Congress authorizes Colorado River drought plan with unanimous approval from Arizona lawmakers
A bill that would authorize the federal government to enact a drought plan for Colorado River basin states in times of shortage has passed Congress and was on its way Tuesday to the White House for the president's signature.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., fast-tracked the measure, clearing a final hurdle for the drought plan, a product of years of long and complicated negotiations that crossed state and party lines.
When enacted, the plan will spread the effects of expected cutbacks on the river and protect the levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the river's two largest reservoirs. Its aim is to protect water users from deep losses and keep the reservoirs and river healthy.
"The Colorado River is dissipating," Grijalva told The Arizona Republic.
"There's more demand from people and industries that depend on it. So how do we do that for the long-term? That's the task ahead," he said.
The one-page measure sent to the president was not the drought plan itself, but the authorization needed for the Bureau of Reclamation to carry out the plan's components.
The plan is a short-term fix to stave off the most immediate effects of a 19-year drought that continues to threaten parts of the Southwest. Once the bill is signed by President Donald Trump, representatives of the seven river states are expected to meet again to finalize the deal.
Under the plan, Arizona's total use of the river would drop by about 18 percent, or more than 500,000 acre feet during the first year of a declared shortage, which could happen as soon as next year. Those shortages would primarily affect Pinal County farmers who will have to rely more on groundwater, which some critics say is not a sustainable solution and doesn't address the underlying issues.
The first cutbacks could occur as soon as January, based on the water level in Lake Mead, which is now 39 percent full. The severity of the restrictions may be limited at first because of recent storms that have improved snow pack in the Rockies, an important source of runoff into the Colorado River.
The plan overwrites previous agreements made by the seven river states and will set the stage for a longer-term drought plan in 2026, which lawmakers hope will address the intricacies of water conservation and sustainable economic growth. If no substantial agreement is made, economies and the environment could suffer.
The river provides water to about 40 million people and more than five million acres of irrigated farmland. Seven states and Mexico draw from the river, four in the upper basin — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Mexico — and three in the lower basin — Arizona, Nevada and California.
The bill's passage comes after water leaders and lawmakers in the river states agreed to a blueprint for managing the river in times of drought. The three lower basin states were the last to sign agreements and California excluded the river's largest user, the Imperial Irrigation District, to meet deadlines set by federal officials.
The deal included a requirement that Congress authorize the federal Bureau of Reclamation to carry out the plan. Lawmakers beat an April 22 deadline for that step and avoided turning the non-controversial issue into a scramble over who got credit for it.
Each chamber introduced identical versions of the bill last week and the sponsors stressed the urgency behind passing it. On Monday, the House of Representatives approved its version and moments later, the Senate approved its version and then the one from the House, allowing it to move on for an expected signature from the president.
McSally said she supported the fastest path to approve the bill. She also applauded the work from lawmakers in each chamber and underlined the importance of this plan to Arizona and the other basin states.
"This bill is not about politics. It is about an impending water crisis impacting western states like Arizona," McSally said on the Senate floor.
"By acting so quickly, the Lower Basin states will immediately begin saving hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water behind Hoover Dam and will dramatically reduce the risk of reaching critically low reservoir levels," she said.
Grijalva echoed those sentiments, calling it a good first step, but noting that more work will be needed to address the factors that led to the nearly two-decade drought plaguing Arizona and the Southwest.
In the coming negotiations, Grijalva said he would like more stakeholders involved in negotiating a longer-term agreement and would want tribes to play an important role.
"This is an interim step," Grijalva told The Republic, adding that the state's population and economic demands will only continue to grow, which will require more delicate debate to find lasting solutions.
"What we're doing now by stabilizing and encouraging conservation is a good thing. But given the factors of climate change ... the finite nature of water resources ... we have to complement how you deal with population growth and the demands of industry," Grijalva said.
Grijalva was joined by Arizona Reps. Andy Biggs, Debbie Lesko, Tom O’Halleran, David Schweikert and Greg Stanton on the floor. The House and Senate bills each had unanimous approval from the Arizona lawmakers as well as those from the other basin states.
By: Andrew Nicla
Source: AZ Central
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