Water agreement quells Colorado River dissension

The primary contributors to the short-term agreement were the favorable influence of Mother Nature and the timely injection of government funding.

The clouds have parted over the Colorado River, letting the shining light of consensus illuminate the rising water.  

An agreement has been reached between the lower Colorado River basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) and the Biden administration, and the group has announced a potential short-term deal. 

The states, after months of disagreement and falling short of a deal, have outlined a plan to voluntarily conserve a major portion of their river water in exchange for more than $1 billion in federal funds.  

Fording the river to come to an agreement was about as smooth as a rocky rapid, says Tina Shields, PE, water department manager at the Imperial Irrigation District in Imperial, California. 

“I think we sort of hit rock bottom in January when the different entities had a deadline to submit their proposals to the bureau for analysis in the draft supplemental environmental impact statement. You had a six basin state’s plan that I think locally it was referred to as a five and a half states, because not all of the Arizona folks were on board, particularly their tribes and senior ag water users,” says Shields. “Then you had the California plan, which was diametrically opposed. There was a lot of tension. At that point, we knew we had a really good winter, but we didn’t know if the snowpack was going to actually turn into water in the system or if it would get lost along the way because of the dry soils and whatnot.” 

That uncertainty left negotiators trying to ensure each of their own priorities were addressed in the future agreement. With the Bureau of Reclamation threatening a more drastic plan through a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to reduce water usage, there was legitimate concern among the states that an aggressive plan could impact their ability to provide essential water to growers. 

Shields says it wasn’t just the crops that depended on the water which hinged on the agreement. It’s the livelihood of so many people who depend on farming directly and indirectly as a means of survival. 

“Where I come from, I live across the street from the farmer,” Shields says. “My husband’s a farmer. I go to dinner with the farmers. Your social life, your family life, your kid’s school life they’re your friends and family So, yeah. It’s super personal.” 

The agreement had a silver lining, with stakeholders focused on getting some sort of compromise to the goal line. 

“We kept coming back to the mantra ‘We’d rather propose something that we’re able to do than have something imposed on us that’s going to end up in court,’ added Shields. “Everybody, based on our initial read of the SEIS, had extensive comments that would’ve just locked that thing up in litigation for probably longer than the term of the agreement, and that’s not a solution set for a long-term plan. We got sidetracked from the 2007 negotiations to handle this near-term problem, and we needed to handle that so we could get back to the table to talk about the longer-term, harder decision-making that needs to be done.” 

So, finally, an agreement came. 

“It’s pretty exciting,” says Dan Keppen, executive director at the Family Farm Alliance. “It’s just a total sort of a shift from where we were even six weeks ago. Because we got a lot of money with the Inflation Reduction Act, plus we got a little bit of a break with all of the snowpack and precipitation in the basin. I personally believe, and I’ve talked to a lot of people who share this view, that the fact that there’s money and the fact that we got more water in the system will buy some time.” 

The agreement is a step in the right direction, adds Keppen. 

“I think it’s a good outcome because clearly when that draft SEIS was rolled out, right off the bat, people were taking firm positions,” he says. “Now they’ve come out together, they’ve hammered something out, they’re in agreement. I think that’s really encouraging.” 

Keppen says now the focus will shift from the short term to the long term.  

“Now that the lower basin is sort of coming up with their short-term plan, they can start sitting down with the rest of the states, the upper basin and through the upper Colorado River Commission and figure out what can be done up there as well,” he says. “Looking more long term, it buys more time to really tackle the most important thing here, which is the post-2026 operating guidelines.” 

The specific details of the agreement are still being worked out, but Shields says the agreement needs to give users of the system the details needed to make impactful business and growing decisions. 

“The near-term certainty is important to our growers who are making cropping decisions and signing contracts,” she says. “We don’t have a funding agreement yet. I think we’re on the same page as reclamation, but we need to see it in writing. We need to see the terms and conditions and all the strings that are attached.” 

Shields says the balance is always weighing the immediate need for water to support crops and the long-term reality of the water situation in the basin. 

“Do we really want to have an annual battle for the next couple of years?” she says. “Or do we want to take advantage of the federal funding and offer voluntary programs to our growers to participate and let them make business decisions and community decisions based on the fact that it is important to provide a long-term fix to the system? Because we don’t have groundwater, we don’t have a state water project, we don’t have a canal from somewhere else. Our only water supply in this community is from the Colorado River. If that goes away, we move. I mean, we don’t have a backup plan.” 

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