Congress Could Could Move Quickly on Drought Contingency Plan for Colorado River

Colorado River

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Seven states submitted their agreements on March 19 with water officials asking for action before the end of April.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva is expected to introduce legislation next week that would enable a seven-state drought contingency plan for the Colorado River to move forward.

The Arizona Democrat and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee expedited hearings after Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming submitted the plan to Congress on March 19.

Consisting of a series of interstate agreements, the plan would prevent the Colorado River’s two main reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, from dropping to dangerously low levels. If the reservoirs drop to a certain threshold, water shortage declarations would be made to cut back on water delivery to as many as 40 million people, as well as hydropower operations.

“I think we’d be well-advised to show a little humility and defer to the judgement of the states that directly depend on the water allocations set forth in this contingency plan,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican and ranking member of the Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Subcommittee, during its Thursday hearing.

McClintock called the ability of seven politically diverse states and Mexico to agree to mutual reductions a “miracle.”

Any changes to the plan made by Congress during the legislative process could complicate the interstate agreements, said Pat Tyrrell, state engineer of Wyoming.

“If we want to avail ourselves of Mexico’s contributions … we need action by the end of April,” Tyrrell said.

The Colorado River has experienced a 19-year drought that has caused a decline in flows—a situation exacerbated by climate change. Megadroughts are expected in the future, and Lake Mead is at 41 percent capacity, which is just above the level where a shortage would be declared.

While the Upper Colorado snowpack is 128 percent above average in 2019, the wettest March on record in the Colorado Basin won’t fix the long-term forecast, said Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee.

“Climate change has ravaged the American Southwest,” said Rep. Greg Stanton, an Arizona Democrat and former mayor of Phoenix.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation also has committed to 100,000 acre-feet of water savings annually, said Commissioner Brenda Burman.

Most environmental groups support the plan, but McClintock said some have criticized it for averting federal environmental laws and possibly being subject to the California Environmental Quality Act.

In Arizona, the Sierra Club has raised concerns about the state shifting to more groundwater pumping as it reduces tapping the Colorado River, according to the Arizona Republic.

Burman wouldn’t comment on unreleased legislation but didn’t think CEQA would hinder the plan’s implementation.

“It would be difficult to see how the federal government would be imposed to follow state law,” Burman said.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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