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US Official Declares Drought Plan Done For Colorado River

March 20, 2019 1:36 p.m.

GUEST: Erik Anderson, environment reporter, KPBS News

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Related Story: US Official Declares Drought Plan Done For Colorado River


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A multi-state deal to preserve Colorado River water in case of a drought has been approved with no participation from the rivers major rights holder. Arizona Nevada New Mexico Utah Wyoming and finally California have reached a consensus on restricting water allotments from the Colorado River. But the agency involved in California's deal is not the Imperial Irrigation District. Imperial delayed signing the proposal hoping to get a side deal from the federal government on Salton Sea restoration. Instead the Metropolitan Water District volunteered to limit its entitlement shutting imperial out of the deal. Joining me to explain the significance of this new drought contingency plan is K PBS environment reporter Eric Anderson.

Eric welcome. My pleasure. Now first remind us about why this Colorado River drought deal was needed.

Well it's a problem that has been staring everyone in the face for many years there has been a drought along the Colorado River basin upper and lower for a number of years a long period of time and we've gradually watched the lake levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell drop and drop and drop and drop and that means that you're using more water than is actually available in the Colorado River so the state said look it's clear that the current water sharing agreement that we have is not going to work in these drought conditions. So let's come up with a plan that allows us to determine what those water cutbacks are going to be in a drought condition.

And that's what this deal is it sets up exactly who loses what and when. If federal officials make a drought determination and that would be the trigger if federal officials made a drought determination Yeah and there was some thought that that was going to happen. This year it's likely not going to happen this year and in fact next year it probably won't happen either and that's kind of the result of this really wet year that we've had out West. There's been a lot of water there's a huge snowpack and they expect the amount of water that's going to go into Lake Mead and Lake Powell this year to be close to 95 percent 90 to 95 percent somewhere in that range.

And so that will probably stave off the drought declaration how they determine it is the lake level in Lake Mead and why that's important to us is because Nevada pulls their water out of Lake Mead and their pipes only go down so far if the water level gets too low the pipes are you know they're sucking air.

And Nevada has no water. And Nevada has no water the bad thing. Now does this plan this contingency drought plan does that need federal approval.

It does. In fact it was it was sort of pushed for by the Bureau of Reclamation a federal agency but now that the states have all signed on the seven states they're going to ask Congress to approve this plan to basically give their blessing so that if drought is declared then these are the consequences that will follow.

Now the Imperial Irrigation District was originally included in these negotiations but it decided to hold out its approval. Can you explain the idea's importance as a Colorado River rights holder and what it was holding out for sure.

This is really great really great explanation in terms of how antiquated some of the rules of the river are. There are different levels of rights along the river. Certain states certain territories have access to the river that supersedes others senior water rights holders are in California the Imperial Irrigation District which they control about three quarters of all the water that comes into California from the Colorado River. And they have senior rights so that means that without any kind of a drought agreement in place if you were to start cutting water you would first cut water from Arizona and then you cut water from Nevada and they would be the last to endure cuts right.

So there's that position. And the fact that they control such a big chunk of the water that comes into California from the Colorado River it's almost three quarters of the supply here. An interesting little bit of water politics water agencies are notorious for feuding with each other for arguing over water. There's the famous adage you know whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting the West. And that's exactly what it is. And you saw a little bit of that in these talks. The Metropolitan Water District up in L.A. said look we see this deadline coming up.

We want to make sure that California is on board. We want to kind of solidify our water supply future so will agree to take the cutbacks under these drought conditions. And they kind of sidestep the Imperial Irrigation District now the Imperial Irrigation District was trying to hold things back for 1 big reason. They wanted to make sure that they got some funding from the federal government to help manage the Salton Sea which is declining because less Water's going in there. And when metropolitan kind of did this little end run around imperial they had no leverage.

So they're technically still a part of the river basin and the deal but they're not going to get anything as a result of these negotiations for the Salton Sea and that's something that I.D. Robert settler told us that he was really concerned about.

We're hoping really to get attention to the Salton Sea and for people to realize that this that sea is actually attached to the river and you can't just cut off the IAB you can't just cut out the sea. And that's what they're doing. We'll see where it goes from here.

You know they promise to continue to fight for restoration funding from the federal government. They think there's money in the agricultural bill but of course you know they don't have that leverage now there. Their vote isn't crucial to this drought deal so it makes it less likely that that's going to happen.

If there's a drought emergency declared will this MWD proposal affect Southern California water supplies.

Well yes and no it's not. We talk about these drought contingency cutbacks as cutbacks but what they're really intended to do is they're allowing that water to stay in Lake Mead. They want to keep the level of Lake Mead in a certain level and if at some point in the future there is surplus water in Lake Mead they could get that water back. So it's not necessarily a cut and lose type of proposition. Will it affect water in California. Sure it's going to affect water in California because it'll affect how much water comes out of the Colorado River basin.

How much will it affect people here in San Diego. That was like that's a little that's a little harder to put money on because San Diego has gone to extraordinary lengths to create water supplies here we have the desalination plant in Carlsbad there is put a push by the city of San Diego for the pure water project which will recycle wastewater and create drinking water. And there's the deal with the Imperial Irrigation District for Colorado River water which will continue to flow to San Diego County so we've sort of been reducing our reliance on Colorado River water as a whole.

And we're not as subject to the whims of the Metropolitan Water District. So there is a chance it's going to impact sure if there's a drought condition but we don't know exactly how that's going to be. And then in the meantime there's all this push for water projects that are not related to the Colorado River.

OK. Thank you for explaining that. I've been speaking with K PBS environment reporter Eric Anderson. Thanks a lot. My pleasure.

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