Feds to Arizona, California: Drought plan not complete

Carmen Forman//February 1, 2019

Feds to Arizona, California: Drought plan not complete

Carmen Forman//February 1, 2019

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Despite much fanfare over Arizona’s Legislature passing and Gov. Doug Ducey signing drought plan legislation Thursday, the Department of the Interior is stepping in because federal officials say the drought plan isn’t done.

Arizona and California have not completed all the necessary steps to approve the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said Friday.

Burman set March 4 as the new deadline for Arizona and California — the only holdouts among the seven Colorado River Basin states — to complete the necessary steps to sign onto the Drought Contingency Plan.

Although Burman praised Arizona’s passage of drought plan legislation Thursday, she said it wasn’t enough. Arizona must finalize a series of intrastate agreements to ink an Arizona drought plan before the federal government will consider Arizona’s part of the deal complete, she said.

“Arizona took a very important step yesterday and I applaud their efforts,” she said. “There are still several agreements within the state between tribes, between water districts, between the states that will all need to be completed and signed.”

But the legislation Ducey signed into law Thursday was essentially a green light for the state to finalize a series of intrastate agreements related to when and where Arizona water users will face water cutbacks and how they will be compensated for those cuts.

Because Arizona and California did not complete all the necessary work by the Jan. 31 midnight deadline, the Department of Interior, through the Bureau of Reclamation, submitted a notice to the Federal Register Friday soliciting recommendations from governors of the seven Colorado River Basin states for next steps, Burman said.  

In essence, the federal government has asked governors of the seven states to submit recommendations on what steps the federal government should take to protect the Colorado River, should the states be unable to finalize a Drought Contingency Plan.

The federal government will accept those recommendations between March 4 and March 19.

But if Arizona and California are able to complete the necessary last steps before March 4, the federal government will terminate its request and the Drought Contingency Plan process will move forward, Burman said.

“Arizona took a giant step to be closer yesterday, but we’re not done yet,” Burman said.

The holdup in California is the state’s Imperial Irrigation District, which seeks federal funding to clean up the badly polluted and quickly drying Salton Sea in exchange for signing onto the DCP.

The Governor’s Office praised Burman’s edict Friday, saying the federal government’s decision to open up a delayed comment period is, “good news for Arizona,” Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said.

“Because of Arizona’s actions yesterday, we met the deadline and the federal government is not in charge of our water,” he said in an email.

In December, when Burman set the Jan. 31 deadline for states to complete work on the DCP, she warned the Department of the Interior would publish a notice in the Federal Register. Although she did not specify a date for when the comment period would start, her words seemed to suggest the timeframe would be immediately after Jan. 31.

The Governor’s Office applauded Burman’s decision to push the comment back a month, saying that’s a sign that she knows completion of the DCP is imminent.

“Arizona met the deadline. It’s time for others to do the same,” Ptak said, his words in direct conflict with those from Burman, who said Arizona did not meet the DCP deadline.

The four Upper Colorado River Basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — and one Lower Colorado River Basin state — Nevada — have completed all the necessary steps to make the DCP a reality.

But Lower and Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plans and a companion agreement for all seven states to adhere to the agreements cannot be completed unless Arizona and California finish intrastate drought agreements.

The Colorado River Basin states are working to sign onto the DCP as a result of falling water levels in the Colorado River, most noticeably in Lake Mead, which has fallen to perilously low levels. Burman reiterated the dire state of the river as part of her call to action.

Burman could not say specifically what happens if Arizona and California don’t meet the latest deadline imposed by the federal government. That’s why the Department of Interior is soliciting input from the seven basin states, she said.

“We’re at a point where two roads are diverging in the woods and we need to decide which path we’re going to follow,” she said. “One of those paths is the states that have worked collaboratively and creatively to bring together solutions are complete in the very near future. And that other path is looking to the secretary’s broad authority on the Colorado River.”

The Secretary of the Interior could step in and impose steep water cuts on Arizona and other states in the Lower Colorado River Basin if a DCP is not completed.

Burman said she hopes that can be avoided.

“My call to the basin states is ‘you are close, but it’s time to get the job done,’” Burman said.