December 14, 2018

Top Water Official Gives States Deadline for Colorado River Drought Deal

A final deal will require federal legislation and approval by the Arizona Legislature.

Lake Mead Levels Low water levels at Lake Mead outside Las Vegas are prompting water leaders throughout the Western U.S. to undertake negotiations over the Colorado River's future.
Luke Runyon/KUNC

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LAS VEGAS — Water leaders throughout the West now have a hard deadline to finish deals that would keep the Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs from dropping to "deadpool" levels.

The nation’s top water official is giving leaders of the seven states that rely on the Colorado River until Jan. 31, 2019 to finalize a Drought Contingency Plan. The combination of multi-state agreements would change how reservoirs are operated and force earlier water cutbacks within the river’s lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada as reservoirs drop.

To a gilded Caesars Palace conference room of more than 1,000 attendees of the annual Colorado River conference, the message from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman was simple: Finish these deals before the federal government is forced to step in.

“We are teetering on the brink of shortage today,” Burman said. “And we see real risk of rapid declines in reservoir elevations.”

“We all know it is high time to wrap up these efforts,” Burman added.

Out of the seven U.S. states that pull water from the river, Arizona has struggled the most to figure out which water users would see cutbacks first, by how much and under what conditions. The debate has pitted farmers against the cities, home builders and tribes who rely on deliveries of Colorado River water from a 336-mile canal.

Completion of the plans became more urgent after the record hot and dry conditions within the Colorado River Basin this past year, Burman said. Portions of Colorado and Arizona experienced their record hottest and driest summer during 2018. Snowpack this winter is hovering around average levels.

A final deal will require federal legislation and approval by the Arizona Legislature before it can be put into action.


Editor's note: This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

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