Arizona makes progress on Colorado River drought plan

Lake Mead may be unable to deliver all allocated water by 2020

What was once a marina sits high and dry because of Lake Mead receding in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP File)

What was once a marina sits high and dry because of Lake Mead receding in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP File)

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Arizona says it's one step closer to figuring out how to divvy up water cuts as the supply from the Colorado River becomes more limited.

Several Western states that rely on the river are working on drought plans. The federal government wants them done by the end of the year.

While Arizona hasn't said it would meet that deadline, a committee meeting on the issue announced Nov. 29 it is making progress. The plan isn't final, including how to fund it.

"I think we are very close," Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, said after the committee met. "There are a finite number of remaining issues to sort out. There's lots of work to do on detail."

Arizona — long seen as the holdout among the river's lower basin states — has been at a stalemate as it wrestled with how to compensate water users that are expected to face the deepest cuts when Lake Mead falls to a certain level or find water to replace those cuts. The committee includes tribes, cities, farming and ranching interests, developers and the state.

Lake Mead has a more than 50 percent chance of not being able deliver all the water allocated to the lower basin states in 2020. The drought plan would commit Arizona, Nevada and, eventually, California to deeper cuts so Lake Mead doesn't dip to a level at which no water could be released downstream. Mexico also has agreed to cutbacks.

In the latest proposal from Arizona, the state would lose about 500,000 acre-feet of water, about one-third of its annual supply that flows to its most populous areas, if a water shortage is declared in 2020.

The proposal would help lessen the blow for Pinal County farmers, cities and tribes. The farmers would be switched to groundwater before the drought plan expires in 2026. That's when water users are scheduled to renegotiate the 2007 guidelines they're operating under now.

Paul Orme, who represents four agricultural irrigation districts, said he's concerned the proposal doesn't identify a specific federal funding source for new wells and other infrastructure to pump groundwater.

"We think the plan is very creative and probably meets the needs of many, but it can be improved upon," he said.

Homebuilders also are concerned they won't have enough water under the proposal. The Gila River Indian Community, which is entitled to a fourth of the Colorado River water that flows through the Central Arizona Project canals, said it won't support any plan that undermines a water settlement it reached with the federal government in 2004.

The cost to fund the proposal is expected to top $100 million.

Gov. Doug Ducey said he would recommend $30 million in the upcoming state budget to pay people to leave water in Lake Mead. Other drought proposals have been criticized for wanting to take water stored from Lake Mead to soften the blow of losing water around the state.

The Walton Family Foundation and other funders say they can help fill a gap up to $8 million, if needed. Funding also is available from the federal government.

Cooke and Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said the committee will meet until members reach consensus. They've said they want to present a plan to the Legislature in January.

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