weather icon Clear

Arizona approves Colorado River drought plan before deadline

Updated February 1, 2019 - 11:15 am

What a difference a deadline makes.

Arizona lawmakers ceased their squabbling and signed on to a Colorado River emergency drought plan Thursday afternoon, just hours before they ran out of time to avoid federal intervention.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed the finished legislation within minutes of the final vote.

“I applaud our partners in Arizona for getting this across the finish line,” said Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger. “I think it’s a monumental step toward protecting the Colorado River.”

The Grand Canyon State was the last major holdout on the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which calls for Nevada, Arizona and, eventually, California to voluntarily reduce their use of the river to leave more water in Lake Mead.

Arizona would give up 192,000 acre-feet of water, and Nevada would give up 8,000 acre-feet under the first round of annual cuts, set to kick in Jan. 1. California would join in the reductions, surrendering 200,000 acre-feet a year, should Lake Mead’s water level shrink another 41 feet from where it is now.

One acre-foot of water will supply two average Las Vegas Valley homes for just over one year. The valley gets about 90 percent of its water from the Colorado by way of Lake Mead.

During an appearance in Las Vegas in December, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman gave the states until Jan. 31 to finalize their emergency drought response. If they didn’t, she said, the federal government would start work on its own plan to keep Lake Mead from crashing.

Burman scheduled a Friday morning news conference to discuss whether Thursday’s deadline was met to her satisfaction.

Not done yet

More action will be needed either way.

Congress still needs to pass legislation ratifying portions of the interstate deal, and California’s little-known but powerful Imperial Irrigation District has yet to give its final blessing.

The agricultural district is the largest water user on the Colorado, with senior rights to more than 10 times as much river water as Nevada gets each year. Board members for the district gave conditional approval to the drought contingency plan in December, so long as the final package includes federal funding to stabilize the Salton Sea and stave off a looming environmental disaster in the California desert.

Lake Mead has seen its water level drop about 130 feet since drought took hold in the mountains that feed the Colorado River in 2000.

Current projections call for the massive reservoir east of Las Vegas to shrink by another 18 feet by the end of the year — low enough to trigger a first-ever federal shortage declaration and mandatory cuts by Nevada and Arizona on top of the voluntary ones included in the new drought deal.

Nevada would give up 21,000 acre-feet of water next year under those combined cutbacks, while Arizona would have to live without 512,000 acre-feet.

Those reductions aren’t expected to directly affect water users in the Las Vegas Valley. According to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, valley residents have already conserved more than enough water to absorb any voluntary or mandatory cuts expected in the near future.

Colorado River water managers started working on the drought plan in 2015. Nevada became the first of the seven river states to ratify the agreement in November through separate votes by board members from the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Colorado River Commission of Nevada.

More talks ahead

Assuming it’s ratified by everyone involved, the finished plan would free Nevada to store more water in Lake Mead and allow withdrawals from its “savings account” even when the Colorado River is in shortage.

The plan would also trigger provisions in an earlier treaty agreement allowing Mexico to increase its Lake Mead storage while shouldering an equal share of cuts in river water usage.

The series of escalating cuts by Nevada, Arizona, California and Mexico could eventually total more than 1.37 million acre-feet a year, but they won’t immediately halt Lake Mead’s decline. Only Mother Nature can do that, said Colby Pellegrino, director of water resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

The drought contingency plan “is designed to keep the system from failing” by stabilizing Lake Mead, Pellegrino said. “That stabilization might occur lower down than Lake Mead is today.”

More long and painful negotiations lie ahead for water managers. Starting in 2020, the seven states will renegotiate the operating guidelines for the Colorado and its two largest reservoirs. Those rules were adopted in 2007 and are set to expire in 2026.

If nothing else, Pellegrino said, the talks that led to the drought contingency plan have set the stage for the next round of water wrangling.

“It was a real heart-to-heart discussion about how we operate this basin with less water,” she said.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Politics Videos
Media's Double Standard On Incitement And Trump - Video
Over the weekend, an Elizabeth Warren-supporting socialist who opposed gun violence used a rifle to commit a mass murder in Dayton, Ohio. The media has downplayed that aspect of the tragedy.
Project Our Care Tour Kicks Off In Las Vegas
U.S. Rep. Dina Titus joined health care advocates and local residents as part of Protect Our Care’s nationwide bus tour kick off in Las Vegas on Monday, August 5, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Bernie Sanders talks about guns, response to El Paso shooting
Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke about his response and continued policy ideas about guns and gun control to the Review-Journal after a panel of other topics. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pete Buttigieg On Gun Control And Climate Change - Video
Pete Buttigieg talks about his campaign for the 2020 election and how Nevada is a vision of what the future can be.
Beto O'Rourke speaks in Las Vegas
Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke spoke to supporters at the East Las Vegas Community Center in Las Vegas, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2019. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Former Nevada Senate leader Kelvin Atkinson sentenced to prison
Former Nevada Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson, who pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds, was sentenced to 27 months in prison on Thursday, July 18, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Trumps Strength is also a Weakness - Video
One of Donald Trump’s greatest strengths — his ability to shape national narratives — is also a great weakness.
Tax the Rich Bus Tour makes a stop in Las Vegas - Video
The Tax the Rich Bus has stopped in Las Vegas as part of its summer tour. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno hosts BBQ - Video
Assembly Woman Daniele Monroe-Moreno hosts BBQ to bring the community together to hear about the candidates up for election and for people to gather and have fun.
Democrat Virtual Caucus - Video
Elizabeth Warren visits Las Vegas
Senator Elizabeth Warren made a campaign stop at the East Las Vegas Community Center on Tuesday July 2, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Aaron Ford Speaks About Bill AB431
AB431 is a bill sponsored by Nevada Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson to restore the right to vote for formerly incarcerated individuals. Attorney General Aaron Ford spoke at the AM&E Church in North Las Vegas about the bill, on Monday, July 1, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Right Take: Biden's Racially Questionable Comments
Joe Biden has uttered racially charged statements for years. Now that he’s the frontrunner for the Democrat presidential nomination, he may finally face prolonged scrutiny for them.
Christopher Rufo Discusses Homelessness In The USA - VIDEO
Christopher Rufo discusses homelessness in the United States and how politicians can work to improve conditions for those with drug addictions.
Clark County 2019 Election Results - Video
The 2019 Elections wrap up in Clark County including an upset in the Boulder City Mayor race.
Olivia Diaz talks about her win in Ward 3 - VIDEO
Las Vegas City Councilwoman-elect Olivia Diaz talks about her election win in Ward 3 and what lies ahead for her.
Greene discusses Read by 3 and Opportunity Scholarships - VIDEO
The Nevada Legislative Session is over and the results are mixed for Nevada students, according to Tom Greene, Senior regional legislative director, Excel in Ed in Action.
Bernie Sanders visits Las Vegas
Sen. Bernie Sanders made a stop at Roy W. Martin middle school on Thursday, during his campaign trail.