'Time For Action' To Avert Colorado River Crisis, Federal Official Says

The Colorado River has for years been locked in a pattern of chronic overuse, with much more water doled out to cities and farmlands than what’s flowing into its reservoirs.

The river basin, which stretches from Wyoming to Mexico, has been drying out during what scientists say is one of the driest 19-year periods in the past 1,200 years.

Its largest reservoir, Lake Mead, now stands just 39 percent full. And the federal government has warned that the likelihood of the reservoir dropping to critical shortage levels is growing.

With all indicators pointing to increasing risks of a water crash in the Southwest, the top official of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation came to the Imperial Valley with a message for the district that holds the largest single entitlement to Colorado River water: It’s time for action to avert a worst-case scenario, and everyone will need to pitch in. 

Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told the Imperial Irrigation District’s board that she wants to see water agencies in California, Arizona and Nevada restart stalled talks on a “drought contingency plan,” under which all sides would agree to temporarily take less water from Lake Mead to keep it from falling to disastrously low levels.  

“It’s very important for us to start thinking about, what do we need to do to protect Lake Mead and to protect the water users?” Burman told the IID board on Tuesday. She pointed out that four states in the river’s Upper Basin are working on a regional drought plan, and that during the past three years, the three Lower Basin states had, until recently, been negotiating their plan, too. 

“Those talks have sort of fallen off. And I’m here to say for this secretary, for this administration, those talks need to be starting again,” Burman said. 

“We need to be talking about what does a drought contingency plan in the Lower Basin look like? And we need action. We need action this year,” she said. “If you take one message from what I’m saying today, it’s that we face an overwhelming risk on the system, and the time for action is now.”

The last time the federal agency’s commissioner came to personally address the IID board was in 2004. She said she thought it was important to come to talk about the risks that all users of Colorado River water now face. 

Stressing the urgency of her appeal, Burman showed a chart with a range of possible reservoir levels for Lake Mead in the mid-2020s, including a worst-case scenario in which the reservoir falls to “dead pool” — too low for any water to flow over Hoover Dam. 

The Trump administration last year chose Burman, a lawyer and veteran of western water issues, to serve under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as leader of the bureau, which manages dams and delivers water to more than 31 million people and farmlands across the West. 

Burman now faces the task of trying to shepherd to completion talks toward Colorado River deals that began during the Obama administration. 

Officials representing California, Arizona and Nevada started talking about a drought contingency plan in 2015. But disagreements have flared between Arizona agencies, and California water districts have also run into issues that need to be resolved. 

Under a U.S.-Mexico deal signed last year, Mexico agreed to cut the amount it takes from the river together with the U.S. states to help with the situation at Lake Mead. But that agreement will only take effect once California, Arizona and Nevada finalize their drought plan.

During the past year, meanwhile, the water outlook has grown increasingly dire. Parts of the Colorado River Basin got record-low snowpack this winter, and the amount of spring runoff from the Rocky Mountains into Lake Powell was estimated to be just 42 percent of average. 

The Bureau of Reclamation said earlier this month that there’s now a 52 percent chance of a shortage being declared at Lake Mead starting in 2020, with the odds increasing to more than 60 percent in subsequent years.

During her presentation, Burman asked another official, Lower Colorado Regional Director Terry Fulp, to give an overview of the dramatic decline that has occurred since 1999 in the total amount of water stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. 

Fulp said the system of reservoirs is now 51 percent full. He showed a chart illustrating Lake Mead’s levels over the past decade and conservation efforts that have helped leave enough water in the reservoir to stay just above a threshold level that would trigger a shortage — and prompt initial cutbacks in water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada.

“What we want to make sure is we prevent that lake from crashing if this drought continues. That’s honestly the thing that would keep me up at night, and does sometimes, is what are we going to do if this drought doesn’t turn around?” Fulp said. “Let’s hope it all turns around, but what we really want to do is have contingencies in place in case it doesn’t.”

Burman said the entire region faces “very sobering hydrology.”

“The risk we are facing right now is too great,” she said. “We need to act. We need to take charge of our own future.”

Her audience included not only the five IID board members but also farmers who sat listening, many of whose families have been in the Imperial Valley for generations. 

Burman referred to the history of water and farming in the Imperial Valley, saying the people who settled the area showed “foresight” in pressing for the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928, which authorized the construction of Hoover Dam and the All-American Canal. 

“I think it’s time for us to look at ourselves and say, what are we doing?” Burman said. “What are we doing so that 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 40 years from now, the people who depend on the water we’re using right now are able to use it.”

If Lake Mead were to hit the “dead pool” level, she pointed out, only one entity would be able to continue pumping water from it: the Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority, which has invested about $1.5 billion building a lower intake and pumping station that would allow it to drain water from the bottom of the reservoir.

Burman said the Imperial Irrigation District, which enjoys some of the oldest rights to Colorado River water, has been a leader in regional discussions and can play an important role in talks on solutions.

“You can look forward and say you are the most protected on the system, but as we can see from the future possible hydrology, being the most protected on the system doesn’t necessarily protect your water supply,” Burman said. “There are ways to buy down this risk, to invest, to create insurance policies if you will, that make this scenario much less likely to happen.”

She didn’t mention the words climate change or global warming. But her agency did cite “the depressed snowpack and warming conditions” in a news release this month describing the dismal water outlook.

Scientists have found that higher temperatures have contributed significantly to reductions in the Colorado River’s flow since 2000, and they’ve called it a “temperature-dominated drought.” In one recent study, scientists projected that warming will likely cause the river’s flow to decrease by 35 percent or more this century.

James Hanks, president of the IID board, said that in the negotiations the district will be seeking several changes, including gaining the ability to store larger quantities of water in Lake Mead that could be withdrawn in future years. 

As it now stands, IID can store up to a maximum of 50,000 acre-feet of water, or about 16 billion gallons, in Lake Mead. Beyond that, if the district has unused water — as it has consistently during the past five years — that water goes free-of-charge to the next entity in line: the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. 

“The IID has continued to send underrun water. That needs to stop. We need to have the ability to store that water. It’s our entitlement. Everybody else has storage,” Hanks said. 

Hanks said growers should have “flexibility” in determining conservation methods to help with the plan.

Another concern, he said, is the Salton Sea. 

The sea, which has long been fed by agricultural runoff, is shrinking under a 2003 water transfer deal that’s sending water away from the Imperial Valley to growing cities in San Diego County and the Coachella Valley. The retreating shorelines have left growing stretches of dry lakebed and dust that plagues communities where many people suffer from asthma.

IID's leaders have long warned California officials that they’ll only take part in a Colorado River deal if there is a credible “roadmap” for dealing with the decline of the Salton Sea. That condition appeared to be met in November, when California water regulators adopted an agreement that commits the state to following through on plans of building wetlands and controlling dust around the shrinking Salton Sea over the next 10 years.

California officials have been lagging far behind schedule, however, in starting construction of those projects. And Hanks said it’s a concern that any agreement to leave water in Lake Mead would necessarily leave less water flowing into the Salton Sea, thereby accelerating its decline.

“Who assumes that liability?” Hanks said. “Is the federal government ready to enter into this?”

He said the IID board will also be looking to ensure that a deal works for the Imperial Valley’s farming economy, which produces hay, melons and much of the nation’s vegetables, from lettuce to broccoli. 

“We’re totally dependent upon the Colorado River, so for us to stick our head in the sand or tell everybody else to go ‘pound sand’ or whatever, is not a wise thing for us to do, because it may be us pounding sand,” Hanks said. “We have to come up with a plan that works. We can’t ask our people here to share the burden of this. We can’t destroy our ag economy.”

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