CRIT at the table as Arizona talks drought contingencies

The Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) was one of many Arizona entities and stakeholders who met to discuss contingency plans to deal with the worsening drought conditions in the southwestern United States.

The water officials committed last Thursday to reach a multi-state plan by the end of the year to stave off potential shortages. The move comes after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has been pushing western states to come up with solid plans about water usage, with steady declines in the Colorado River year on year.

The agency says that the possibility of a formal shortage being declared by 2020 is more than 50 percent, and rising thereafter. The water level at Lake Mead is slowly dropping, and that is unsustainable, the entities agreed.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project (CAP) committed to forming a committee that would present a drought plan to the state legislature by January.

Tribal water is increasingly being seen as part of the solution to the problem, by both the representatives of metropolitan areas, which require the highest water usage, and by tribes like CRIT who have rights to many hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water that they do not use.

A proposed CAP program would potentially allow tribes, who have senior rights, to store water behind Lake Mead, which could be a way to mitigate the shortage-created loss of water rights by central Arizona farmers, who need it to keep producing crops.

In such an environment, there are few such solutions, which has forced CRIT to the table. But the potential benefits to CRIT are also clear, according to the tribe’s water attorney Margaret Vick, with many of the state’s entities talking about creating positive solutions now rather than leaving it too late and having less desirable solutions imposed by the federal government later.

“We can buy insurance now to provide more certainty for the coming years,” said Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. “It’s Arizona’s history that we face problems head on.”

Burman said other states would pressure her agency to limit Arizona’s water deliveries if it doesn’t agree on an effective drought plan, and predicted that there would be lawsuits. The agency has said it would rather the states negotiate a solution that includes all entities with rights to the river.

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