Will Arizona Blow Another Deadline for the Colorado River Drought Plan?

Elizabeth Whitman
The Central Arizona Project canal.

All is normal in the ever-fluid world of Southwest water politics: Arizona is poised to miss another federal deadline for finishing its Colorado River drought plan, and the potential consequences are clear as mud.

This week, the Department of Interior moved a step closer to assuming management of the Colorado River. It began taking suggestions from governors of the seven Colorado River Basin states, including Arizona, on what the Bureau of Reclamation should do to unilaterally prevent the river from falling to catastrophically low levels.

It did not, however, tell Arizona and an irrigation district in California to stop working on their portions of the agreement whose incompleteness prompted Reclamation to solicit suggestions from governors.

The Colorado River supplies water to about 40 million people in the Southwest. Because of climate change and historic over-allocation, it is expected to fall into shortage for the first time as early as next year.

Initially, the federal government tasked the seven states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — to generate a joint Drought Contingency Plan to take less water from the river. Now, Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman is soliciting comments from governors because not all seven states finalized their part of the plan by a January 31 deadline.

The two stragglers? Arizona and that California irrigation district.

The seven governors have until March 19 to submit comments on how they think the federal government should distribute cuts to their Colorado River water. However seriously the Bureau decides to take that feedback, it plans to act before August 2019.

Although Reclamation officials have been steadfast in nudging along the federal process to protect the Colorado River, it has also equivocated about the subject of deadlines and wiggle room. The Department of Interior announced in February that officials were "cautiously optimistic" that states would finish their plans "promptly in early 2019." At the same time, the agency was "highly concerned" about delays.

Between the lines, it seems eager for both to wrap up and for the state-crafted Drought Contingency Plan to dictate Colorado River management in times of shortage.

"It is our hope that the states will complete final work on the [Drought Contingency Plans]," said Patti Aaron, spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation, on Tuesday. "And if they can, we anticipate terminating our requests for further input."

Reclamation expects that the states will finalize the Drought Contingency Plan, Aaron added.

Arizona does too. Governor Doug Ducey's office is not working on comments to send to the feds. Instead, negotiators are still trying to finalize all of the agreements it needs in order to put its Drought Contingency Plan into action.

"Arizona is committed to seeing [the Drought Contingency Plan] through. At this time, we are not preparing additional comment," Patrick Ptak, a spokesperson for the governor, said in an email Tuesday.

As of Monday, 12 out of the 16 different agreements that Arizona needs to finalize in order to put its Drought Contingency Plan into action were still in draft or concept form, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources. These unfinished agreements spell out exchanges of water and money between varying permutations of tribes, state agencies, the federal government, agricultural districts, a utility company, cities, and other groups.

Of the four finished agreements, only one has been completed since Arizona's drought negotiators held their final meeting on February 19.

During that meeting, the leaders of Arizona's drought negotiations said that everyone was working to finalize their respective agreements. But they also expressed confusion and at times, disdain, for the next federal deadline. Was it March 4? March 19?

"That's an artificial deadline," Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, told reporters in February, referring to March 4. "We do not have a clear list of things that need to be completed by that day."

Asked on Tuesday for Cooke's comment on the passage of the March 4 "deadline," a spokesperson for the Central Arizona Project pointed to a press release from February 21, in which Cooke said Arizona was "making good progress toward completing these necessary agreements."

The last deadline Arizona missed was January 31, which it initially seemed to have met. A few hours before the midnight deadline, to great fanfare, Ducey signed legislation for the state to join the Drought Contingency Plan.

The next day, Commissioner Burman crashed the party. Arizona wasn't quite done, she said, because it had not finalized all agreements. The new deadline, it seemed from there, was March 4.

On March 1, the California irrigation district and federal government moved forward with a funding agreement that could get the district to sign on to the Drought Contingency Plan. March 4 came and went.

As for the kind of deadline March 19 will be, that, for now, remains a mystery.