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.

Push for Salton Sea Improvements Complicates Colorado River Drought Plan

SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Arizona and California aren’t done with finalizing a plan that would establish how states in the Colorado River Basin will ensure water for millions of people in the Southwest, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said Friday.

Despite Arizona lawmakers meeting Burman’s deadline to sign off on a plan to keep Lake Mead’s water levels from hitting critically low levels, agreements with Native American tribes and other water users still need to be signed.

The legislation Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed authorizes the Arizona Department of Water Resources to execute the relevant interstate DCP agreements, Burman said, adding, “Arizona is unique in the need for state legislative action to approve the DCPs, and this important step may indicate that finalization of the DCPs is imminent.”

Related story

Arizona Lawmakers Agree on Crucial Drought Contingency Plan

Even so, Arizona and California need to complete “necessary work,” Burman said in a conference call Friday with reporters.

One challenge comes from the Imperial Irrigation District, a water utility that serves the Imperial Valley in southeastern California. It hasn’t signed California’s plan because it wants $200 million to restore the vanishing Salton Sea, the state’s largest lake.

The Interior Department has requested the governors of the seven Colorado River Basin states to submit recommendations for steps the agency should take to handle severe and prolonged drought. Arizona, California and Nevada still are working on a drought plan for the Lower Basin; Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico reached an Upper Basin agreement in December. The Interior Department will intervene if states can’t agree to a plan by March 4.

Under the plan Ducey signed Thursday, Arizona, California and Nevada would share cutbacks to manage water shortages through 2026. The Upper Basin drought contingency plan also runs through 2026.

Burman acknowledged the Jan. 31 deadline she set in mid-December was aggressive, but said, “Unfortunately … the DCP in the Lower Basin is still not complete. Like I told the seven basin states in December, close isn’t done.”

The shallow, briny Salton Sea, which is California’s largest lake, has high levels of pollution. It is a major recreation area and a key stop for migrating birds.(Photo by LindaDee2006/Flickr)

Why the Salton Sea is a Sticking Point

The Salton Sea, which spans 8,360 square miles in the low desert of southeastern California and northern Mexico, formed in 1905 when the rampaging Colorado River flooded and broke through an irrigation canal. For 18 months, the Salton Basin filled with river water to create the lake. Since then, the lake has been sustained primarily by agricultural runoff.

More than a century later, it’s drying up. According to the Desert Sun, the briny lake is becoming a toxic dust bowl, causing human health problems. The evaporation and exposed toxins also pose a threat to sport fishing, migratory wildlife and the Salton Sea State Recreation Area.

Robert Schettler, a representative of the Imperial Irrigation District, said the district is invested in the Lower Basin drought contingency plan and isn’t trying to stop it.

“We’re partners, (with California) and we’re trying to help, but people need to see how important the Salton Sea is,” Schettler said. “Conservation is great, but it’s having a negative impact on the sea.”

Farmers are using less water, which means less runoff flowing into the lake, he explained. Schettler said pollution and an increase in dust as the shoreline recedes is a major health concern in the region and needs to be addressed.

California approved a project to build wetlands and to control dust, but the state estimates the cost would be more than $400 million. The state needs an additional $200 million, which it wants in exchange for agreeing to the DCP.

In an email, Henry Martinez, Imperial’s general manager, said the district “will continue to work diligently to reach agreement on outstanding DCP issues.”

Why California is Taking Water from Lake Mead

As Arizona deliberated over its drought contingency plan, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California already had begun withdrawing about 250,000 acre-feet of Lake Mead water for storage in California reservoirs. The utility, which is entitled to the water under current agreements, had limited the amount it had taken from Mead in the past two years, and it was able to store a record amount of water in 2017, a very wet year.

The decision by Metropolitan to withdraw water from Mead was a pressure tactic and defensive measure. Nineteen million people in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties depend on water from Metropolitan, which has stated the water would be returned if the drought contingency plan isn’t passed.

California encourages residents to conserve water through policy, outreach and promoting technology that uses less water. Despite steady population growth in Southern California, Metropolitan’s peak demand for water was in 1990.

“It’s a remarkable story of basically 25 years of concentrated investment in drawing down demand,” Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager since 2006, said in a Metropolitan podcast. “All the devices in your house, getting people to transform the landscapes in their gardens have really turned Southern California into good stewards of water and driven down our demand to the point that we can balance with a lot less imported water.”

Despite the strides to secure California’s future water supplies, Kightlinger believes more needs to be done.

“An emergency is coming,” he said. “We already take more (from the Colorado River) than what’s put in. We (Californians) don’t have the luxury of waiting.”

Kightlinger said storing water for dry years and reducing demand are the best ways to address the dwindling water supply in the Colorado River.

Why Lake Mead Matters

Lake Mead, south of Las Vegas, is the largest reservoir on the Colorado, followed by Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah line. Utah, Colorado Wyoming and New Mexico depend on water from Powell. Arizona, Nevada and California draw water from Mead.

As of Feb. 1, Lake Mead’s water level stood at 1,085 feet above sea level, according to USLakes.info, 143 feet below full pool. If it drops below 1,075 feet above sea level – which could occur next year – the Bureau of Reclamation will declare an official shortage and mandate water cutoffs. At 1,050 feet, stricter cutoffs would be imposed.

Kightlinger said Metropolitan wouldn’t be able to withdraw stored water in Lake Mead if cutoffs are enforced.

The Bureau of Reclamation projects that Lake Mead’s water will drop to a critical level by 2020, regardless of Metropolitan’s withdrawal. Scientists say the dwindling water levels are a result of nearly 20 years of drought, growing populations in the Southwest, increased use by farmers growing year-round crops and climate change.

In the worse-case scenario, Lake Mead would be declared a “dead pool” at 895 feet above sea level. Hoover Dam, which draws water from Mead to provide power to more than 8 million people, would stop generating electricity, and Lower Basin states would be cut off from water supplies.

Water users in Mohave, La Paz and Yuma counties all rely on the Colorado as their primary water source, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and the Central Arizona Project provides on average 1.5 million-acre feet of Colorado River water to Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties annually.

‘Somebody’s going to have to use less’: Colorado River managers grapple with drought

PAGE – Years into a record-breaking drought across the Southwest, officials of the seven states along the Colorado River finally forged an agreement in 2007 on how to deal with future water shortages. Then they quietly hoped that wet weather would return.

It didn’t.

Those states now are back at the negotiating table to hammer out new deals to avoid a slow-moving crisis on the river system that supports 40 million people from Colorado to California.

You can see the extent of the problem in a place like Page, Arizona, on the southern edge of Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir in the country behind Lake Mead.

Jennifer Pitt, who works on Colorado River policy for the National Audubon Society, stands on an overlook peering down at the lake and the immense concrete dam holding it in place.

“Now you can tell that there’s a river here underneath this reservoir because it has somewhat of a linear shape,” said Pitt, tracing the red rock canyon with her finger. “And it’s wending its way towards where we’re standing, here, overlooking the Glen Canyon Dam.”

The canyon behind the dam is stained with a stark white ring. For the past 20 years, Pitt said, demands for water have outstripped the supply, meaning Lake Powell and Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam further downstream, continue to drop. Both are less than half full.

Without changes to how the two reservoirs are managed, Pitt said, levels could dip below the point where no water can be released, referred to as “dead pool.”

“If that happened, that would be a catastrophe for this region’s economy,” she said, “for all of the people who depend on the Colorado River and for all of the wildlife that depends on it as well.”

(The National Audubon Society receives funds from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

It’s not about blame

That dystopian future of abandoned farms, dried-up streams and water-stressed cities is one that James Eklund of the Upper Colorado River Commission and other water managers are attempting to avoid.

“Take Lake Mead. More is being taken out than comes into it,” Eklund said. “Like your bank account, if you do that over a sustained period, you will run a deficit, and if you’re talking about water for 40 million people and economies that are massive – fifth-largest economy in the world, the Colorado River Basin represents – then that’s significant.”

Managers are attempting to boost reservoir levels with a suite of agreements under the umbrella of “drought contingency planning.” The premise is simple: Cut water use now, use that saved water to bump up Powell and Mead, and doing so will help to avoid bigger problems in the future, when supplies are likely to be even tighter.

Calcium deposits on the rock formations at Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, show the impact of lingering drought on water levels. Hydrologists fear the reservoir will drop to the level at which no water can be released – a situation known as “dead pool.” (File photo by Alexis Kuhbander/Cronkite News)

Water officials in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming are working on a plan that covers the river’s Upper Basin and focuses on boosting snowpack with weather modification, better management of reservoirs and creating a water bank in Lake Powell.

The Lower Basin plan, being worked on by officials in Arizona, California and Nevada, is meant to create new incentives for farmers and cities to conserve water in Lake Mead and to agree to earlier, deeper cuts to water use so the reservoir can avoid dropping to dead pool levels.

Tuesday, water officials with all of the states, except Arizona, released draft agreements that spell out water cuts to boost levels at Mead and Powell according to azcentral.com. Arizona water officials plan to work through November to develop an agreement that state lawmakers would need to approve next spring.

“There is clearly enough evidence that if we were to have another 2000 to 2004 kind of a multiyear drought, the system is in very serious trouble,” said Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

When the current management guidelines were written in 2007, planners were optimistic, Kuhn said.

“Historically, we’ve always said, ‘Well, next year will be better,’” Kuhn said. “And that’s the easy way out.”

Now, after another of the driest and hottest water years on record, much of that optimism has evaporated.

Kuhn said Arizona has had the hardest time coming to an agreement because of intrastate battles over who will take cuts to water allocations and when they’ll take them. But states in the river’s Upper Basin have had issues, too.

One example is with the concept of demand management.

“It’s the difficult one,” Kuhn noted. “Somebody’s going to have to use less.”

Kuhn said there’s a fear that if those cuts aren’t doled out fairly, it could injure economies throughout the Southwest. Colorado River District officials and agricultural interests from Colorado’s Western Slope have said they’re on board with a demand management program only if farmers are given a choice about how much water they give up, and that they’re paid for forgoing water deliveries to their operations. But state officials have left the door open to mandatory cutbacks in a crisis.

Lake Mead sports a white “bathtub ring” more than 100 feet tall in this December 2015 photo, illustrating how far the water level has fallen after years of drought. (File photo by Alex Demas/Cronkite News)

Over the past three years, drought contingency negotiations have laid bare old tensions throughout the basin. Farmers and cities have blamed each other’s collective water uses for decades. And the same is true with water managers protective of their own interests in either the Upper or Lower basins.

“The thing we have to remember is (water use) in the basin is over 80 percent agriculture,” said Colby Pellegrino, who handles Colorado River issues for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the utility serving metro Las Vegas.

Current conservation programs, like the utility’s aggressive buyback of residential lawns, won’t be enough, Pellegrino said.

“We can take out all the lawns we want and still not solve the problems that climate change is going to throw at us,” Pellegrino said.

Climate change is just one pressure to get these deals done quickly. The U.S. Department of the Interior has given the Colorado Basin states an end-of-year deadline to get things done. If not, the assumption is the feds will step in to do it for them.

“That’s I think a fear of everybody on the river, especially in the Upper Basin,” said Jennifer Gimbel, a former Interior undersecretary, now with Colorado State University. “And the last thing we want is interference by the federal government in that role.”

The fate of the entire region hangs in the balance, said Gimbel.

At Glen Canyon Dam, Pitt, with the Audubon Society, said more than the fates of people and economies are tied up in river politics: An entire ecosystem is at stake.

“I think a lot of people who care about wildlife in this region are concerned,” Pitt said. “And it’s not just birds. Seventy percent of all wildlife in the arid West rely on rivers at some point in their life cycle. So it has outsize importance for anyone who appreciates nature in this part of the country.”

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.