Arizona water officials tout their Colorado River drought plan as a historic step forward. Critics see drawbacks and missed opportunities.
Diana Payan, The Republic | azcentral.com
President Donald Trump signed a bill Tuesday authorizing a plan for Western states to take less water from the overburdened Colorado River.
The president’s signing capped a years-long process of sometimes difficult negotiations among the seven states that rely on the river. Trump announced his approval of the bill in a tweet, calling it a “big deal” for Arizona.
Minutes later, Gov. Doug Ducey applauded Trump and all of the lawmakers who did their part in formalizing the plan and said it was “a crucial action that moves DCP one step closer to full implementation.”
Trump’s signing comes just over a week after Congress fast-tracked bills through the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., led those efforts and introduced identical bills endorsing the plan.
While Trump congratulated McSally, it was Grijalva’s version the president signed. That wasn’t a problem for McSally, who had said previously she supported the fastest path to approve the bill.
“This bill is not about politics. It is about an impending water crisis impacting western states like Arizona,” McSally said on the Senate floor on April 8.
“By acting so quickly, the Lower Basin states will immediately begin saving hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water behind Hoover Dam and will dramatically reduce the risk of reaching critically low reservoir levels,” she said.
A path toward safeguarding supplies
The one-page measure Trump signed was not the drought plan itself, but legislation that allows the Bureau of Reclamation to carry out the plan. Next, representatives from Arizona and the other Colorado River basin states who had a hand in crafting the deal are expected to meet for a formal signing ceremony. The details haven’t been announced yet.
The plan they will sign aims to spread the effects of expected cutbacks to the river and protect the levels of the Colorado’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
Brenda Burman, the reclamation commissioner, kept state water leaders and lawmakers in check with several strict deadlines, some of which were not met. Despite the pace, Burman said Tuesday in a statement that Trump’s action and the signing of such a landmark water deal was a historic step for the Southwest’s water future.
READ MORE:Critics see drawbacks in drought plan
“All levels of government stepped up to address the Basin’s worst drought in recorded history,” Burman said in the statement, adding that she appreciated the work done by water leaders, tribes and other lawmakers involved.
“Congress took prompt action on implementing legislation for the Drought Contingency Plans, and the President acted swiftly to sign that legislation into law,” she said. “Adopting consensus-based DCPs is the best path toward safeguarding this critical water supply.”
This aims to protect water users from losses and prevent Lake Mead and Lake Powell from falling to critical lows. Lake Powell is 37 percent full, while Lake Mead is 41 percent full, just above a threshold that would trigger a first-ever declaration of a shortage by the federal government.
Thank you! You’re almost signed up for
Keep an eye out for an email to confirm your newsletter registration.
The three-state lower basin agreement, negotiated among California, Arizona and Nevada, lays out a framework for taking less water from Lake Mead and sharing in cutbacks between 2020 and 2026.
READ MORE: Facing cutbacks, farmers look to groundwater
Snowpack could delay shortage
This winter’s above-average snowpack across the Colorado River basin could help the region avert that formal declaration of a shortage for another year. This week, water managers at the Bureau of Reclamation estimated that the level of Lake Mead will probably be near elevation 1,084 by the year’s end, above the trigger point for a shortage of 1,075 feet above sea level.
But even without a shortage, Arizona and Nevada may face water cutbacks starting next year under the drought plan. If federal officials determine in August that Lake Mead is likely to be below 1,090 feet at the start of next year, water deliveries to Arizona would be cut about 6.9 percent, and deliveries to Nevada would be cut 2.7 percent.
Larger cutbacks would occur if Lake Mead is projected to be below 1,075 feet at the start of a future year. And California would also contribute by taking cuts sooner than it would be required to under the existing rules, when the reservoir reaches 1,045 feet.
Mexico has also pledged under a separate deal to contribute by temporarily leaving more water in Lake Mead.
Arizona gets nearly 40 percent of its water from the Colorado River. The state’s plan for divvying up the water cutbacks involves deliveries of “mitigation” water to help lessen the blow for some farmers and other entities, as well as compensation payments for those that contribute water.
Water managers say the plan acts as a temporary “bridge” for more negotiations toward a plan for dealing with potential shortages after 2026.
The river provides for about 40 million people and more than five million acres of irrigated farmland.
‘An interim step’
Nineteen years of drought and chronic overuse, combined with the effects of climate change, have pushed the levels of the river’s reservoirs lower and lower.
Talks on the Colorado River drought contingency plans have been underway since 2015.
The seven states that draw from the river negotiated two separate but interrelated drought contingency plans, one for the river’s Upper Basin — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — and the other for the Lower Basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California.
Lawmakers who have been involved in the discussions say this plan is in no way the end of efforts to address long-term water concerns in the Southwest, but that it’s an important first step.
“This is an interim step,” Grijalva told The Republic on April 8, adding that the state’s population and economic demands will only continue to grow, which will require more delicate debate to find lasting solutions.
“What we’re doing now by stabilizing and encouraging conservation is a good thing. But given the factors of climate change … the finite nature of water resources … we have to complement how you deal with population growth and the demands of industry,” Grijalva said.
Ducey pushed Arizona lawmakers to pass legislation needed for the state’s part in the plan and on Tuesday, he underscored its importance.
“Drought is by far one of the most pressing issues Arizona faces and now we’re one step closer to protecting our water supplies and securing Arizona’s water future,” he said in a statement. “We’ve been able to move this plan forward by putting party labels aside and putting Arizona first.”
Protecting the river for its own sake and the animals that depend on it is the primary focus for groups like the National Audubon Society, one of the many groups that lauded the signing on Tuesday. Jennifer Pitt, the group’s Colorado River program director, underscored the importance of protecting those animals, especially birds.
“Shortage on the river is imminent, but we can avoid catastrophe with measures like the DCP,” Pitt said in the statement. “While there is more work to be done, this is a major step not just for the future of the Colorado River, but for the people, birds, economies and communities of the arid West.”
Republic reporter Ian James contributed to this story.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. For more stories visit environment.azcentral.com or follow OurGrandAZ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Read or Share this story: https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-environment/2019/04/16/president-trump-signs-bill-endorsing-colorado-river-drought-plan-doug-ducey/3490986002/