CAP water

Central Arizona Project water is used for large scale irrigation at the San Xavier Farm Co-Op in Feb. 2016. Water from a riser provides flood irrigation into a field of alfalfa.

The U.S. government official in charge of Colorado River management all but threatened a federal takeover of the river Thursday as a cudgel to prod Arizona and other river basin states to get their long-delayed drought contingency plans done.

Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman threatened unspecified federal action to protect the river and its reservoirs if the states don't approve drought plans by the end of January.

In Las Vegas Thursday morning at a Colorado River conference, Burman said in a statement that without approved plans by then, she'll post a formal Federal Register notice, asking the states to give "specific recommendations on prompt departmental actions" to protect the river. 

She wasn't specific, but her statement and a subsequent talk she gave focused on declining levels in the river's two ailing big reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell, that store drinking water and generate electric power for the basin states. Mead, in particular, stores water for the Central Arizona Project that is Tucson's main drinking water supply.

These actions would need to be adopted before the agency releases a key river forecast in August 2019: a 24-month study that determines operations on the river in 2020, she said.

"This is not the department’s preferred course of action, but action must be taken to protect the basin," Burman said in her statement.

This isn't the first time the feds have threatened a takeover of river management to try to prod the states into action on drought plans. But Burman's threat is far more specific and far more imminent than threats made during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama adminstrations.

Her warning comes a year after she challenged the seven states to complete drought contingency plans by the end of this year. At Thursday's conference, she said that the Upper Basin states and Nevada in the Lower Basin have approved their plan, but not Arizona and California.

This state's top water agency, the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the Central Arizona Project and Gov. Doug Ducey have all signed off on an Arizona plan. But a 40-member committee representing the state's key water interest groups — cities, farms, tribes, developers and ranchers — have yet to approve the plan and more discussions appear necessary to work out the remaining details. The Legislature, which convenes in January, also must adopt the plan.

"The states made tremendous progress and are near completion. But close is not done," Burman said at the keynote speech of the Colorado River Water Users' Association annual conference.

Given "sobering" hydrology on the river, with Lakes Mead and Powell running 46 percent full 18 years after they were full, "the risk to the basin is too great to wait any longer," Burman said.

After 2018 turned out to be the Colorado's fourth driest year on record, Burman said that "anyone who is hoping that a wet year would bring us around needs to step back and realize, that’s not the thing that’s going to help us here."

The current forecast is for Lake Mead to be below 1,050 feet by the summer of 2020, 18 months from now, Burman said. The bureau has already predicted a 57 per cent chance of the river's first shortage in 2020.

It would cut river deliveries to Arizona by 320,000 acre feet without a drought plan and 512,000 with a drought plan. That shortage will occur if Mead, now at about 1,079 feet, drops below 1,075 feet at the end of 2019.

But if Mead drops below 1,050 feet at the end of a given year, the river will hit the second level of shortage, cutting deliveries to Arizona by much more: 400,000 acre feet without a drought plan and 640,000 with a plan. The latter figure is more than 40 percent of CAP's annual supply.

"It is time for us to pay attention. We are quickly running out of time," Burman told the water users' conference. "Today's risk is unacceptable and the chance for crisis is far too high."

At the end of 2015, then-Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor threatened a federal takeover by the end of 2016 if no plan were approved by then. He spoke at the same conference, run by the non-profit Colorado River Water Users Association, representing water users all over the region.

But a year later, despite no agreements yet, Connor and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell backed off, saying they'd seen enough progress toward approval of drought plans to give the states more time.

Federal intervention in the river is something Western water officials have hoped to avoid. They fear it would usher in increased conflict and likely litigation, and have long said that the states can do a better job of managing the river than far-off officials in Washington, D.C.

But getting these plans approved has been difficult for a simple reason: It's hard to come up with politically and economically acceptable schemes for water users in the arid West to give up water to which they have legal rights, some dating back more than a century.