Congress approves historic drought plan for Colorado River

Congress overwhelmingly approved a crucial drought contingency plan Monday to save the Colorado River, the most important water resource in the Southwest.

Two members of Arizona’s congressional delegation led a bipartisan effort to rush the legislation through both houses. With impressive speed, U.S. Senator Martha McSally (R) and U.S. Representative Raúl M. Grijalva (D) introduced the legislation in both houses where it moved to passage on both floors, all in one week.

There was no time to waste. The seven-state-and-Mexico agreement is a major interim step in protecting Colorado River water supplies that are vanishing under the most oppressive, longstanding drought in recorded history.

Now, the legislation is on its way to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Arizona congressional duo leads the way

During the Senate floor debate Monday, McSally spoke of the bipartisan cooperation and immediate support among the senators from the seven states. On the floor, McSally asked for and received unanimous consent to pass the legislation, called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) Authorization Act.

“The passage of the DCP authorization today showcases how Congress should work: a large, bipartisan effort where we all sprang into action to deliver real results for Arizonans and the American people,” McSally said. “Arizonans want to see action and results, not political games. I am proud to lead my colleagues to authorize the DCP and look forward to seeing the President sign the bill into law.”

Earlier in the day, the House also overwhelmingly approved the DCP bill by a voice vote, expediting passage and avoiding procedural hurdles to get the bill to President Trump’s desk as fast as possible.

Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said that this is the start of a new era for Arizona and other states that must plan carefully for the future of water in the Southwest.

“This bill is a central piece of conservation for the drought that has made our area more arid and made water more precious and more finite,” Grijalva said.

Drought plan will avert a water crisis 

The legislation binds the seven states, Mexico, and water holders within the states to conserve water in the river’s two storage lakes, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

While the seven-state agreement, called the Upper and Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), took years to get in place, Congress did not have that luxury.

The DCP needs to be in operation this summer to avert a water crisis, states and federal water leaders told Congress during hearings last week.

The river’s two massive storage lakes are disappearing from excessive drought. The elevations of the lakes, which are the two largest man-made reservoirs in the United States, have dropped fourfold in the last decade, Commissioner Brenda Burman of the federal Bureau of Reclamation testified during the hearings.

“The period from 2000 through 2018 is the driest 19-year period in over 100 years and one of the driest periods in the 1,200-year paleo record,” she said.

Without the DCP, the lakes will likely drop to crisis levels by 2021 or 2022. With the DCP in place, that risk will be reduced 50 percent, Burman said.

Lake Powell serves the four upper basin states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The lower basin states, Arizona, California and Nevada, rely on Lake Mead.

The bill and underlying drought plan agreement lay out water reduction, storage and conservation management strategies to avoid historic lows of the lake reservoirs.

Short respite for water leaders

The new legislation will provide a stopgap to protect water elevations at the two lakes through 2026. Then a new DCP must be approved. Arizona and other water leaders already are starting to work to that end.

“It is essential. It is vital and what it means to a state like Arizona where the population continues to grow, whose demands from industry continue to grow, whose demands for water for agriculture continue to grow,” Grijalva said. “We have to make some choices down the line. They’re unavoidable but they are necessary for the generations to come, for our state and the people who reside there and their families.”

The DCP legislation received widespread support from the development community, industry, agriculture, cities, tribes, national conservation groups, non-profits, and many others. Everyone agreed to either share or conserve water to protect future supplies.

In Arizona, few worked as hard as Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, and Ted Cooke, General Manager of the Central Arizona Project.

They co-chaired a committee of representatives from 40 competing water interests to craft Arizona’s part of the seven-state pact.

“The last few weeks have been one of the most extraordinary periods in the history of ADWR and a remarkable chapter in the long story of securing Arizona’s water supplies,” Buschatzke said Monday, adding that he is grateful Congress approved the Act that will prevent Lake Mead from dipping to crisis levels.

Numerous local, state, tribal and federal officials issued statements of support for the legislation during the past week including Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. Ducey was instrumental in bringing competing Arizona water interests and funding together to finalize the DCP.

“Securing our water future is one of the most important issues we face,” Gov. Doug Ducey said. “Earlier this year, Arizona showed we know how to get big things done by coming together to pass the historic Drought Contingency Plan – allowing Arizona to join the other basin states on a comprehensive plan to conserve more water.”

Arizona’s entire congressional delegation and the Western Caucus lent their support and applauded Monday’s action. Read some of their comments at: Western Caucus.

Victoria Harker

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