Jewell orders more work on Colorado River agreements
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell on Wednesday ordered the department to continue collaborative efforts to complete drought contingency actions meant to reduce the risk of water shortages in the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins and build on recent progress to complete a long-term agreement with Mexico.
“I am proud of the tremendous progress we have made over the last eight years to work with our basin states, tribal and Mexican partners to address water resource challenges in the Colorado River Basin,” Jewell said in a news release. “With water from the Colorado River supporting the life and livelihood for an estimated 40 million people, it is absolutely critical for the Department of the Interior to continue to build on this progress and finalize these agreements.”
Jewell’s order describes hydrologic conditions in the basin and challenges associated with a 17-year historic drought and an ongoing deficit of available water compared with demands. Although water stored in reservoirs has protected the basin from crisis during the drought, those reservoirs are now at near-historic lows. Basin-wide reservoir storage ended water year 2016 at just 51 percent of total capacity.
In 2016, the lower basin narrowly avoided a shortage declaration, which would trigger mandatory cuts to water deliveries from Lake Mead. Although recent precipitation brought some relief to northern California, there has been no measurable improvement in the Colorado River system.
In addition to drought contingency actions and updating the water agreement with Mexico, the agreements referenced in the order will maintain significant hydropower production and associated financial support for critical environmental programs, and they will help protect Indian treaty rights and recognized water rights.
The Secretarial Order provides direction for the Interior, particularly the Bureau of Reclamation, to continue work with the basin states, Indian tribes in the Colorado River Basin and Mexico to finalize these agreements during the first half of 2017. It calls for three actions:
1. Completing the drought contingency plan. The order directs the Bureau of Reclamation to work with the seven basin states and key principals of several water management agencies to finalize a plan that includes federal operations of lower basin facilities and proposed water conservation actions.
2. Investing to support drought contingency actions. In connection with the order, Reclamation Commissioner Estevan López on Wednesday executed an agreement with Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community to provide the community with $6 million for water conservation in fiscal 2017 to acquire system water consistent with the drought plan to protect levels in Lake Mead. This agreement between Reclamation and the community also sets the stage for future drought contingency planning to occur within Arizona.
3. Completing negotiations with Mexico. The order directs the Bureau of Reclamation to continue to work with the International Boundary and Water Commission, the Republic of Mexico, the basin states and nongovernmental organizations to complete a cooperative agreement with Mexico known as Minute 32X.