U.S. and Mexico finalizing Colorado River water-sharing deal
Water from the Colorado River flows toward a series of groundwater replenishment ponds in the desert near Palm Springs on March 29, 2017.
Lake Mead, seen on May 22, 2014, is now down to 37 percent of capacity.
It would extend provisions in the current agreement, known as Minute 319, that specify reductions in water deliveries during a shortage, as well as increases in water deliveries during wet periods. The agreement also provides for Mexico to continue storing water in Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, helping to boost the reservoir’s levels, which in the past few years have dropped to historic lows.
The accord would also establish a “Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan,” in which Mexico would join U.S. states in temporarily taking less water out of Lake Mead to reduce the risks of the reservoir reaching critical levels.
Those commitments by Mexico would only take effect if California, Arizona and Nevada finish their own Drought Contingency Plan, under which the states would forgo larger amounts of water than they’ve previously agreed to as the reservoir's level declines.
“The Mexicans have demonstrated their interest in pursuing this, and it’s a clear benefit to the river to have more storage in Lake Mead,” said Bart Fisher, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California. He said the agreement would benefit water suppliers in California, Arizona and Nevada by giving them “certainty in case of shortage that Mexico will also share in the shortage.”
“All of those things put together, it’s a big win-win for both countries,” Fisher said.
Water from the Colorado River flows toward percolation ponds in Palm Springs, where the water seeps down to replenish the aquifer.
The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water for nearly 40 million people and more than 5 million acres of farmland.
The legal framework that divvies up the Colorado River was established during wetter times nearly a century ago, starting with the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That and subsequent agreements have handed out more water than what flows in the river in an average year, leading to chronic overuse.
On top of that mismatch between supply and demand, the river has dwindled during a drought that has persisted for 17 years. Climate change is adding to the strains on the river, and scientists have projected that warming will likely cause the river’s flow to decrease by 35 percent or more this century.
The Colorado River flows near Arches National Park in Utah in February 2016.
The agreement itself has not yet been publicly released. The summary provided by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was presented Wednesday at a board meeting of the Imperial Irrigation District, which holds the biggest single entitlement to water from the river.
In a memo, IID officials said in order to implement the U.S. commitments under the deal, several agreements must first be completed between the states, water agencies and the Interior Department.
Those agreements include a U.S.-funded program to invest $31.5 million in water conservation projects in Mexico, including infrastructure upgrades such as concrete lining for leaky canals and other improvements to reduce water losses from distribution systems.
The federal government will provide $16.5 million, while the remaining $15 million will come from four water agencies, including IID, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.
Each of the water agencies will contribute a fourth of the funding. In return, they will receive a portion of the water freed up through conservation in Mexico.
The conservation projects are intended to generate a total of 229,000 acre-feet of water – enough to cover an area two-thirds the size of Los Angeles with a foot of water. Of that, 50,000 acre-feet will be used to give a boost to the Colorado River system and 70,000 acre-feet will be used to “satisfy the U.S. commitment to provide water for the environment.”
The levels of Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, have declined in recent years and are approaching critical shortage levels.
The accord lays out a cooperative strategy for Mexico and the U.S. states to jointly put the brakes on water use to reduce the risks of a crash in the system if the drought persists.
As of this week, Lake Mead stood at just 38% full, with its level at an elevation of nearly 1,080 feet, not far above the initial shortage threshold of 1,075 feet.
Under federal guidelines, the Interior Department would declare a shortage – which would trigger cutbacks for Arizona and Nevada – if Lake Mead’s level is projected to be below 1,075 feet as of the start of the following year.
In April, the Bureau of Reclamation estimated the odds of Lake Mead hitting shortage levels in 2019 at 31 percent. A previous projection had put the odds at 50-50 before the winter brought a substantial snowpack, which was measured at 113 percent of average across the Colorado River basin.
Lines on the shore of Lake Mead show the reservoir's receding water levels.
One difference from the current U.S.-Mexico accord is that there is no mention of plans for a “pulse flow” that would send large quantities of water gushing into the long-dry Colorado River Delta. When this was tried in 2014, the huge release of water into the delta restored vegetation and brought back birdlife.
This time, the focus is instead on securing a more steady flow of water to sustain wetlands south of the border. Goals include expanding restored habitat areas from about 1,000 acres to 4,300 acres.
Under the agreement, Mexico, the U.S., and nongovernmental organizations will team up to secure water for environmental purposes, plus $18 million for habitat restoration and monitoring.
“It seems like everybody’s in agreement on how to address these challenging issues,” said Tina Shields, IID’s water manager, who presented an overview of Minute 323 to the district’s board.
Last year, water managers in California, Arizona and Nevada had expressed hope they would soon finish negotiating their Drought Contingency Plan. But those efforts have been delayed and the deal hasn’t been finalized.
Once the U.S.-Mexico deal is signed, Shields said she expects all of the water agencies and states will “double down on our efforts to get the Drought Contingency Plan through the finish line.”
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