5/11/16 – Salton Sea a concern for IID in Colorado River talks

Desert Sun, 5-11-16

Much of the water that California receives from the Colorado River flows to the Imperial Valley, where canals spread out across fields of hay, wheat and vegetables of all sorts, from carrots to broccoli.

Because the Imperial Irrigation District holds the single largest entitlement to water from the river, its participation would be vital in any agreement for California to share in water cutbacks to avert a looming shortage in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir. But major hurdles remain for the district to support a potential deal, and the reasons begin with the shrinking Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea has been receding as runoff from farms decreases, and its decline is set to accelerate in the next two years as more water is transferred to cities in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley. That will leave growing areas of dry lakebed exposed to the winds, releasing hazardous dust and threatening public health in an area that already has high rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases.

The IID has been pressing for the state to pay for remedies to address the Salton Sea’s complex environmental problems. Without an overarching plan and firm commitments by the state and federal governments, IID General Manager Kevin Kelley said it would be very difficult for the district to support a deal that would temporarily leave more water in Lake Mead at the expense of the levels of the Salton Sea.

“I think that the Salton Sea has always been the elephant in the room in these talks, and I think the other parties recognize it,” Kelley said in an interview.

IID and other water districts in California have been in talks about proposals to share in reductions in the amounts of water they receive from the Colorado River. Those negotiations among the state’s districts are taking place parallel to talks between representatives of Arizona, Nevada, California and the federal government.

“There is no single agency with a greater stake in the river or one that could make a greater impact in propping up that plunging elevation (of Lake Mead) than IID,” Kelley said. “But IID’s participation can only come about if there is a going-forward road map at the Salton Sea.”

The IID submitted a petition in 2014 demanding the state uphold a commitment to pay for Salton Sea projects. The district has also warned that the lack of progress threatens the landmark 2003 water transfer deal under which increasing amounts of water are transferred from Imperial Valley farms to growing cities.

“As much as IID and its water users want to be part of this solution because of the obvious stake it has in the future of the river, we can’t even take a proposal to our board without knowing” that plans are in place to deal with a smaller Salton Sea, Kelley said. It’s not clear whether that will happen soon enough, he said, to allow for IID’s involvement in a Colorado River agreement this year.

Representatives of California, Arizona and Nevada said last month that they hope to have a deal finalized by the end of the year for all three states to accept cutbacks in order to keep more water in Lake Mead, which is nearing critical shortage levels. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said last week that she is optimistic about the talks and there has been “extraordinary collaboration” between the states in working toward an agreement.

The Colorado River is severely overallocated, and climate change is projected to add to the strains.

The levels of Lake Mead have declined during 16 years of drought across the Colorado River Basin. Water managers predict it’s increasingly likely that a shortage will be declared in the coming years.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation could declare a shortage at the reservoir near Las Vegas if it projects the level would sink to an elevation of 1,075 feet or lower at the beginning of next year. The Department of the Interior would take charge of water allocation if the reservoir’s level were to sink to an elevation of 1,025 feet.

Under the proposals being considered, each of the states would accept cuts in water deliveries at different threshold levels as Lake Mead continues to decline. California, which holds the most privileged rights to water from the Colorado River, would accept reductions before it would otherwise be legally required to.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources recently released a presentation describing some of the proposals, including potential cutbacks for each of the states – in California’s case, up to 8 percent of total water deliveries in one hypothetical scenario.

“These recent news reports out of Arizona have not been helpful to the process within California,” Kelley said. “They suggest that there’s a California commitment to specific volumes, and that is not the case.”

Officials in California, Arizona and Nevada say that while they’ve discussed the outlines of proposals, difficult negotiations remain between water districts in each state and between the states.

“Our agreements just are very preliminary at this point, so we’re trying to figure out how to put the pieces together,” said Tanya Trujillo, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California. “We are working on agreements that would be mutually beneficial to all of the parties.”

Kelley said his agency could have a big impact in helping to boost the levels of Lake Mead, and recognizes that the reservoir’s decline poses a threat to all of the districts that depend on the river. He said the district “stands ready to help,” but that the terms of any deal will be key.

For instance, previous agreements limit the amount of water that IID would be able to leave temporarily in Lake Mead. He said those rules would need to be relaxed in order to “unlock Lake Mead.”

“Neither IID nor its water users have any interest in simply taking a haircut,” Kelley said. “IID would have serious concerns about a program that called for California agencies to make voluntary cuts with no assurance that that water would count as durable storage that we could bank on in the future.”

The Upper Colorado River Basin states – which include Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona – also have been considering measures aimed at ensuring that the levels of Lake Powell, on the border between Utah and Arizona, don’t reach critical lows.

While discussions about the Colorado River have often focused on divvying up surface water, the pumping of groundwater is also an issue. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey found in a new study that more than half of the streamflow in the Upper Colorado River Basin – 56 percent on average – originates as groundwater.

The researchers said their findings show how much the river and its tributaries depend on groundwater, and could help in decisions about managing water supplies.

USGS scientist Matthew Miller, the study’s lead author, said in a statement that “there is an urgent need for us all to continue to think of groundwater and surface water as a single resource.”