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Federal officials set deadline for Colorado River drought plans

Dec 14, 2018 | ,


For more than a year, federal officials have been pushing for the completion of drought contingency plans by the seven states that share the Colorado River.

Now that push comes with a deadline: Finish the work by Jan. 31, or the federal government will do it for them.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman delivered an ultimatum Thursday during annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association at Caesars Palace.

“This is not our preferred course of action,” Burman told the crowd. “We will act if needed to protect this basin.”

The seven Colorado River states have been negotiating the drought plans since 2015 – Nevada, Arizona and California in the lower half of the river basin, and Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the upper half.

Burman announced that the upper basin states had just approved their portion of the plans and are “ready to proceed.”

“In the lower basin, Nevada is done; California and Arizona are not.”

The plans call for states to voluntarily reduce their river use to protect critical water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the basin’s two main reservoirs.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority gave final approval to Nevada’s share of the reductions last month. Water users in Arizona and California continue to squabble over how to share the cuts, though Burman said both have made an impressive amount of progress over the past six months.

The deal is now closer to completion than it ever has been, Burman said, but “close isn’t done. Only done will protect this basin.”

If Arizona and California fail to complete their work by Jan. 31, Burman said, the Department of Interior will give the seven states 30 days to recommend immediate action to curb the decline of lakes Mead and Powell. The government would then implement its own plan – one likely to involve mandatory water cuts — by August.

Almost 20 years of severe drought on the over-taxed river has drained its two largest reservoirs. Burman said their combined storage now stands at 46 percent of capacity, the lowest level in her lifetime.

If nothing is done, she said, Lake Mead could see its surface fall another 30 feet by the summer of 2020 to a record-low 1,050 feet above sea level.

“That is just 18 months away,” Burman said. “We are quickly running out of time.”

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