45°F
weather icon Clear

Deadline set for Colorado River drought plans

For more than a year, federal officials have pushed for the completion of emergency drought plans by the seven states that share Colorado River water.

Now that demand comes with a deadline: Finish the work by Jan. 31, or the federal government will do it for them.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman delivered an ultimatum Dec. 13 during annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas.

“This is not our preferred course of action,” Burman told the crowd at Caesars Palace. “We will act if needed to protect this basin.”

The states have been negotiating so-called “drought contingency plans” since 2015 — Nevada, Arizona and California in the lower half of the river basin, and Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the upper half.

Burman announced that the upper basin states had just approved their portion of the plans and are “ready to proceed.”

Meanwhile in the lower basin, she said, “Nevada is done; California and Arizona are not.”

The plans call for states to voluntarily reduce their river use to protect critical water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the basin’s two main reservoirs.

Squabbling in Arizona, California

The Southern Nevada Water Authority gave final approval to Nevada’s share of the reductions last month. Water users in Arizona and California continue to squabble over how to share the cuts, though Burman said an impressive amount of progress was made during the past six months.

The deal is now closer to completion than it ever has been, Burman said, but “close isn’t done. Only done will protect this basin.”

If Arizona and California fail to complete their work by Jan. 31, Burman said, the Department of Interior will give the seven states 30 days to recommend immediate action to curb the decline of lakes Mead and Powell. The government will then implement its own plan — one likely to involve mandatory water cuts — by August.

During a panel discussion following the announcement, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger applauded Burman for “throwing down the gauntlet.”

“I think the states need it,” he said. “I don’t think responsible water managers can go into water year 2020 without a plan.”

Entsminger much prefers to see that done through a state-negotiated drought response, which he said is like a scalpel compared to the sledgehammer federal officials are threatening to use if the new deadline isn’t met.

“The federal government only has the authority to mandate shortages,” he said.

California is almost finished with its part of the broader interstate agreement, according to Peter Nelson, director of the Coachella Valley Water District and chairman of the Colorado River Board of California.

Under the deal, California would eventually join in the voluntary cuts, even though the state has top priority on the river and is not required by law to reduce its use.

Even so, Nelson said, drought conditions that threaten to crash the entire river system represent “a real and present danger” to water users in his state.

His message to Burman: “Commissioner, we hear you, and we appreciate the deadline.”

Arizona offers compensation

Drought talks have been especially contentious in Arizona, which would shoulder the bulk of the voluntary water cuts.

Ted Cooke is general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which delivers water from the Colorado to Phoenix, Tucson and farms in between.

He said there now seems to be general agreement on a drought plan in Arizona, though a few elements of the deal still need to be “tightened up.”

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey tried to help things along late last month by pledging $30 million in state money to compensate water users for absorbing a portion of the voluntary cuts.

State lawmakers also will need to sign off on the final plan in Arizona, the only state where legislative approval is required.

Almost 20 years of severe drought on the overtaxed river has drained its two largest reservoirs. Burman said their combined storage now stands at 46 percent of capacity, the lowest level in her lifetime.

If nothing is done, she said, Lake Mead could see its surface fall another 30 feet by the summer of 2020 to a record-low 1,050 feet above sea level.

“That is just 18 months away,” Burman said. “We are quickly running out of time.”

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
THE LATEST
Parks director honored for 45 years of service

Working for the city as director of the Parks and Recreation Department is more than just a job for Roger Hall. It’s a calling and a passion.

Hardy emphasizes service, people in first State of City

Mayor Joe Hardy’s first State of the City address gave him an opportunity to showcase his abilities to unite the community, highlight the accomplishments of others and offer a glimpse into a humorous side of his personality.

Council updates utility rebate program

Tuesday’s Boulder City Council meeting started with a celebration of one worker’s past then shifted its focus to the future.

Adaptive ramp adds more boat access to lake

An adaptive ramp to provide boat launches has been installed at Lake Mead National Recreation Area’s Callville Bay.

County, Nevada COVID cases fall

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations dropped earlier this month in Clark County and throughout Nevada, new state data shows.

Get to know your thyroid, its function

Did you know that one in 20 people has some kind of thyroid disorder?

Bridge inspections to impact Dam travel

Motorists should brace for travel impacts on Hoover Dam bridge next week.

Lend A Hand receives $20,000 grant

The local nonprofit organization Lend A Hand Boulder City was recently awarded $20,000 in funding from Dignity Health.

Restaurants, shoppers scramble to keep up with rising egg costs

Some local restaurant owners are practically walking on eggshells as they battle rising food costs while trying to maintain their prices so they don’t drive away customers.