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What Is Happening With The Colorado River Drought Plans?

February 7, 2019 2:03 p.m.

GUEST: Tina Shields, water department manager, Imperial Irrigation District

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Related Story: What Is Happening With The Colorado River Drought Plans?


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The Colorado River is stressed. Simply put. States are using too much of it plus long term drought means supplies and demands aren't matching up. Brett the drought contingency plan is meant to reign in water use and keep the whole system from crashing right.

It's been in the works for more than three years. Everyone who uses the river was supposed to be in agreement by now. But Arizona missed the deadline. Well yes but a lot did get done including two important water bills making it through the legislature and negotiations finally brought in some groups that hadn't been included in the past like the Colorado River Indian Tribes based in western Arizona. Chairman Dennis patch thanked those who worked with them.

This is our first run out and we were very confused and lost smarter now.

We hope to see you to work with the state on all water issues and the Colorado River Indian Tribes are going to take some land out of production and leave the saved water in Lake Mead.

So while Arizona was celebrating its big milestone the federal government came in and crashed the party.

Yeah the feds said the state didn't do enough for the deal to be considered done.

Same story in California specifically the Imperial Irrigation District. The single largest user of the Colorado River. They won't sign the deal until they get more federal money to manage the decline of the Salton Sea a huge lake that's causing environmental and public health problems as it shrinks.

Everyone seems to agree that states need to use less water from the river. But when it comes down to who actually uses less that's when the tension starts to rise.

Exactly. I heard the same thing from Jon Berggren. He's a policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates.

This is where you really run into winners and losers in fundamentally changing who the current winners and losers are which anytime you talk about changing that people are going to put up a stink and put up a fight.

So that's one reason it's been so difficult. It's also worth noting that these deals won't be in place for very long maybe six years tops and that's been a big source of criticism that the deal doesn't go far enough to solve the region's big water problems. You can even see that in the name of the deal the drought contingency plan. It seems to suggest we're dealing with a temporary dry period rather than an overall shift in climate. John McCloud is an alternate commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Most of the policymakers in the West are persuaded that we have a ratification rose and drought. In other words drought assumes that it will change and many folks now are saying this is it. This is what we could expect for now.

That shift is just in the attitude of leaders and isn't taking center stage in water policy.

So drought climate change. And don't forget overallocation. Those are huge things that will need to be tackled next time.

Yep. MacLeod says as soon as water managers wrap up these drought contingency plans which by the way still need approval by Congress and the president they immediately have to take on a new set of even harder negotiations because both basins. Have ideas about things that need to be fixed. And they're not compatible in some cases so.

It's going to be a difficult negotiation. It was a difficult negotiation the first time.

Those talks are supposed to render a long term solution. But the weather in the near-term adds a big degree of uncertainty too. Right now many streams in the basin are projected to have less than average flows throughout this spring and summer and that could end up adding even more pressure to the river and the people in charge of managing it.

I'm Brett Jaspers in Arizona and I'm Luke Runyon in Colorado.

This story is part of elemental covering sustainability a multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the West and part of ongoing Colorado River coverage in partnership with KUNC in Colorado and supported by a Walton Family Foundation grant and mid-day edition is following up that last report with Tina shields water department manager with Imperial Irrigation District which provides water to the Imperial Valley and Tina welcome to the program. Thank you very much. The report mentioned that the IDF missed a deadline to sign on to the drought contingency plan. What is Imperial Valley Water District waiting for.

Well I was waiting for a full package of documents to be completed. Our board likes to see all of the blanks filled in and the numbers and the tables as well as summary layered operational agreements that are still being drafted and reviewed by the various interest agencies.

Is the water district asking for something that the federal government has not yet said that it will provide.

In December the board took a positive action on Intrastate agreements that would define how the implementation of the larger deep CPE actions would occur within our various agencies as a part of that motion the board provided some supplemental tasks that we needed to accomplish in order to move forward and bring the larger DCP agreements to them for subsequent approval. One of those items had to do with seeing and approving legislation that has been deemed necessary for the secretary to implement the DCP and another one of those actions involved determining how best to access up to 200 million dollars in supplemental funding to assist with the state's solvency restoration efforts.

That was identified in the 2018 farm bill so our staff is diligently working to achieve that goal.

Q The two hundred million dollars in matching funds for the Salton Sea. There are some who say that Imperial Valley Water District is holding this drought agreement hostage over those demands. How do you respond to that.

Well that's ridiculous. This money is not intended for IED benefit. This money will go directly to the state of California to assist in them achieving their restoration obligations that were a part of the 2003 quantification settlement agreement. So those are longstanding promises to ensure that our community is not harmed by the environmental and air quality damages associated with the extreme conservation measures that we're currently implementing in order to provide safe reliable and resilient water supply to Southern California through these agricultural water transfers.

Now for listeners that may not know the Salton Sea is California's largest inland body of water it's shrinking in part because of an agreement that transferred water to San Diego in the Coachella Valley and the drought contingency plan is aimed at preserving lakes Mead and Powell. So my question to you Tina is why isn't the Salton Sea included in that plan.

Well that's the challenge and that's what I.D. efforts not just in these recent DCP actions and votes by our board but in the last 17 years of implementing actions that we have been trying to make the rest of the Colorado River base and understand and I do think that we've come a long way that every acre foot of conservation that's achieved by our growers and transferred to urban areas is an acre foot of water that comes out of the some sea. So our conservation efforts have these consequential environmental and community impacts and we need to ensure that our communities aren't further damaged by those and that our health isn't put at risk simply to provide economic development water for other urban areas.

So we're just trying to make people understand our local environment we live in our rural remote area and folks aren't as familiar with our conditions and as we have worked the last couple of years to educate folks about the Salton Sea and about the commitments that were made in 2003 in order to obtain these levels of conservation and in addition to that we've stored additional supplies in Lake Mead and we would like to have the opportunity to be more aggressive in our conservation efforts so the DCP would facilitate that. But we have to ensure that our community isn't put at risk.

What's happening now to the Salton Sea with a mitigation water ending in 2017. The shoreline is starting to recede at a more rapid pace and the salinity levels are reaching a threshold that are devastating to the fisheries that we're starting to see a loss of avian species and fish habitat as a result of that. We're identifying mitigation projects to offset these impacts but we expect shoreline rescission over the next 10 years in excess of 40000 acres and that's all dust that could pollute our community and we need to see positive actions and projects on the ground to avoid those when this multi-state drought contingency plan is finally signed.

It will only be in effect for six years. Do you think that's a sufficient amount of time.

I think the DCP is is understood by everyone to be a temporary Band-Aid for a problem that will have to be addressed on a larger scale over the long term. When those interim guidelines expire in two thousand twenty six we'll have to have a plan in place to address those and that will be the next challenge as soon as we address this near-term action.

Well as you address the near-term action as you move forward with this version of the DCP what happens next in this process.

Now that the initial deadline was missed Ida continues to see resolution of its outstanding issues which is identifying the funding mechanism and how to get that money to Sacramento to the state of California to assist in its restoration efforts at the Salton Sea. We don't think that the DCP is an either or action we think that both routes can be traveled upon continuously and in parallel that we have continued to work towards the necessary tasks to complete the DCP.

The board took a very positive action in December authorizing the implementation agreements and now we just need to finish up and address those outstanding issues so that our board has a comfort zone that there aren't going to be even more community impacts. We want to do our best for the Salton Sea and we want to ensure that the Colorado river is healthy. That is our only water supply so it is critical to us. But we have to make sure that it's a balanced approach.

I've been speaking with Tina shields water department manager for the Imperial Irrigation District and Tina thank you. Thank you.