the line for Colorado River water delivered by the Central Arizona Project canal system. The districts exchanged higher priority water rights for debt relief and cheaper water prices as part of a deal from the early 2000s.

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The DCP plans for a faster transition to groundwater for Pinal farming, moving irrigation districts to almost complete reliance on groundwater by 2025 or 2026, depending on river conditions. Farmers would also fallow 30 to 40 percent of their farmland. A healthy snowpack in 2019 may have put off significant CAP cutbacks for next year, but they are expected in future years.

The current budget request is due to uncertainty over U.S. Department of Agriculture funding.  Federal programs may provide the $20 million, but the Pinal farmers want the state to allocate the money now and get federal reimbursement later. They argue the infrastructure work needs to begin soon, long before any USDA program makes its decision.

“If we don’t have the money now, money from the feds later would be a day late and a dollar short,” said Tiffany Shedd, a farmer and lawyer from Eloy.

Shedd and others argue farming is vital to the larger economy. Environmental groups say tax dollars shouldn’t facilitate groundwater pumping, and Arizona should move away from water-intensive crops like alfalfa and cotton.

Rep. David Cook (R-District 8), whose district includes much of Pinal County, said he had the support of budget negotiators.

“I have faith in the Governor’s Office and the leadership in the House and Senate to put together a budget that includes this money,” he said. Cook did not say he would withhold his vote from the budget if the money isn’t included, a strategy other state lawmakers have employed this year. Republicans hold slim majorities in both the House and Senate.

“I don’t withhold my vote, I never have,” said Rep. T.J. Shope (R-District 8), Cook’s seatmate and a member of House leadership. “I believe that the leadership that I’m a part of, obviously, in the House, is also supportive of it.”

Tribes’ Role in Drought Contingency Plan Marks Turning Point for Inclusion

SACATON – Sprouting through the cracked floor of the Sonoran Desert, tepary beans thrive in the dry heat and carry with it centuries of resilience from the indigenous Pima people of southern Arizona.

“We have our water. It’s our life. It’s our livelihood, and it’s our culture,” said Ramona Button, owner of Ramona Farms.

Ramona Button and her husband, Terry, have been farming traditional native foods on the Gila River Indian Community for more than 40 years, including the tepary bean, a staple of native dishes for centuries.

“And we’re experts in dealing with drought,” Terry Button said.

With more than 4,000 acres under cultivation, the Buttons have had to draw their nearly 20,000 acre feet of water needed every year from a variety of sources. They get water from the San Carlos Irrigation Project, ground wells and the Colorado River hundreds of miles away.

“Commingle all these water resources to ensure us to have enough water to keep this agricultural industry thriving here,” Terry Button said.

From crop selection to leveling the fields, Terry Button says the first line of defense against drought starts by conserving water on the farm. (Photo by Oskar Agredano/Cronkite News)

But after nearly two decades of drought in Arizona and waning water levels in the Colorado River Basin, the seven states that make up the basin, including Arizona, California and Nevada, have had to negotiate potential cuts to the water to make sure there’s enough water in Lake Powell, which straddles the Utah-Arizona line, and in Lake Mead, to supply water throughout the Southwest.

The Drought Contingency Plan, also known as the DCP, is a multistate agreement that includes Arizona. The plan aims to keep water levels in those reservoirs above critical lows, and should reservoirs dip below certain levels, state including Arizona will have to cut back on the amount each takes from the Colorado River system.

After months of negotiations on the state level, Sen. Martha McSally, a Republican, and Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat, introduced DCP legislation in the House and Senate, which Congress sent to President Trump to sign last week. Trump signed the Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act on April 16, 2019.

“This is about the livelihood and the safety of 40 million Americans,” McSally said on the Senate floor. “The Colorado River DCP Authorization Act puts sound water policy over partisan politics.”

However, before even getting to Capitol Hill, Arizona’s tribes played a critical role in the negotiation of the DCP.

“Without the community’s participation, we don’t see how the DCP can be done,” Stephen Roe Lewis, Gila River Indian Community governor, said in March before Arizona had agreed to the plan.

“We call ourselves the people of the river, O’otham. We have that generational knowledge that goes back centuries if not a millennium,” Lewis said.

Like the resilient tepary bean they harvest, the Button’s have learned to adapt, despite water challenges in the past. (Photo by Oskar Agredano/Cronkite News)

If cuts are made due to drought, the Gila River Indian Community would keep a portion of their water in Lake Mead for compensation. But other tribes are contributing to the drought plan.

Chairman Dennis Patch of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, CRIT, said the community plans to provide 50,000 acre-feet of water every year from 2020 through 2022.

“The benefit for us is that we would be getting some income off it,” Patch said. “The benefit for Arizona and its users is that it would get more water.”

Water is power, and in the Colorado River Basin, tribes hold a significant amount of water claims.

Ten tribes, including the Colorado River Indian Tribes, have rights to more than 2.8 million acre-feet of water yearly from the Colorado River, according to the Tribal Water Study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Native American communities in the basin.

But only half of that water is currently being used, the study said.

-Video by Lillian Donahue/Cronkite News

Daryl Vigil, water administrator at Jicarilla Apache Nation, who worked on the study, said it’s relatively new for local and federal lawmakers to include tribes in national water policy conversations.

“That conversation and that opportunity wasn’t available before,” Vigil said. “But now with the conclusion of this DCP and the inclusion of tribes in that dialogue, I think that sets the stage for that to happen.”

Despite facing drought, the Buttons at Ramona Farms said they are more optimistic now than decades before when water was diverted away from the Gila River Indian Community as the population grew outside the reservation.

“The hardest part was when the water was diverted to other areas up east of us. That was a part of what we called our drought also,” Ramona Button said.

The Gila River Indian Community regained its water claims in a 2004 settlement.

As the Buttons walk through their barley fields, they know none of it could be possible without the work of those who came before them, and the water that gives the desert around them life.

“Right now, we’re enjoying the opportunity and the responsibility to maintain this tradition,” Terry Button said. “To utilize the resources of the communities agricultural land, it’s water, and the people.”

Congress OKs Drought Contingency Plan, Capping Years of Colorado River Debate

WASHINGTON – Two weeks after water officials told Congress there was “urgent” need to approve the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, the House and Senate both passed a plan Monday and sent it to the president’s desk.

If signed by President Donald Trump as expected, it would be the culmination of years of negotiations between seven states in the Colorado River basin on how much each state can draw from the river if Lake Powell and Lake Mead drop to crisis levels.

The votes came in rapid succession Monday evening, with little debate and each chamber approving the measure by acclimation.

“This immediate action is essential to preserving the water supply for millions of people in the American Southwest,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said on the House floor before the vote.

House and Senate versions of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act are identical: Both require that the Interior secretary authorize the water allocation agreement hammered out by the seven basin states. That deal is designed to prevent a potential water crisis and settle disputes over who gives up water if the river reaches a crisis level.

For Arizona, that means that once Lake Mead levels fell below a certain point, the state would lose access to 192,000 acre-feet a year that it can now pull from the river. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land that is one foot deep, or 325,853 gallons.

The plan’s backers note one primary goal is to prevent those drops in reservoir levels from ever happening by requiring states to cede less water but at an earlier point.

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, praised her fellow lawmakers for acting quickly to pass the legislation.

“We just introduced this legislation last Tuesday,” she said on the Senate floor Monday. “But by acting so quickly, the lower basin states will be able to immediately begin saving hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water.”

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Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, who last month urged Senate and House committees to move swiftly on the agreement, welcomed Monday’s votes.

“The last few weeks have been one of the most extraordinary periods in the history of ADWR and was a remarkable chapter in the long story of securing Arizona’s water supplies,” Buschatzke said in a statement.

“I’m grateful that Congress has approved the bipartisan Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act, which will enable the seven Colorado River Basin States to keep Lake Mead from falling to critically low levels,” his statement said.

Like others, Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, welcomed passage of the bill. But he also said on the House floor that he “wanted to add a little caveat that we understand the work isn?t done.”

“This legislation does not lay out every last step that those of us in Arizona must do,” Schweikert said. “We are going to have to step up and meet our obligations, and I think that’s important we understand there is much work left to be done.?

Grijalva echoed Schweikert and said “the job is not done, there is much to do,” noting that the current plan would only last until 2026, when it will have to be renegotiated.

“It is not an infinite resource, water, it is a finite resource and we need to treat it that way,” Grijalva said.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the state’s should be recognized for hammering out the deal that Congress only had to approve.

“This is a totally unique bill,” Bishop said. “What we have done is let the seven affected states get together and work out a solution and bring it to us, and we in Congress didn’t screw it up too bad.”

Related Video Story by Lillian Donahue/Cronkite News

Colorado River Water Managers Ask Congress for Drought Plan Approval

PHOENIX – 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 over-allocated 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.

The Colorado River Basin spans nearly the length of Arizona, but its impact is felt across the Southwest. (Graphic courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation)

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 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.

Why Drought Contingency Plan ‘Deadlines’ Don’t Tell the Full Story

PHOENIX – The last day of January looked like a banner day for Arizona’s water planning. State lawmakers had passed legislation authorizing Arizona to enter into an important deal. Gov. Doug Ducey signed the bills almost immediately.

“Working together with a common goal in mind, there’s no limit to what we can achieve. And today proves it,” he pronounced.

There was applause and relief in the old state Senate chamber where the ceremony took place. The Drought Contingency Plan would keep water in Lake Mead and reduce its chance of dropping rapidly. As a bonus, this milestone came on the date the federal government had set as a deadline of sorts.

Then came the next day, when Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said the deadline wasn’t met.

“Close isn’t done,” she told reporters on a conference call. “Despite yesterday’s historic legislation, neither Arizona nor California have completed all of the necessary work to approve the DCP.”

Water from the Colorado River flows through an irrigation canal at an alfalfa farm near Eloy, Ariz. (Photo by Luke Runyon / KUNC)
Arizona has 15 related agreements and contracts to finish, between tribes, water districts, cities and others. And the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California is trying to secure funding to help the ever-drier Salton Sea.

As Arizona and other Colorado River states move ever closer to finishing the Drought Contingency Plan to boost Lake Mead, the federal government is moving forward on a parallel track. That path would create a federal plan in case the states don’t finish by the deadline.

But what is the deadline?

The Unclear Deadline

On Feb. 1, Burman gave everyone another month to wrap up. But that second deadline — March 4 — has passed too.

Reclamation is now accepting input from governors in the Colorado River basin on what kind of alternate plan the Department of Interior should install if needed. That input is due March 19 — another deadline.

All the while, Arizona is continuing to work on its various agreements.

Last month, Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, told reporters Arizona wouldn’t be done by March 4th.

“That’s an artificial deadline and these are very complex agreements and very complex negotiations,” he said. “We will take the time we need to do them properly. That being said, I don’t expect it to drag on for months and months and months.”

Lake Mead has been dropping for years, and if it dips too low it could trigger a shortage in the Lower Colorado River Basin. (Photo by Luke Runyon / KUNC)

At the time, Cooke was confident all of Arizona’s internal deals would be done before the end of April. He also said it wasn’t clear to him what the federal government considered “done.”

“We do not have a clear list of things that need to be completed by that day.” he said, referring to March 4.

Reclamation didn’t specify which of Arizona’s separate agreements absolutely must be signed, sealed and delivered for the state to join Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada in the “done” column. On the Feb. 1st press call, however, Commissioner Burman did say “all” agreements need to be complete.

The Absolute Deadline

Estevan López, who was Reclamation commissioner from late 2014 until the end of the Obama Administration, said he would want all of the sub-agreements to be signed “so that nobody can get cold feet and say, ‘oh wait a minute. I want to change this aspect of it.’ Because then, one little thread starts unraveling the whole thing.”

López said a contingency plan — regardless of who writes it — absolutely needs to be in place by the time an important document gets released in early August. It’s called the August 24-month Study. This tells water users in the basin the projected level of Lake Mead and what amount of cutbacks the states must take. So that makes August the ultimate deadline.

Commissioner Burman has made it clear she wants the Drought Contingency Plan to come from the states — and they may very well get there. But just in case, the parallel federal process is moving forward.

“She’s doing it. She’s doing it incrementally,” López said, referring to Burman. “But if things don’t come together by July or August, I think Reclamation will do something.”

If it came to that, the states could very well contest the broad authority the feds say they have over the Colorado River. We know no one wants it to come to that — especially not for a river system that supplies water to about 40 million people.

But until we get there, we are likely to keep hearing about deadlines.

This story is part of “Elemental: Covering Sustainability,” a multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the West, and part of ongoing Colorado River coverage in partnership with KUNC in Colorado, and supported by a Walton Family Foundation grant.

Gila River Indian Community Celebrates Historic Groundwater Project

GILA RIVER INDIAN COMMUNITY – The Gila River Indian Community unveiled a new groundwater infrastructure project on Friday. The tribe hopes it will provide for members when surface water becomes more scarce.

The “Managed Aquifer Recharge” project, one of at least two planned for the reservation, has a canal system and an open basin where water will seep down into the aquifer. Water then pumped from the aquifer will irrigate crops.

The basin also supports a riparian habitat in the Gila River pathway. The birds and plants are coming back after upstream users diverted the tribe’s water after the Civil War.

Tribal member Kandi Howard said it’s nice to not have to leave the reservation to enjoy nature like this. “And to [have our] water rights back,” she said, referring to the historic 2004 Arizona Water Settlement.

Of the riparian area, she said, “it’s coming along. And I didn’t think our kids would be able to see it, but they are. Like, gradually.”

Gina Enos is a farmer in Sacaton, Ariz. “It means a lot to us,” she said of the MAR-5 project. (Photo by Bret Jaspers / KJZZ)

The governor of the Gila River Indian Community, Stephen Roe Lewis, said the pace of building increased once Drought Contingency Plan talks started in 2016.

“It became clear that drought was a reality for all of us,” he told a crowd of Community members, water leaders and politicians. “And that the community needed to accelerate its reduction of CAP water deliveries and increase its reliance on groundwater supplies.”

The tribe said the project allows it to take less Central Arizona Project (CAP) water and make agreements to help prop up Lake Mead.

The GRIC played an important role in Arizona’s intrastate agreement that helped the state get on board with a Colorado River basin-wide DCP plan. It also signed a separate agreement with the groundwater replenishment arm of the Central Arizona Project, providing more water for development in Central Arizona.

A canal on the Gila River Indian Community. (Photo by Bret Jaspers / KJZZ)