Arizona delays the Colorado River drought agreement

Interests of a few dozen farmers are contributing to postponements in basin-wide plan.

 

This week, the Bureau of Reclamation released the draft Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, drawn up by the states within the river’s watershed.

The seven states that rely on Colorado River water are nearing completion of an ambitious two-part plan to protect water in the West, as the already over-allocated Colorado River faces further shrinking due to drought and climate change. The draft plan could spread the burden of exceptionally dry years across all communities that draw from the overtaxed river — if only warring factions inside Arizona could finalize their own portion of the agreement.

The plan aims to conserve more water and store it in Lake Powell so that the Colorado River system, which supports the water needs of more than 40 million people, doesn’t collapse. Seven states plus Mexico need to agree to the plan. Documents released this week lay out two drought-contingency plan proposals. One is from the Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming— which has already been signed. The second part of the agreement is the proposal from the Lower Basin states: Arizona, Nevada and California. Those states still need to finish hammering out an agreement. 

While the release of the draft plan signifies a step toward a final agreement, Arizona remains mired in within-state negotiations. The plan requires cutbacks in water use, and Arizona water managers are still negotiating to determine how cities, farming districts and tribes could spread around the impacts of the deal.

In Page, Arizona, Lake Powell sits behind the Glen Canyon Dam Bridge.

The most difficult hurdle the state has yet to clear is the fate of a relatively small group of farmers in central Arizona, who share some of the lowest priority water rights in the Lower Colorado River Basin. In 2004, Pinal County farmers signed an agreement that gave up permanent contracts for Colorado River water in return for temporary access at a steep discount. As a result, they stand to lose their water if there is a shortage, which could be declared as soon as 2020. Now, those farmers hope to negotiate for stipulations in the final agreement that will prevent them from losing their water supplies all together.

Despite the delay, local water managers who have been meeting regularly to hash out plan details feel optimistic that by January, Arizona will be able to sign off on the agreement. Tom Buschatzke, the director of the state Department of Water Resources, told the Arizona Republic that the idea is to reach a compromise that “more equitably spreads around the pain and the benefits” of the proposed Drought Contingency Plan. “I think the vast majority of people are trying to find ways to make this happen,” Buschatzke said.

Paige Blankenbuehler is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.  

High Country News Classifieds