California Talks and Deadline Drama Cloud Arizona's Approval of Drought Plan

Lake Mead is at 34 percent capacity, the lowest since it filled in the 1930s.
Lake Mead is at 34 percent capacity, the lowest since it filled in the 1930s. Sean Holstege
The status of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan remains uncertain because of players outside of Arizona, in spite of legislation signed by Governor Doug Ducey last week authorizing Arizona to join a seven-state drought plan for the Colorado River region.

Contradicting Ducey's office, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said Arizona and California did not finalize the plan by a January 31 deadline, so the federal government will prepare to intervene to prevent disaster on the river. Meanwhile, an influential irrigation district in California is negotiating past the deadline for more federal funding before the district's board formally approves the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP).

The uneasy situation follows months of effort by Arizona lawmakers, water-policy leaders, and stakeholders. In tough talks, group members had finally decided how the painful cutbacks to Arizona's supply of Colorado River water will be shared among cities, tribes, farmers, and other entities in the event of a government-declared shortage next year. With a bipartisan group of legislators and other officials standing behind him on Thursday, Ducey hailed the legislation as a milestone.

Less than 24 hours later, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation weighed in: “Neither California nor Arizona have completed all of the necessary work.”

While the legislation Ducey signed authorizes Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke to join the DCP on behalf of the state, Buschatzke still needs to execute the numerous intrastate elements of the plan – water-supply agreements with various parties such as tribes, cities, and irrigation districts. 

An irrigation district located in southern California that is holding out for more money is also complicating the completion of the drought plan.

The Imperial Irrigation District has lobbied for $200 million in federal money for remediation of California's largest lake, the Salton Sea, the Desert Sun reported. The lake has become a locus of environmental problems like blowing dust because of a decline in Colorado River flow. 

Because California and Arizona's drought plans are unfinished, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that a notice has been submitted to the Federal Register asking seven Colorado River Basin governors for input on actions the Interior Department should take to preserve water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The department will accept comments from March 4 to 19.

Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman has suggested that as long as the states act quickly to finalize the plan by early March, the federal government will not move ahead unilaterally to prevent the Colorado River system from reaching critical lows.

In response to the federal government, the Ducey administration emphasized that Arizona met the drought plan's deadline.

"There seems to be confusion about the actions" of the BLM, Ducey spokesperson Patrick Ptak said in a statement on Friday. "Let’s be clear: This is good news for Arizona. Because of Arizona’s actions yesterday, we met the deadline and the federal government is NOT in charge of our water, and the comment period they have opened has been delayed by 30 days."

The discrepancy created a cloud over what was hailed as a bipartisan legislative accomplishment for Arizona's water future.

“I was disappointed in the commissioner’s response," Kathleen Ferris, the former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told Phoenix New Times. "I understand that she’s trying to keep the pressure on, but look, Arizona needs a chance to celebrate. We did a good job getting this done.”

Ferris said the signing of the DCP legislation should "get the monkey off of Arizona’s back," and recommended that Burman focus on the Salton Sea negotiations.

"I think she needs to start pressuring Imperial Irrigation District in California, instead of continuing to beat up Arizona for not doing enough," Ferris said.

Sarah Porter, the director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, said Arizona lawmakers fulfilled their main responsibility by authorizing Buschatzke to sign onto the DCP. "I think the feeling is that the finish line was moved a little bit, maybe for understandable reasons," she said.

Porter is confident that Arizona will execute the intrastate agreements before too long and assure the federal government that the state has completed the requirements of the DCP.

More worrisome to Porter are the Imperial Irrigation District negotiations happening to the west.

"I don't know what the discussions are at this point for providing the additional funding that is needed for the remediation plan for the Salton Sea," Porter said. "But it's a big issue and, you know, a [big] chunk of money that is being requested."

The irrigation district holds senior water rights in California, and the region is agriculture-heavy; Arizona and Nevada combined use less Colorado River water than the Imperial Valley, the radio station KQED reported

The board of directors for the district has already approved the intrastate agreements for the DCP. Yet, in a statement, the district said it will vote to approve the entire DCP as a package of agreements when they are completed.

A spokesperson for the district, Robert Schettler, said board members are working diligently to reach an agreement on the DCP. But he described the Salton Sea as "a severe public health and environmental crisis" that lacks adequate funding and needs more attention.

“We’re not trying to be obstructionist here," Schettler said. He said he is hopeful the two sides will reach an agreement so as to not derail the DCP.

Porter put it bluntly: No matter how unlikely, a scenario where the DCP falls apart would be "terrible for everyone."

In the absence of a plan, water-rights holders might try to withdraw water as fast as possible from the reservoir system because they are afraid the Colorado River system will crash and they will no longer be able to withdraw water, she said. At 895 feet above sea level, Lake Mead will enter a nightmare scenario known as "dead pool," meaning water would no longer flow from the Hoover Dam.

Likewise, if the federal government decides to take action on the Colorado River system alone in the event that states are unable to finalize the DCP, it would create uncertainty for Arizona's water supply.

“We don’t want to be in a situation where we have the uncertainty of a federal plan about how to manage the water resources," Porter said. 
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty