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Colorado River tops nonprofit's endangered list
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Colorado River tops nonprofit's endangered list

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Lower Colorado River

Low water levels in the Lake Mead reservoir and at the Hoover Dam show a "bath tub ring" in this October 2015 file photo. 

Last December, after years of negotiations to reduce Colorado River water use in Arizona, Nevada and California, federal and state water managers had a disappointing announcement. There would be no agreement before the end of the year. Talks about sharing reductions in water deliveries to keep more water in Lake Mead and avoid an official shortage declaration would have to be carried through to the Trump Administration.

Now, in an effort to highlight the progress that has been made on the multi-state drought contingency plan, and pressure the new president to follow through on its completion, the nonprofit American Rivers has put the Lower Colorado River at the top of its annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers list.

“The communities, economy and natural resources of the southwestern U.S. will be threatened if the Trump Administration and Congress don’t prioritize and fund innovative water management solutions,” American Rivers wrote in a press release announcing the list on Tuesday. The Colorado River also topped the endangered rivers list in 2013 and 2015. 

Major steps have been made by lower basin states and the federal government of the previous administration to figure out how to do more with less water, said Matt Rice, Colorado Basin director for American Rivers.

Spotlighting the Lower Colorado is meant to celebrate those accomplishments and encourage the Trump Administration to provide the leadership, support and funding needed to finalize a drought contingency plan, Rice said.

As it stands, Trump’s proposed budget includes major cuts to departments that implement several programs key to supporting the proposed Colorado River drought contingency plan. Those include a Colorado River System Conservation program under the Bureau of Reclamation that funds voluntary water conservation projects in the basin and programs through the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service that help reduce water use in agriculture, Rice said.

“In order to implement the drought contingency plan all these pots of money need to be put to use,” Rice said. There is concern that such programs will go overlooked or could be on the chopping block during budget discussions, he said.

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The drought contingency plan is important not only for states that depend on the Colorado River, but is a necessary component of efforts to update a binational Colorado River agreement between the United States and Mexico, Rice said. That agreement involves sharing future drought-related water cuts and includes provisions for the restoration of wetlands in the Colorado River delta that were included in the current bilateral agreement, Minute 319, which expires in 2017.

Above-average snowfall in the Colorado River basin this winter has spurred some to worry that such a flush water year will put drought planning on the back burner.

The Arizona Daily Star in March reported that the unusually snowy winter has “helped put the kibosh on a statewide plan to conserve Colorado River water” and that future conservation efforts are “highly uncertain.”

And in February, the Los Angeles Times reported that water managers were concerned that the wet winter could “reduce the sense of urgency to complete the drought contingency plan.”

Rice said water managers should instead look at the reprieve in drought conditions as an opportunity to complete the contingency plan.

Time is running out to stabilize levels in Lake Mead and avoid an official shortage declaration, he said. That declaration would trigger an 11.4 percent cut to Arizona’s water allotment and a 4.3 percent cut to Nevada’s allotment.

The further Lake Mead’s water level falls, the harder it will be to bring the reservoir back up, Rice said.

“I'm concerned that we'll reach a certain point where collaboration is not going to be the approach that is taken,” he said.

He encouraged people to take action by calling their legislators and asking them to prioritize and support the Lower Colorado and encourage the Trump Administration to do the same through completion of the drought contingency plan and maintaining funding for federal water conservation programs.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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