Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Battle to Stop Strip Mining in the Colorado River Basin

DENVER – A massive oil shale project is being planned on the border between Colorado and Utah that would take a lot of water out of the Colorado River Basin. The proposal by a European company, was authorized to proceed by the federal government; however, it may now find itself between a rock and a hard place because of a lawsuit recently filed by eight environmental organizations.

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s oil shale reserves are in the Green River Formation, where Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming meet, according to the website for Enefit, an energy company. Enefit is a subsidiary of a state-owned company located in the Baltic Sea country of Estonia, and it wants to strip mine about 27,000 of its acres in Utah to access the oil in the rock that’s at the surface, or just below. The rock would be heated to high temperatures to release crude oil, which would then be ready to be refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

The mine would be located in a remote and rugged part of Utah about 40 miles from of Dinosaur National Monument in the Uintah Basin. It would be the first of its kind in the U.S. However, on May 16, eight different environmental groups represented by attorneys at Earthjustice banded together and sued the federal government to stop it.

Michael Toll, an attorney with the Grand Canyon Trust, one of the groups suing, said that the Bureau of Land Management did a completely inadequate analysis of the massive impacts of the planned oil shale development.

The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity joined with the Grand Canyon Trust and five other conservation groups claiming that, in issuing its permit, the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not fully analyze issues like the impacts on wildlife and particularly water depletions from the Green River, an important tributary in the already stressed Colorado River Basin. Instead, the agencies looked only at the limited effects of a 14-mile water pipeline—not the whole operation.

Toll said that it’s difficult to identify the most significant impact of the proposed operation. He said that it’s a unique project with several impacts that are so egregious it is hard to pick just one. The project’s water consumption stands out because the region is so arid and, obviously, all through the West water is such a precious commodity. The mine would take about 11,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Green River. Toll said he thinks the company wants to take the water from the Green because that amount is oftentimes more than the entire flow of the nearby White River, another tributary in the basin. In a statement, Earthjustice said that depletions from the Green would harm critical habitat for endangered fish, including the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker.

In addition to the effects on water and wildlife, the environmental groups say the government needs to consider the enormous amounts of carbon emissions from burning the more than 500 million barrels of oil produced from the mining. A release by the Grand Canyon Trust says that oil shale is one of world’s most carbon-polluting fuels, with lifecycle carbon emissions up to 75 percent higher than those of conventional fuels.

And, there is the problem of the region’s air quality. The process of baking the rock to get the oil will emit huge amounts of ozone precursors, according to Earthjustice. Toll said that the Uintah Basin, where the mining operations could be located, was recently designated as out-of-attainment with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone standards. He said there are many days when the air in the basin is unsafe to breathe, and it would be dramatically degraded by the mining.

In addition, the sheer size of the project will have huge impacts. According to the Grand Canyon Trust, Enefit is proposing to dig out more that 28 million tons of oil shale per year for 30 years or more. Rains would potentially cause salts and other pollutants to infiltrate into ground water and nearby surface waters, affecting various species. The amount of ground disturbance from the mine itself is another significant impact, according to Toll.

The plaintiffs in the case filed in Federal District Court in Salt Lake City want the court to order the Trump administration to do a comprehensive analysis of all the impacts for the proposed operation, instead of only considering a small feature of the project—a utility corridor including a water pipeline.

Enefit responded by email to a request for comment from H2O Radio. Ryan Clerico, the CEO of Enefit American Oil, said that the company is still conducting engineering and permitting in advance of commencing commercial operations. He also said that the government’s approval is only about a corridor for utilities and not for the project itself, which would be done by other state and federal agencies.

For now, the environmental groups have not asked the court to stop the project because the company has not started to dig up any ground, but if they get wind of that happening they will ask the court to halt it.

This story was first published by on May 22, 2019. Read the original report here.

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.”

In Colorado River’s Final Hundred Miles, Small Signs of Life Return

LAGUNA GRANDE, BAJA CALIFORNIA, Mexico — It’s mid-morning in the Sonoran desert and already the temperature is rising.

Karen Schlatter suggests we find some shade, a relatively easy task at Laguna Grande, a restoration site along the Colorado River’s historic channel in Mexico. It’s managed by the Sonoran Institute, where Schlatter is associate director of the binational environmental group’s Colorado River Delta program.

We head over to a stand of 30-foot cottonwood trees within the intensely managed site. Walking through the canopy, away from the direct sun, the temperature drops quickly.

“This forest here is probably five years old,” Schlatter said. “Trees and habitat can establish really quickly in the Colorado River Delta when you give it the adequate conditions: water, sunlight and not very high soil salinity.”

A stand of trees are reflected in a pool of water at Laguna Grande, a restoration site in the Colorado River delta, managed by the Sonoran Institute. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Zig-zagging around us, among the trees, is a sprawling network of irrigation ditches. It’s almost laid out like a farm. Instead of the food crops grown all around this site, Schlatter’s team grows trees and willows, prime habitat for birds, coyotes, frogs and other wildlife. The whole site only receives water a couple times a year.

Midway through our walk, we come across a dusty trail leading from the woods down to a pool of water in the Colorado River’s channel.

“Yeah, so this is a beaver trail,” Schlatter explained. “We had beavers arrive to the site, I think five years ago. Two years ago we had an entire beaver family and there were little baby beavers running everywhere and everyone was freaking out.”

Karen Schlatter helps manage Colorado River restoration work for the binational environmental group, the Sonoran Institute. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

This place is an attempt to give a glimpse at what the Colorado River Delta used to be when the river emptied into the Pacific Ocean — a healthy mix of cottonwood forests, vast lagoons and thriving estuaries.

But for the last 50 years, the delta has become a husk of its former self.

Since then, growing cities and farms in the Southwest have claimed more and more water promised to them under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, leaving its delta in northern Mexico dry. The delta’s problem isn’t one caused by drought and aridity. It’s the byproduct of a river promised to too many people, collateral damage in the effort to make the desert Southwest capable of supporting millions of acres of crops and burgeoning cities.

Within the last 15 years, though, the countries that rely on the river — the U.S. and Mexico — have begun committing both funding and water to restore portions of the dried-out delta and bring some life back to the Colorado River’s final hundred miles.

“A Scarce Resource”

The water arrives at Laguna Grande the same way it arrives at farms in Mexico’s Mexicali Valley. It comes here via a network of irrigation canals that criss-cross the valley, delivering the Colorado River’s water. A concrete-lined canal passes right by the restoration site.

The water is either purchased from farmers within the valley by a trust, or water dedicated to restoration by the U.S. and Mexico. Under an agreement called Minute 323, 210,000 acre-feet of water will flow to sites like Laguna Grande until 2026. A portion of that water is made available by making irrigation upgrades within the Mexicali Valley, and the U.S. committed $31.5 million to fund those upgrades.

“Both countries have an interest in restoring the Colorado River Delta,” Schlatter said. “Particularly Mexico is interested in restoring the habitat and some of that economic value that was lost. And the U.S., because this is a binational river, also has an interest in helping Mexico do that.”

A previous agreement, called Minute 319, allowed for a pulse flow through some of the restoration sites and some water for so-called base flows, or water that would be delivered more deliberately to the restoration areas.

Water from the Colorado River irrigates farm fields in the Mexicali valley, creating patches of green in the Sonoran Desert. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC/LightHawk)

Under Minute 323, $9 million is set aside for restoration work, split equally among the U.S., Mexico and a set of environmental organizations that work in both countries. Another $9 million is committed to an ecological monitoring program. Karl Flessa at the University of Arizona is part of that team of scientists gathering data and observations from the delta.

“These are parks,” Fless said. “Think of them as little green parks scattered along the course of the river.”

So far, Flessa’s group of scientists have found a dramatic increase in the number and species of birds coming here. Other wildlife are making a comeback. Flessa says the early results are promising.

A report published in December 2018 by the International Boundary and Water Commission found the “abundance and diversity of birds in the riparian corridor increased 20% and 42% after the 2014 pulse flow.” That burst of bird activity did diminish after 2014, but remained higher in the managed restoration areas.

“The river is dried up below Morelos Dam (at the U.S.-Mexico border),” Flessa said. “And restoring some of that flow below the dam even to small park-like restoration areas, that’s restoring a little bit of environmental justice.”

“It is for Wildlife and for People”

A few miles upstream of Laguna Grande, whitewater gushes out of an irrigation canal into another restoration site, El Chausse.

Adrian Salcedo of Restauremos el Colorado manages water at Chausse. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Adrian Salcedo manages the flow of water for Restauremos El Colorado, a Mexican environmental group. It receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

“This site is very complex, maybe more than other sites because of the water management,” Salcedo said through a translator.

Chausse is meant to replicate a bend in the Colorado River. Teams here ripped out invasive species like saltcedar, and planted native vegetation. Instead of Laguna Grande’s bare, dry furrows, the site is more “natural-looking” with water flowing through multiple channels. Achieving that look and feel, with grassy marshes, takes a lot more resources.

“We have the water rights to make this place possible now,” Salcedo said. “But thinking about the future it could be complicated to restore this kind of habitat at this level, because water could be more scarce.”

The restoration sites also employ local workers needed to manage the flow of water, plant native trees and host visitors. They’ve become regular stops for groups of school children.

“It is for wildlife and for people,” Salcedo said. “In the beginning the plan was to just restore the river, the riparian vegetation and then when you get that back, the wildlife will start to come. Birds, mammals, polecats, coyotes.

“Then when the people see that, they want to come to the area and help.”

Colorado River Delta Series

Part 1: Five Years Later, Effects Of Colorado River Pulse Flow Still Linger

Like the entire Colorado River basin, climate change will put these restoration sites to the test, turning up the heat, increasing evaporation and diminishing water supplies.

“People are always asking, ‘Are you taking climate change into account?’” said the National Audubon Society’s Jennifer Pitt. “And we are in that we know that water will continue to be scarce and scarcer. And so we’re trying to use it to greatest effect.”

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

For example, Pitt said, in the latest U.S.-Mexico Colorado River agreements both countries spelled out how to handle shortages, and ensured restoration efforts wouldn’t be sidelined if supplies became more scarce.

Colorado River Delta Series

Part 2: As the Colorado River Basin Dries, Can an Accidental Oasis Survive?

Before leaving the site, we head down to a marsh, where tall grasses have taken root in a shallow pool. A secretive marsh bird called a sora has captured the attention of some of the site’s staff.

Alejandra Calvo, of environmental group Pronatura Noroeste, pulls out her phone to mimic the bird’s call. (The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

The tiny, spindly-legged sora weaves through the reeds and calls back, making a “kerwee” sound from its corn kernel-colored beak. It walks like it’s late for a midday appointment.
Disappointed to find only a group of gawking humans and not a mate, the bird eventually heads back into the grass.

“Nobody intentionally dried out the Colorado River Delta, but it happened,” Pitt said. “When we had our eyes open to look at it and say, ‘Oh that’s terrible, what have we done?’ it took a kind of high level sovereign-to-sovereign agreement to start doing something about it.”

This story is part of a series on the Colorado River delta, and part of an ongoing project covering the Colorado River watershed, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Special thanks for help in making this series possible to Alejandra Calvo-Fonseca, Will Worthington, Jim Afinowich, Esther Duke, Christine Steele and Esther Honig.

As the Colorado River Basin Dries, Can an Accidental Oasis Survive?

CIÉNEGA DE SANTA CLARA, Mexico — Juan Butrón-Méndez navigates a small metal motorboat through a maze of tall reeds here in the Mexican state of Sonora. It’s nearing sunset, and the sky is turning shades of light blue and purple.

The air smells of wet earth, an unfamiliar scent in the desert.

Butrón-Méndez lives nearby and works for the conservation group Pronatura Noroeste as a bird monitor. (Pronatura’s work receives financial support from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

He cuts the motor in an open stretch of water he calls the “scary lagoon,” ringed by tall grasses that rise from the thigh-high water. Without the boat’s droning hum, coastal birds appear over the reeds, and come in for a water landing.

Tall grasses rise from the shallow water at the Cienega de Santa Clara in Sonora, Mexico. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

American coots, with their white bills and dark grey feathers, cackle as they swim. They’re interspersed among broad-winged, yellow-beaked pelicans. Other birds, just silhouettes, dart along the surface, skimming for insects before dark. There’s no sign of them tonight, but several species of threatened or endangered marsh birds — like the Ridgway’s rail — call this place home too.

Butrón-Méndez has explored this wetland since its creation, watching over the course of decades as the shape-shifting oasis was born.

“Water started to flow to this place in the 1970s. I would walk around here without having to worry about getting wet,” Butrón-Méndez said though a translator. “If there wasn’t water, it’s a dry place.”

He’s been called the Ciénega’s patron saint, able to rattle off its history and the names of the birds, fish and mammals that live here.

The wetland is fed by a concrete canal that removes drainage water from American farms across the border in Arizona. The canal is called the MODE — Main Outlet Drain Extension. The salty runoff inadvertently created this oasis in the middle of the Sonoran desert, a perfect stopover for migratory birds on their journey along the Pacific coast.

“For the birds that migrate from the United States to the south, this is a place of rest, a place for nutrients, to give them strength to continue flying to wherever they’re going,” he said.

But there’s a problem. As the Colorado River basin heats up and dries out like climate projections predict, Butrón-Méndez is concerned people will stop thinking of the water that flows to the wetland as waste, find a way to use it and, in turn, harm the Ciénega.

“The biggest threat that has me thinking, at times,” he said, “although you won’t believe it, I’m thinking that one day when we least expect it the United States will say, ‘No more water for the wetlands of Santa Clara.’”

Juan Butrón-Méndez works for Pronatura Noroeste, a Mexican environmental group, and monitors birds at the Cienega de Santa Clara. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Geographical, topographical and political boundaries shape the Colorado River’s delta. The U.S-Mexico border bisects the delta, and its fate is controlled by governments, water agencies, farm groups and conservationists on both sides.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at the Ciénega de Santa Clara, one of the delta’s few wetlands, sustained by a water source with an uncertain future.

Wasted Water

The Ciénega was born in 1977 when the U.S. began draining salty agricultural runoff to the Santa Clara slough, near the Gulf of California. Years prior, the U.S. agreed not to send degraded water to Mexico, a near-constant tension between the two countries since they signed their first Colorado River treaty in 1944.

In a 1973 agreement called the “Permanent and Definitive Solution to the International Problem of the Salinity of the Colorado River,” President Richard Nixon’s administration agreed to a limit on how salty water would be at when delivered at the U.S.-Mexico border.

To keep the river from becoming loaded with salt, someone had to devise a way to keep the farm runoff from ending up in it. That’s how the MODE canal came to be. After irrigating lettuce fields and date palms in salty soil near Yuma, Arizona, the concrete-lined MODE would take the leftover water across the border close to the Pacific Ocean to dispose of it.

No one meant to create a haven for birds and other wildlife in the dried-out Colorado River delta in the process. But by sending about 100,000 acre-feet of water annually out into the desert, that’s what happened.

The “Permanent and Definitive Solution” also called for the creation of a treatment facility along the Colorado River that could clean up water from farms along the Gila River in southern Arizona, within the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District. Completed in 1992, the Yuma Desalting Plant became that treatment facility dreamed up in the 1970s.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Yuma Desalting Plant has never been fully operational since it was built in the early 1990s. Filled with obsolete desalination technology, it would require costly upgrades before it could be fired up. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Since it was finished the plant has only run a handful of times, and never at full capacity. It remains in “ready reserve” status and costs upwards of $2 million each year to maintain.

“The Yuma Desalting Plant is nothing but a tool in the toolbox,” said Mike Norris, who manages the plant for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “It’s a costly tool to operate.”

During prolonged dry spells though, costly tools become more reasonable. The plant could treat the salty wastewater, send it to Mexico for use on farms and cities to meet treaty obligations, and allow the U.S. to conserve more water on its side of the border, possibly reducing the risk of a shortage declaration in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin.

Water agencies in the state of Arizona, which would be hit hardest with cutbacks in a shortage, have been particularly keen to look at what operation of the desalting plant might look like.

“If we continue in the drought situation, as Lake Mead drops, the plant could be considered as one of the tools to take out of the toolbox to help conserve water in Lake Mead,” Norris said.
But it’s not like you can flip a switch and turn this facility on right away.

“There’s a lot of controversy of what that all that looks like,” Norris said. “The big concern is if we ever operate this plant at 100 percent, we’d be directing most of the water into the plant and then what would be going to the Ciénega would be the concentrate water, the higher saline water.”

A small replica of the Yuma Desalting Plant lights up and illustrates how salty runoff from Arizona farms would be treated. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The Ciénega wouldn’t dry up completely if the plant were to begin operating. Instead, it would receive a greatly diminished amount of water, and what it did receive would be highly saline. The super salty water would likely kill the Ciénega’s cattails and reduce the wetland’s size. It could also see sharp spikes in concentrations of selenium, making it inhospitable to fish and birds.

The wetland does have some protections. The Mexican government has designated the Ciénega as a Biosphere Reserve in the Colorado River Delta. It’s also been recognized for having “great ecological significance” by the Ramsar convention, an intergovernmental treaty on the value of wetlands. If the U.S. were to run the Yuma Desalting Plant it would likely trigger a reconsultation of previous agreements between the two countries.

Because it has sat idle for so long, the Yuma Desalting Plant needs millions of dollars in improvements before it could be fired up, including replacement of aluminum pipes and construction of a chlorine containment facility.

Funds to make those updates aren’t secure.

“We have not been able to get the necessary funds to run the plant at full capacity,” said Maria Ramirez, who oversaw the Yuma Area Office for Reclamation for years. She recently retired.
“I don’t know that it will ever run at full capacity,” she said.

Eyes have turned toward the plant this year as states that rely on the Colorado River are finalizing drought contingency plans. Under the Lower Basin’s plan, the federal government committed to conserve 100,000 acre-feet of water a year, roughly the same amount of water currently being sent to the Ciénega.

“Reclamation is looking at all cost-effective means of meeting this commitment,” said Reclamation spokeswoman Patti Aaron in an email.

Alejandra Calvo-Fonseca and Juan Butrón-Méndez of Pronatura Noroeste navigate a small boat through the reeds at the Cienega de Santa Clara. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The Delta’s Past Life

Driving to the Ciénega, it’s hard to imagine what the Colorado River Delta looked like when the river still flowed here. It’s bordered by miles and miles of crusty salt flats. The roads that lead to the wetland become impassable on the rare occasion it rains. They lie on top of layers of sediment — the Grand Canyon’s innards — left here as the Colorado River emptied into the ocean over millions of years.

But sitting on a boat inside the Ciénega, you can picture the delta in a past life, full of the green lagoons conservation writer Aldo Leopold described in his 1949 “A Sand County Almanac.” He explored the Colorado River Delta by canoe with his brother in 1922, nearly a decade before construction began on Hoover Dam.

The picture Leopold painted of the Colorado River Delta is a sensory experience. Gambel quails whistle. Raccoons munch. Jaguars sneak. Waters radiate an emerald green.

“When a troop of egrets settled on a far green willow,” Leopold wrote, “they looked like a premature snowstorm.”

Colorado River Delta Series

Part 1: Five Years Later, Effects Of Colorado River Pulse Flow Still Linger

Juan Butrón-Méndez said the only way to prevent the Ciénega from being harmed is for more people to know about it. One big threat, he said, is simply ignorance about its existence. If no one knows about the wetland’s value, they wouldn’t be upset if it disappeared, his thinking goes.

During our interview, he extends a standing invitation to visit anytime and get lost among the cattails.

Still, he knows about the outside pressures that weigh on the Ciénega — like climate change, growing populations, and tension between the U.S. and Mexico over immigration and trade — leaving its fate uncertain.

“The two countries, we’re neighbors right? The United States and Mexico,” Butrón-Méndez said. “Well, we need to have an agreement between the two countries, right, that (removing the water) wouldn’t happen. Because it would be a disaster.”

This story is part of a series on the Colorado River delta, and part of an ongoing project covering the Colorado River watershed, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

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.

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)

Shutdown, additional water requests could disrupt Arizona drought plan

PHOENIX – The partial federal government shutdown is affecting Arizona’s painstaking work on an internal drought plan, although not enough to delay a federal deadline set for the end of this month.

The Bureau of Reclamation remains open, Phoenix-area manager Leslie Meyers said, noting that the bureau’s funding was appropriated in September. The legal counsel for her office, however, is part of the Department of Interior, specifically the Office of the Field Solicitor. They are furloughed. The shutdown began Dec. 22.

“Right now, not having them at work is very difficult for us,” Meyers told reporters Tuesday, Jan. 8. “It’s hard to move forward.”

Interior department lawyers have been working with Arizona’s two biggest water agencies, the Central Arizona Project and the Arizona Department of Water Resources, to hammer out the various agreements required to finalize the state’s plan to deal with expected drought in the Colorado River Basin, which supplies millions of people Arizona and six other Western states. Arizona is the only basin state that requires legislative approval for the drought contingency plan, known as the DPC, to be implemented.

The Steering Committee for the Arizona Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, made of key water stakeholders in the state, met Tuesday for the first time since Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman set a Jan. 31 deadline for parties to have passed the DPC.

The broad DCP covers the entire Colorado River Basin and is an effort to prop up Lakes Mead and Powell, the major reservoirs for the river system. Arizona and a few California water agencies are the last holdouts amid intrastate negotiations.

If the shutdown does not end soon, Meyers guessed Burman would try to get some of the Department of Interior attorneys declared essential to get them back to work (albeit with no pay).

The deadline, however, is still firm.

“The deadline really was a work-back from dates that are hard-wired into agreements and other things,” Meyers said. For example, the DCP’s “shortage designations,” which would mandate any cuts to deliveries from Lake Mead in 2020, will be set according to an August hydrology report.

The Jan. 31 deadline also provides time for the Bureau of Reclamation to decide on a separate course of action if Arizona and the California entities do not approve the DCP.

However, the ongoing shutdown is not the only unresolved issue.

At Tuesday’s steering-committee meeting, the temperature in the room seemed to jump a few degrees during a discussion of so-called mitigation water for home builders. Mitigation has largely focused on providing farmers in Pinal County with water to ease them off Colorado River water and onto groundwater. Higher-priority water users also are getting mitigated because they also face cuts under the DCP.

Home builders are likely to get access to water through a separate but related deal between the Gila River Indian Community and the CAP’s groundwater replenishment arm, known as the CAGRD. The Tribal Council has approved it, pending state approval of the drought contingency plan.

That isn’t enough certainty for Spencer Kamps of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona. His group, along with the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, wants the Arizona DCP to include 7,000 acre-feet of mitigation water for development for the first three years of a shortage declaration (21,000 acre-feet total). If the DCP passes and the Gila River tribe’s deal with CAGRD deal is executed, the provision would be removed.

Kamps’ concern is that Arizona’s internal DCP, whatever its current form, may get changed by the Legislature, making it unsatisfactory to the tribe.

“What condition is DCP in when it goes through?” Kamps asked. “Ultimately, nobody knows what that’s going to be. We hope it’s the deal that ultimately passes here. But if that’s modified in any way, then that creates uncertainty. We’re just trying to address it.”

Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community said the CAGRD deal is ready to go if and when Gov. Ducey signs the package securing the state’s drought plan.

“The council will not revisit the issue unless Governor Ducey does not sign the DCP legislation,” Lewis said. He also promised to ask his Tribal Council for permission to send a letter clarifying that fact.

A group representing big developers, however, disagreed with the homebuilders’ request for mitigation water.

“At this point, I don’t know where we’re going to come up with 21,000 acre-feet of water,” said Cheryl Lombard, CEO of Valley Partnership. “I just don’t see the need for it. In fact, we’re one of the only entities, if not the only entity, getting new water out of this entire discussion.”

Other issues also remain unresolved. The legislative session starts next week.