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Colorado River Basin States Inch Closer to Agreements on Drought Contingency Plan as Bureau of Reclamation Sets Deadline

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by L. William Staudenmaier

As members of the Colorado River Water Users’ Association gathered for their annual meeting in Las Vegas last week, the States of Arizona and California appeared to be making progress towards approving agreements needed to implement a basin-wide drought contingency plan or “DCP.”  It appears they are doing so just in time, with the Commissioner of the United States Bureau of Reclamation – Brenda Burman – using her speech at the meeting to announce a January 31, 2019 deadline for final completion of all necessary agreements to implement the DCP.

In the days before the Association’s meetings began, several agencies in Arizona and California took steps to approve aspects of their respective states’ participation in the DCP.  On December 6th, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board of directors approved a motion supporting “key provisions” of Arizona’s plan.  Similarly, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California approved California’s participation on December 11th, as did the Coachella Valley Water District’s board of directors.  However, more work remains to be done in both states.

While Commissioner Burman welcomed the progress in Arizona and California, she bluntly warned that “we are quickly running out of time.”  She added that “close isn’t done, and we aren’t done.  Only done will protect this basin.”  She then set the January 31st deadline, stating that if Arizona and California have not finished their agreements by that date, the Department of the Interior will publish a notice in the Federal Register soliciting input from the seven basin states.  The states will have 30 days to submit proposals for specific DCP actions, and after that, “the department will take those submissions and decide on a course of action.”

Taking this ultimatum to heart, the Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources announced on Monday a schedule for consideration of “exhibits” to Arizona’s DCP plan.  These exhibits will describe specific projects intended to develop “intentionally created surplus” water to be retained in Lake Mead.  Water levels in Lake Mead are critical as the Colorado Basin stands on the brink of its first formal shortage declaration in the history of federal regulation of the River.  By developing intentionally created surplus and retaining this water in Lake Mead, the Basin states hope to lessen the adverse impacts of the looming shortage.

The schedule announced by the Director includes tight deadlines for submittal of proposed exhibits to Arizona’s DCP plan, public comment on the proposed exhibits, at least one public meeting to discuss the proposed exhibits, and finally a process for sharing Arizona-approved exhibits with Arizona’s fellow lower-Basin states, California and Nevada.  All of these steps need to be completed before the end of January to meet Commissioner Burman’s deadline.  The next seven weeks will undoubtedly be intense and interested stakeholders should follow the process closely.