Water poured into an artificial wetland next to the Gila River near Sacaton as Arizona’s leading proponents of a Colorado River drought plan celebrated the state’s progress in moving toward a deal.
Leaders of the Gila River Indian Community touted the restoration project as an example of putting water back into a river that has was sucked dry over the years, and a symbolic step in promoting sustainable water management in the state. The inauguration ceremony on the reservation featured traditional singing by men and boys who shook gourd rattles in unison.
Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said the community, which has agreed to contribute water under the proposed Colorado River deal, is playing a vital role in helping to finish the three-state Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP.
“This is very important and very historic,” Lewis told the audience of community members, politicians and water managers. “It goes beyond politics. It goes to the benefit and the future sustainability and existence of all of us here.”
Lewis was joined by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who praised leaders of the community “for coming together to get the DCP across the finish line.”
“I think it shows in the state of Arizona that we can get things that matter done, regardless of the political environment,” Ducey said, prompting applause from the audience.
Unresolved issues remain
Yet even as Arizona’s top water officials expressed optimism about finishing the drought agreement after months of difficult negotiations, they also voiced concerns that unresolved issues in California still could upend the entire deal.
More than 250 miles to the west in California’s Imperial Valley, leaders of the irrigation district that controls the largest share of Colorado River water were still discussing a key condition of their participation. Imperial Irrigation District officials announced at a meeting on Friday afternoon that the federal Bureau of Reclamation has agreed to their condition that the drought package include linkage to funding for the Salton Sea.
They said federal officials will write a strong letter of support backing IID’s requests for $200 million in Farm Bill funding for wetlands projects around the shrinking sea. The projects are aimed at keeping down dust along the shorelines and salvaging deteriorating habitat for fish and birds.
Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, the U.S. solicitor and staff are finalizing a letter stating that “they consider the restoration of the Salton Sea is a critical ingredient of the drought contingency plans and cannot be ignored, and they stand prepared to help the IID with the Department of Agriculture to try to get funding in whatever way possible,” said IID attorney Charles Dumars.
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He cautioned that it was “a building block, nothing more,” but said it was a big one that could be used to persuade Agriculture Department officials to allocate funds for the receding lake.
“The refreshing part is it’s a new change in direction. They are being supportive rather than in any way obstructive or neutral, so that change coming from them is going to be very significant,” he added.
“This is a welcome thawing of the polarization between our agencies,” said IID General Manager Henry Martinez.
The board also voted unanimously to oppose a supposed “white knight” offer by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s general manager, Jeffrey Kightlinger, to provide IID’s portion of water to be kept in Lake Mead if the agency doesn’t sign on to the drought plan.
Several board members and people in the audience chided the Los Angeles-based agency for trying to interfere in their process, saying it was ignoring the public-health issues at the Salton Sea created by the withdrawal of Colorado River water.
“I am optimistic we will be able to find a path forward,” IID President Erik Ortega said. “But the Salton Sea has to be acknowledged for what it is. It is an indispensable part of this package, not an invisible one.”
IID officials also discussed a timeline that Burman and her staff presented at a recent meeting in Las Vegas. The aim, Martinez said, is to have agreements adopted by all parties so that representatives of the seven states that rely on the river are ready meet in Phoenix on March 14 or 15 to sign a joint letter to Congress endorsing the plan.
“We’re down to crunch time, folks. This is very critical,” said IID board member Jim Hanks. He said the letter offered by the Bureau of Reclamation “is almost like a reset” after tensions flared over the federal government’s deadlines and the Salton Sea.
“Maybe more than one person has made a wrong move, including myself. Let’s see if we can go back and get this together,” Hanks said, “because the Imperial Valley and Coachella Valley and the rest of California is in desperate need of getting that Salton Sea shored up.”
DCP will address potential shortage
The proposed drought plan lays out a framework for California, Arizona and Nevada to share in water cutbacks between 2020 and 2026.
Under the plan, the three states would cooperate by taking less water out of Lake Mead — which is now 41 percent full and approaching a shortage — to prevent the reservoir from falling to critically low levels.
The Colorado River irrigates more than 5 million acres of farmlands and supplies about 40 million people in cities from Denver to Palm Springs. Nineteen years of drought and chronic overuse, combined with the worsening effects of climate change, have pushed the levels of the river’s reservoirs lower and lower.
Winter storms have blanketed the mountains with snow across the Colorado River basin. But even this year’s above-average snowpack won’t be nearly enough for Lake Powell and Lake Mead to recover. The reservoirs have together been at their lowest levels since Glen Canyon Dam was built and Lake Powell was filled in the 1960s.
A first-ever shortage could be declared in 2020 if federal officials determine this August that the lake is projected to be below elevation 1,075 feet at the start of the year.
Federal officials have been pressing water managers in California and Arizona to wrap up their agreements. The Bureau of Reclamation said it will, as planned, start officially seeking input on Monday from representatives of seven Western states on how to prevent the levels of Lake Mead from continuing to fall.
Burman had previously announced the plan to start a 15-day period of seeking comments from the states. But her agency also said if it receives completed drought contingency plans from all states before March 19, it will cancel the request.
“It is our hope that the States will complete work on the DCPs,” the bureau said in a statement. “And if they can, we anticipate terminating our requests for further input.”
Under the Drought Contingency Plan, Arizona’s total use of Colorado River water would decrease by more than 500,000 acre-feet, or 18 percent of the state’s legal entitlement, during the first year of a shortage.
That will mean taking less water from Lake Havasu and pumping less into the 336-mile Central Arizona Project Canal, which cuts across the desert, passes through Phoenix and ends in Tucson.
Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis talks about the importance of water to his community and the Colorado River deal
Arizona working to wrap up its part
The Gila River Indian Community’s involvement is key because the community is entitled to about a fourth of the water that passes through the Central Arizona Project, and it has offered to kick in some water to make the drought agreement work.
Arizona’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. Those payments are to be covered with more than $100 million from the state and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which manages the CAP Canal. Much of the money would go toward paying for water from the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community.
Ted Cooke, general manager of Central Arizona Project, said there’s still a possibility the agreement might fall apart, but he doesn’t think it will.
“I think now we’ve got two alternatives: the with IID alternative or the without IID alternative,” Cooke said after Friday’s ceremony on the Gila River Indian Community’s reservation.
As for Arizona’s piece of the agreement, he said, the state is on track to wrap up everything soon.
“We still have some internal Arizona things that we need to work out, but those are not going to hold anything up,” Cooke said.
Gov. Ducey signed a package of legislation on Jan. 31 endorsing the Drought Contingency Plan. Arizona still needs to finish a list of internal water agreements to make the state’s piece of the deal work.
State officials have presented a list of a dozen remaining agreements, two of which would require the approval of the Gila River Indian Community. But Cooke said not all the agreements need to be signed for the three-state deal to move forward.
Cooke said he’s focused most of all on finishing a framework agreement for Arizona focusing on “intentionally created surplus,” a term for unused water that is stored in Lake Mead.
Before the states’ representatives sign the agreement, Congress also needs to pass legislation endorsing the Drought Contingency Plan.
“The biggest problem right now is, there’s one very important agency in California that wants to go last, and they’re getting their wish. They are going last,” Cooke said.
Even with those issues still to be resolved, he said he’s hopeful.
“I feel good about it,” Cooke said. “I think in three weeks that we will be jointly the seven states going to Congress and saying, ‘We’re ready for you to act.’”
Once Congress approves the deal, representatives of the states would then sign the agreement. How soon that might happen isn’t clear.
‘Symbolic of the future’
But Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said he’s hoping everything falls into place so that Burman rescinds the request for comments during the 15-day period. He said the plan is to hold off on submitting comments until the end of the period on March 19.
“From my perspective, we have until the end of the day on the 19th to make whatever progress we need to do,” Buschatzke said. “That’s our preferred path forward, to keep chugging along with that, because that is our way to manage the river moving forward.”
Ducey and other state officials were joined at the event by Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, state Republican House Speaker Pro Tem T.J. Shope, and Democratic House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez.
They were invited by the Gila River Indian Community for the inauguration of the water project and an interpretive trail around the facility. The project, called Mar 5, is a groundwater replenishment facility.
Lewis said the water that was pouring into the ponds came from the Central Arizona Project as well as water diverted from the Gila River. He said the community is “storing water that we will be pumped later for either credits or to deliver throughout the community for our farmers.”
He said the project in the long term will help replenish the aquifer along the Gila River.
“This is going to be symbolic of the future of water management,” Lewis said, standing beside the ponds as the water flowed in.
Reporter Janet Wilson covers water and environmental issues for The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, California.
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