Water in the bank
IID pushing forward on plan to place additional water in Lake Mead
EL CENTRO — The Imperial Irrigation District is moving forward with plans to finalize a drought contingency plan that would ensure enough water remains in the Colorado River to support area residents and agricultural operations if an ongoing drought worsens through 2020.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has reported that by 2020 the chance of a shortfall in Lake Mead — the river’s biggest reservoir — are now 57 percent, up from 52 percent as projected in May.
IID representatives, along with members of the various Colorado River water contractors, on Sept. 17 and 18 participated in a basin states meeting in Las Vegas hosted by the bureau to explore the creation of a basin-wide DCP.
“I attended the Colorado River meeting in Las Vegas to discuss the drought contingency plan process with the two basins and seven states that are in this process and identify critical next steps,” IID Board President James C. Hanks, Division 3, said during the regular board meeting Tuesday afternoon. “These meetings were led by Reclamation Commissioner Brenda W. Burman, and I can report that while there is still no DCP, there is considerable interest on the part of the Bureau of Reclamation … in completing one before the year’s end.”
IID is exploring the creation of a DCP in concert with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that would expand how much water it can store behind Hoover Dam in Lake Mead. The DCP would only be approved by IID if it were to ensure that such water can be withdrawn on demand, that the authority to unilaterally preside over local agricultural water conservation methods are solely the purview of IID and that such an agreement would not put the Salton Sea at further risk of drying up due to lower water inflow.
The river and its tributaries serve about 40 million people and 6,300 square miles of farmland in Mexico and the U.S. states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah, according to the Associated Press. A nearly two-decade drought, coupled with rising demand from growing cities, has reduced the amount of water available in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, a second large reservoir located farther up the river.
If the surface of Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet above sea level, some deliveries would be cut under agreements governing the system. Arizona, Nevada and Mexico would have their shares reduced first in a shortage, which has never before occurred on the river.
“At these meetings [in Las Vegas], it was a full-court press by the BOR to get an agreement before we left there,” Hanks said. “I participated in meetings between IID and Metropolitan Water District, meetings with the other Section 5 contractors in the lower basin and a combined meeting with both basins. I believe that we made substantial progress, and like our general manager, I can see a path forward. But there remains much work to do and not a lot of time in which to do it.”
The Bureau of Reclamation is planning to release draft agreements made during the Las Vegas conference to the public on Oct. 10.
“That was an item that was discussed back and forth — a lot of discussion between the individual states whether they can meet that deadline, but that’s the goal,” Hanks said.
“There are two upper-basin documents and two lower-basin documents, and then one document that is an overarching document for all the upper- and lower-basin states together,” Joanna SmithHoff, IID assistant counsel, said during the meeting. “The lower-basin is an agreement with an attachment of the operational mechanics of how the lower-basin DCP will work. The upper-basin has a drought-response agreement and a companion storage-related agreement.”
IID will host a series of three public workshops to discuss the draft documents.
The first meeting will be held on Oct. 9 following the regular board meeting, which begins at 1 p.m. at the William R. Condit Auditorium at 1285 Broadway in El Centro. The exact time when the public workshop will begin has yet to be determined. Additional details will be released to the public when the meeting dates, times and locations are finalized.
During the public workshops, IID officials will review draft documents for a basin-wide DCP and prospective California DCP exhibits that could be incorporated into a larger framework to build elevation at both Lakes Mead and Powell.
Since the first workshop is held the day prior to the release of the documents by the bureau, IID staffers currently are working on potentially obtaining a copy a day in advance.
2018 marks the 19th year of historic drought with record-breaking levels, according to Tina Shields IID Water Department manager, said during the workshop, with 2017 representing one of the worst years since hydrology reporting began.
By 2020, worsening drought conditions could trigger cuts in water delivered to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. According to Shields, at 1,075 feet, Arizona would experience a water reduction of 320,000 acre-feet; Nevada, 13,000 acre-feet, and Mexico, 50,000 acrefeet.
While IID enjoys very strong water rights, the board of directors expressed concern during the meeting that water rights would mean nothing if Lake Mead became so depleted that no water could be sent down river.
According to the Bureau of Reclamation, Lake Mead can hold a maximum water elevation of about 1,229 feet. Anything above that would spill over the top of Hoover Dam. The minimum elevation to generate power at Hoover Dam is reported by BOR to be at 1,050 feet, below which the reservoir is considered an inactive pool. Water above 1,050 feet elevation is considered live storage, while a dead pool exists at 895 feet in elevation, which is the lowest water outlet at Hoover Dam.
As of Sept. 4, the most recent date that data is available, the water elevation at Lake Mead was 1,078.2 feet, according to the National Park Service.
Region-wide DCP efforts
In January 2017, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell issued a secretarial order directing the Department of the Interior and its bureaus to continue collaborative efforts to finalize important drought contingency actions designed to reduce the risk of water shortages in the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins.
Over the past 20 years, collaboration between the Department of the Interior and its bureaus, along with Native American tribes, the seven Colorado River basin states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — and others has resulted in significant success in collaboratively addressing water resource challenges across the basin, according to a press release.
These successes include the Minute agreements Nos. 316 through 319 with Mexico, a historic 12 Indian water rights settlements totaling $3 billion in funding, historic water conservation agreements adopted in 2014 and a memorandum of understanding to strengthen coordination of management activities to benefit the Salton Sea.
Even if a DCP is negotiated successfully in California, negotiations with other states and entities would then need to be completed, something the bureau is now hoping to finalize by the end of 2018. However, Arizona will need to first finalize its DCP, which cannot be done until its state legislature returns from recess in January.
lightning strikes over lake Mead near hoover Dam at the lake Mead national recreation area in arizona. Water levels at lake Mead and lake Powell are dropping to dangerous levels due to ongoing drought that could begin automatic cuts to water deliveries in arizona, nevada and Mexico. iiD currently is moving to finalize a drought contingency plan that would help keep more water behind the dam to ensure enough water is available if the drought continues. AP PHOTO