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Arizona lawmakers under pressure to approve seven-state Colorado River drought plan before federal deadline

After years of work, the West is “tantalizingly close” to shoring up water supplies in Lake Powell, Lake Mead

Drought dropped the water level in Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison, Colorado, to less than a third of its capacity in 2018. The reservoir - at only 30 percent capacity right now - plays a critical role in Colorado's conservation plan for the Colorado River Basin. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Years of drought planning between the seven Western states that rely on the overtaxed, climate-withered Colorado River comes down to Arizona lawmakers in the next two-and-half weeks.

With a federal deadline of Jan. 31 for the states to forge a collaborative Drought Contingency Plan, Arizona remains the lone holdout. The plans for each of the states — California, Arizona and Nevada in the Lower Basin, and Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming in the Upper Basin — outline strategies for reducing demands on the Colorado River before water storage in the already record-low Lake Mead and Lake Powell drop to catastrophically low levels.

If Arizona lawmakers — who convene on Jan. 14 — fail to approve a not-yet-finalized drought  plan intended to buoy Lake Mead, now only 39 percent full, the federal Bureau of Reclamation said it will step in on Jan. 31 and take action to prop up it and Lake Powell. And no one wants that, especially after the states have spent several years hammering out plans to help the Colorado River during a drought that has lasted nearly two decades.

With climate change drying the West, the drought appears to be more of a permanent situation than something that will fade away with a few snowy winters. So water managers are no longer praying for precipitation. They are looking for ways to reduce demand.

MORE: Amid drought, a changing climate and population growth, can Colorado’s unique water law system survive?

Arizona’s water-saving plan is close, said James Eklund, a commissioner of the Upper Colorado River Water Commission, which in October unveiled the four-state Upper Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan.

“California has its ducks in a row. We are really waiting on Arizona right now,” Eklund said. “When they meet next week, we are hoping that they tee this up right out of the gate, and ratify essentially what we understand that most of the stakeholders, if not all the stakeholders, are behind.”

The Upper Basin’s plan tweaks how Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico store and allot water. The plan creates a conservation bank water from Upper Basin reservoirs in Lake Powell, before it reaches Lake Mead.

Lake Powell in September 2018. (Jed Selby, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This would allow Upper Basin states to store water they have conserved through demand-reduction measures, shifting water from Flaming Gorge in Wyoming, Blue Mesa in Colorado and Navajo in New Mexico. Flaming Gorge is the most robust right now, at 87 percent full while Blue Mesa, near Gunnison, is parched, filled only to 30 percent of its capacity.

California is making moves in case Arizona fails to reach agreement. On Jan. 6, California water managers started pulling more than 600,000 acre-feet of its excess water out of Lake Mead. The state is relocating its excess water in Lake Mead to storage in Southern California in case Arizona fails to approve a plan and the federal government steps in with an emergency shortage plan that locks the state’s water in the Nevada impoundment.

Eklund said California’s Plan B drawdown on the already beleaguered Lake Mead is not irreversible.

“If we get the contingency plans across the finish line then California can essentially back water up into Mead to undo their contingency-contingency withdrawal out of the bucket,” he said.

Colorado has a conservation plan underway regardless of what happens with the drought strategies in other states. The Colorado Water Plan is heartily supported by Gov. Jared Polis, who in Thursday’s State of the State Address committed to “bipartisan and sustainable funding” for the state’s first water plan. To thwart a looming water-shortage in Colorado by 2050, the plan calls for conserving as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water a year — enough to water about a million households. This would require more efficient use, increased storage in new dams and temporary water transfers from agricultural users.  

“At some level, even though the issue is basinwide, each state is working on this on its own, so the Colorado Water Plan can and will and should move forward, regardless of the other parts and where Arizona lands,” said Bart Miller, the Healthy Rivers Program director for Western Resource Advocates, a Denver based conservation group.

Miller’s counterpart in Arizona, Kim Mitchell, has been attending her state’s Drought Contingency Plan committee meetings, where more than 40 stakeholders are hammering out a strategy for keeping Lake Mead filled.

MORE: Read more environmental coverage from The Colorado Sun.

At a meeting last week, Arizona’s committee members – a mix of more than 40 water users including legislators, tribal members, municipalities, farmers and developers — negotiated solutions to the final issues on a list of many dozens of concerns.

“The Arizona water community and the public have a much greater awareness of the water scarcity issues, not only in Arizona but basinwide,” Mitchell said. “They know how much coordination goes on between between Upper Basin and Lower Basin states.”

The water that feeds Colorado River begins as a trickle in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and turns into a torrent as its drains nearly 250,000 square miles across seven Western states. By the time the 1,450-mile river waters more than 40 million users and irrigates more than 5 million acres, it reaches Mexico as a trickle. The seven-state Drought Contingency Plan would mark the most comprehensive plans in water-management history, with the Western states essentially planning across a basin that pays little attention to state boundaries.

And users know it takes a basinwide perspective to manage the Colorado River. To wit: Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah have forged a plan that actually moves water from their own reservoirs to bolster the entire Colorado River Basin. Eklund said it wasn’t that long ago that those Upper Basin states “would have fought that plan tooth and nail, based on principle.”

But now all the states that rely on the Colorado River have a more regional understanding of the demands on the critical waterway and how to share the burden across the basin. There will be some pain, but nothing like the pain if this agreement doesn’t happen, Eklund said.

“Failure it not an option. If we don’t get this across, there will be disappointment all around,” he said. “We are so close. Tantalizingly close.”

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