Colorado River deal likely to fall to Trump administration to finish
The Colorado River flows near Arches National Park in Utah in February 2016.Buy PhotoBuy Photo
High winds create dusty conditions over the Salton Sea on May 20, 2016.
The document says an estimated 50,000 acres of “playa” will be left dry and exposed around the lake by 2028. The construction of “water backbone infrastructure” is to begin with ponds where water from the lake’s tributaries will be routed to create new wetlands. According to the 24-page document, which describes the Salton Sea Management Program, initial construction will start on exposed lakebed west of the mouth of the New River “to take advantage of existing permits.”
The draft says that in addition to building wetlands, the state also will use “waterless dust suppression” techniques in some areas. Those approaches can include using tractors to plow stretches of lakebed to create dust-catching furrows, or even laying down bales of hay on the exposed lake bottom as barriers to block windblown dust.
Kelley said the document lacks key details on funding and timing. He pointed out that it also doesn’t mention the proposed Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP.
“The milestones are, I think, still ambiguous and certainly not enforceable,” Kelley said. “As it stands today, based on what we’ve seen in this response from the state, we cannot participate in a DCP.”
READ MORE: As the Salton Sea’s decline looms, a rush to cover up dry lakebed
Bruce Wilcox, who was appointed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown to lead the state’s efforts at the Salton Sea, said he expects more details will be added to the plan before it’s publicly released later this month. He pointed out that the plan does include a schedule for the construction of projects, with the aim of keeping up with the rate at which the lakeshore recedes.
“I’m sure IID wants more. It’s difficult to give them more,” Wilcox said. “The next level of detail is where you actually start construction drawings.”
After years of delays, state officials budgeted more than $80 million this year to start building canals and wetlands at the Salton Sea. The federal government announced $30 million this year to support projects at the sea, and newly passed federal water legislation includes an additional $30 million. The state’s 10-year plan will likely cost much more, and it’s not clear where the money will come from.
Wilcox said state officials will prepare an analysis of the costs and funding in the next several weeks.Buy Photo
Birds gather along the shore of the Salton Sea.
The Salton Sea was accidentally created between 1905 and 1907, when Colorado River water broke through irrigation canals in the Imperial Valley and flooded into the basin. Since then, the lake has been sustained largely by runoff from the Imperial Valley’s farms, which produce hay, wheat and vegetables like carrots and Brussels sprouts.
A 2003 water transfer deal is sending increasing amounts of water out of the Imperial Valley, and flows of “mitigation water” to the sea will also be cut off after 2017, accelerating the lake’s decline.
Kelley said the state’s plan, as it stands now, seems too ambiguous at a time when the lake is about to shrink so dramatically. The Imperial Valley is already struggling with high asthma rates, and the sea’s decline threatens to release more dust laden with salt, heavy metals and pesticides.
“This is about an existential threat to the public health of the region that we all live in,” Kelley said. “It is unsustainable, untenable that we continue to transfer these large volumes of water outside the region at the same time that we lack any coherent plan – or have any confidence in the clear obligation that we see the state having at the Salton Sea.”
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell also attended the conference, where she met with representatives of states across the Colorado River basin. She expressed optimism that the states will keep making progress toward a deal, and that the U.S. and Mexico are close to finalizing an agreement to replace a Colorado River water accord that expires in 2017.
“We have an agreement that is pending with Mexico that we need to get across the finish line in order to address our water needs between the two countries and a balancing of that, and that has to take first priority,” Jewell told reporters. As for the negotiations between the states, she said, “we want to get as far as we possibly can, and that’s what we’re going to be urging everybody to do.”
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Jewell signed a new 20-year framework for managing Glen Canyon Dam and touted government programs that have produced significant water-savings across the Colorado River basin in recent years.
The federal officials at the meeting emphasized that the water challenges along the Colorado River remain daunting. Lake Powell and Lake Mead are holding less than half their full capacity. Lake Mead reached its lowest point on record this year and has recently been at 37 percent full.
The river basin is in a 17-year drought, the most severe in more than a century of record-keeping. Scientists say climate change is increasing the strains on the river, and federal water officials estimate the odds of the reservoir slipping into shortage conditions in 2018 at nearly 50-50.
“The challenges are outpacing the accomplishments at this point in time and that’s the reality, so we need to keep momentum going,” Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor said. He said officials from California, Arizona and Nevada are continuing to work on the drought plan, calling it a “complex set of agreements.”Buy Photo
Lake Mead has been declining for years and has recently reached its lowest levels on record.
“I think we’re making very good progress. Whether or not we can get that done within this administration is questionable, but we’re still giving it a try,” Connor said. “I’m optimistic that one way or the other, if it’s not by January 20, hopefully it’s within the first few months of 2017.”
Officials with several agencies said they had hoped to finalize a deal before the end of the Obama administration in part because otherwise it takes time for appointees in the new administration to get up to speed on the complex issues of the Colorado River.
Jewell said the negotiations have been productive in moving the parties toward solutions and have prevented political disputes.
“We do not want politics to enter this,” she said.
Both Jewell and Connor stressed that managing the flows of the Colorado River isn’t a partisan issue.
“I think we’ve laid a strong foundation that’s nonpartisan, that’s viewed as good public policy, good strategies to deal with these challenges,” Connor said. “And so I would expect that in some way, shape or form, they will continue into the next administration.”
Rep. Ryan Zinke, Trump’s pick for Interior secretary, has been criticized by environmentalists for his stances in Congress on energy and climate-related measures, as well as his votes relating to clean water protections, wildlife and public lands issues. But it’s not clear how, if at all, he might change the federal government’s current approach to shepherding the Colorado River discussions.
Under the proposals that have been discussed, Arizona and Nevada would forgo larger amounts of water than they have previously agreed to under a first-level shortage at Lake Mead, while water users in California would also pitch in before they would otherwise be legally required to.
READ MORE: Negotiations moving forward on plan to avert Colorado River ‘crash’
Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, pointed out that the drought plan wouldn’t take effect until 2018.
“So as a practical matter, there isn’t a need to get it done by Jan. 20, provided that the new administration is willing to pick up the ball and continue to run with it. And that’s our hope and expectation,” Hasencamp said. “Everyone is still engaged, still working. But the schedule slips sometimes.”
He said the Salton Sea isn’t the only issue that will require more time to clarify. The Metropolitan Water District has made clear it wants to have a better idea of future reliability of water supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta before it participates in the Colorado River agreement. Hasencamp said the district first wants to see a federal environmental review and pending biological opinions relating to the Delta. Those opinions, when released in March or April, should provide the district with clearer projections of how much water it can count on from the Delta in the future.
Even if the states aren’t ready to announce a deal, the adoption of a plan looks inevitable sooner or later because demands for water are outstripping the available supplies.
“Even if it can’t be signed in the final days of the current federal administration, it'll quite likely be signed sometime in the next year because the cost of inaction is simply too high to the water users in the lower basin,” said Jennifer Pitt, who leads the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River Project.
The decline of Lake Mead threatens not only the water supplies of farms and cities but also the electricity generated by Hoover Dam.
“There is an inevitability because notwithstanding the winds of political change, the fact is that the reservoirs continue to decline,” she said, and it’s an issue that will have to be dealt with.
READ MORE: California weighs sharing ‘pain’ of Colorado River cuts
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