The Desert Sun, 1-20-17
Two days before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, outgoing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell laid out a game plan for averting serious water shortages along the Colorado River.
Jewell’s 10-page directive underscored the importance of concluding deals this year between California, Arizona and Nevada, as well as between the U.S. and Mexican governments, to share in reduced water deliveries to prevent reservoirs from falling to critical lows.
Her announcement accompanied a separate accord in which the Interior Department pledged to coordinate with California officials to manage the shrinking Salton Sea – where one agency’s demands for a detailed plan to keep the lake from turning into a dust bowl have become a sticking point in the talks toward a three-state Colorado River deal.
The new administration isn’t bound by Jewell’s order. Interior secretary nominee Ryan Zinke hasn’t yet made clear how he intends to deal with the complicated and interconnected issues of the Colorado River, which is severely overallocated, ravaged by a 17-year drought and threatened by global warming. But there has been widespread agreement during the past year among the states, water suppliers, scientists and environmental advocates that the status quo isn’t working in dry times, and everyone would benefit from preventing a crash in water supplies.
Jewell said before leaving office that all the parties, from states and tribes to her agency’s Mexican counterparts, have made tremendous progress in working toward agreements.
“With water from the Colorado River supporting the life and livelihood for an estimated 40 million people,” Jewell said in a statement, “it is absolutely critical for the Department of the Interior to continue to build on this progress and finalize these agreements.”
Jewell’s directive appears to stress the nonpolitical nature of a water-supply imbalance that must be addressed, said Jennifer Pitt, who leads the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River Project.
“My interpretation is that they were trying both to memorialize the progress which has been made, which has been tremendous, and define the problem in a way that transcends politics,” Pitt said. She said she’s optimistic the three states will sign off on the proposed Drought Contingency Plan and the U.S. and Mexico will finalize a new cooperative agreement, known as “Minute 32X,” to replace an agreement that expires at the end of this year.
The U.S.-Mexico negotiations, however, could get complicated due to political tensions over Trump’s stances on immigration and his repeated pledges to build a wall along the border – which he insists Mexico will end up paying for.
Pitt, however, said she’s still hopeful the U.S. and Mexico can reach an agreement.
“Notwithstanding the winds of political change,” she said, “prolonged drought and water scarcity remain a crisis for the Colorado River basin’s water users, so the U.S. and Mexico will continue to need each other to get through that crisis.”
Pitt pointed out that the states came up with the drought contingency plan and have been working with federal officials on the proposed deal.
Water supplies along the Colorado River are benefitting somewhat from a larger snowpack in the Rocky Mountains so far this winter. But Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, now stands at just 39 percent full.
“It’s an issue that can’t be ignored,” Pitt said. “I think there is a robust rationale for moving forward with these agreements.”
The proposed Drought Contingency Plan would involve temporarily drawing less water from Lake Mead. Under the proposals that have been discussed, Arizona and Nevada would forgo larger amounts of water than they have previously agreed to as the reservoir’s level declines, while water users in California would also pitch in before they would otherwise be legally required to.
Jewell’s order details the agreements that remain to be finalized, outlines tasks for federal officials to keep working on during the next six months, and lays out the reasons for taking action – making the case in part with charts showing how the level of Lake Mead has dropped dramatically and how demands for water have been outstripping available supplies.
The document notes that the Colorado River basin is in the worst 17-year period of drought in its modern recorded history, and that scientists have determined it’s one of the worst droughts in the region in the last 1,200 years.
Jewell also warned of serious risks if agreements aren’t reached. “There is a strong probability that, for the first time, the Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada and California) will face water reductions from the Colorado River, perhaps as soon as January 1, 2018, and it is possible that shortage conditions may persist for an extended period of time.”
She ordered the federal Bureau of Reclamation to continue supporting efforts to reach “drought response” agreements, including agreements among Upper Colorado River Basin states – which include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – aimed at ensuring the level of Lake Powell stays above critical thresholds to protect water deliveries and the electricity generated by Glen Canyon Dam.
Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, said Jewell’s order “lights a fire under Reclamation to keep it working on these pressing issues” into the new administration.
The outgoing administration also sought to underline the importance of federal involvement in dealing with the accelerating decline of the Salton Sea, which has long been sustained by Colorado River water running off farmland in the Imperial Valley. The Salton Sea accord signed by state and federal officials – an addendum to an earlier state-federal agreement signed in August – includes several measures intended to facilitate funding and work on projects to control dust along the lake’s receding shores. The document pledges, among other things, state-federal coordination “on opportunities for renewable energy and economic development” around the Salton Sea.
California officials are developing plans to build thousands of acres of wetlands around the lake in the coming years as the water recedes, both to provide habitat for fish and birds and to cover up areas that would otherwise give off windblown dust and pose health hazards in communities already coping with high asthma rates.
In the August memorandum of understanding, the federal government committed to spending $30 million at the Salton Sea and pledged to work with the state to speed up projects to protect public health and the environment. President Obama pledged at the time to help “reverse the deterioration of the Salton Sea before it is too late.”
California has budgeted $80.5 million for Salton Sea projects so far, but that’s expected to be a small portion of the as-yet-unspecified costs of controlling dust as the lake declines. Jewell said in her order that the latest agreement will strengthen coordinated state-federal efforts to address the Salton Sea’s decline.
Bruce Wilcox, the state’s assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy, said that while the latest agreement is nonbinding, it strengthens elements of the earlier accord and “again it’s the feds saying they recognize their responsibility at the Salton Sea.”
California’s Natural Resources Agency, meanwhile, is preparing a plan laying out priorities at the Salton Sea during the next 10 years. Wilcox said he expects the plan should be publicly released sometime in February.
Managers of the Imperial Irrigation District, which supplies water to more than 500,000 acres of farmland and is the largest single user of Colorado River water, have demanded that before they can participate in any Colorado River deal, they want to see a detailed plan for the Salton Sea. They point out that the water level is set to decline more rapidly in the coming years as water is traded away to cities and as flows of “mitigation water” to the sea are halted after 2017, and they say the state has yet to present a credible “road map” for dealing with the thousands of acres of lakebed that will be left exposed.
Kevin Kelley, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, complimented the outgoing Interior Department officials for “not only trying to get to the finish line on a Drought Contingency Plan but in helping to elevate this critical situation at the Salton Sea.”
In making the handoff announcements shortly before leaving office, Jewell seemed to be “putting down a marker” for her successor, reminding everyone that reaching a Colorado River deal will require more work, and that the Salton Sea is linked to that effort, Kelley said.
He reiterated that his water district is still willing to take part in the Colorado River deal – “but it can only do so if it is satisfied that there’s a 10-year road map for the Salton Sea it can believe in.”