Representatives from seven states along with federal water managers met at the Hoover Dam Monday to sign a historic agreement on how to deal with the ongoing drought in the West.
The Drought Contingency Plan has been years in the making - and it's not been an easy road. Negotiations were difficult, especially for the states who will have to cut back their use of this most precious resource.
Brenda Burman is the commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation. She admitted there were times where it seemed an agreement wasn't going to happen, but water managers eventually came together.
“I’ve been working on Colorado River issues for over 20 years,” she said, "There are always moments where you think maybe it won’t go forward. But this basin turns it around and brings it home every single time. You saw so many people here today. Everyone in this room has contributed to making DCPs work. And yes, it’s difficult and yes it’s hard but I think we’re a model to other basins about how to make things work.”
The plan addresses what will happen should Lake Mead fall to an elevation of 1,075 feet above sea level. The reservoir has been hovering just above that level for the last several years. If that happens, a federal shortage will be declared for the first time ever.
Federal water managers have estimated that could happen as soon as 2020. If it does, the DCP dictates how the states will cope. In a nutshell, states will have to use less water. Some will lose more than others. But the plan addresses how to keep Lake Mead and Lake Powell - the river's largest reservoirs - from falling even further.
Absent from Monday's signing ceremony was The Imperial Irrigation District in California. As the single largest water user on the lake, the district pulled out of DCP talks before the plan was finalized.
At issue is the Salton Sea. The sea is fed mostly with runoff from irrigation but since there is less water going into it, the sea is receding, leaving behind a toxic shoreline.
IID wants $200 million from the federal government to mitigate the problems at the Salton Sea. The irrigation district has now filed a lawsuit over the plan and is asking it be stopped until more environmental studies can be finished.
Jeffrey Kightlinger with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which oversees water for Los Angeles and San Diego, acknowledge the IID's position.
“We are having conversations, Metropolitan and IID, are having conversations as we speak to patch this over and bring them back into a cooperative way so we can move forward," he said, "We are in litigation as well but we are trying to turn this into a cooperative opportunity so that we can continue to bank water with them and bring them back into the DCP. We’re hopeful that that will work out.”
As for the states and water districts that did sign, work begins right away.
“So, first of all, the Drought Contingency Plans are here to prevent a crisis on the river," Burman said, "And we start implementing today. Congress told us as soon as the seven basin states sign the federal government would sign and we should immediately move without delay to implementation. So, right away, what that will mean first is the states will have more flexibility about how they can save water in Lake Mead. But second, in August, we make our determination for next year of whether there will be a shortage or not, right now we project that the lake will be below 1,090 elevation and that means that Nevada, Arizona, and the country of Mexico will be stepping up to put further contributions into Lake Mead to further help prevent that crisis in the future. So, we’re going to be implementing right away. Very historic day here today.”
While it was a historic day for water managers, the drought plan won't really impact typical water users in Nevada. John Entsminger with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said his agency is still focused on some of its signature conservation efforts.
"What we’re really focused on for our community right now is the removal of non-functional turf," he said, "So, by that we mean if there’s grass at a home or a business that only gets walked on when someone is mowing it, we think that grass should be removed. And we’re paying people $3 a square foot to remove turf like that. We’re primarily focused on incentivizing continued conservation. In terms of additional day restrictions or time of day restrictions, we’re not anticipating anything like that right now.”
Visitors to the lake this summer might notice higher water levels, but water managers were quick to point out that one good year of rain and snow doesn't do much to offset 19 years of drought in the Southwest.
Rachel Christiansen, producer, Nevada Public Radio
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.