December 2, 2019

Pioneertown residents now have clean tap water — for the first time in decades

Kenneth Gentry, of Yucca Valley, who also owns property in Pioneertown, smiles as he feels water moving through pipes at a well site in Yucca Valley on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. (Photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

San Bernardino Sun

Gay Smith started getting clean tap water to her home in Pioneertown nearly three months ago. Still, the retired teacher said she walks over to a jug of water from the county to fill a pot for boiling potatoes.

“You don’t realize the habits you get into until you don’t have to do those habits anymore,” Smith said.

For three years, residents of the unincorporated San Bernardino County desert town have used twice-a-month shipments of bottled water because local wells were no longer meeting state standards for drinking water. The water was too high in naturally occurring arsenic, uranium and fluoride, which can cause health problems over time.

The shipments were a temporary solution to decades of water quality problems. That changed in September, when work finished on a new pipeline that pulls clean water from a well 4 miles away in Yucca Valley. The new pipeline also boosted water supply, addressing a longtime water shortage in the town that was built in 1946 as an Old West film set.

“Even back in the film days, a lot of people bought (property) thinking they were going to go out there and retire,” David Miller, a Pioneertown resident and Friends of Pioneertown board member. “By the time these people retired there was no water.”

Pioneertown was founded by Hollywood investors, including Dick Curtis, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, in 1946. It became home to film and TV productions, such as “The Cisco Kid,” and “The Gene Autry Show” and is still used for music videos, print and commercial work.

No water, no growth

Like any old western town, it’s all about water, Miller said.

The town hasn’t had enough water to support large development or much home building, which has limited growth in the 1-square-mile town.

When Smith and her husband, John, bought the Desert Willow Ranch in 1969 there wasn’t water, Smith said. They connected to a water system controlled by Benton Lefton, an Ohio developer who bought Pioneertown with plans to turn it into a master-planned community called The California Golden Empire. There wasn’t enough water to support Lefton’s dream, so ultimately, the water system fell into residents’ hands.

In 1980, residents voted to give that responsibility to the county.

In November 1999, the county placed a moratorium on new construction because of the small water supply and quality concerns, said Steve Samaras, division manager with the county’s special district’s department, water and sanitation division.

Around that time, county officials began notifying residents that their water violated drinking water standards, particularly for arsenic. The state lowered the maximum amount of arsenic allowed in the water, which put some of Pioneertown’s wells out of commission, Samaras said.

The violation didn’t trigger an outright ban on drinking the water, but county officials still had to let residents know of the potential health risk. Elevated fluoride levels, however, made the water unsafe for children under 9 years old, so they were told not to drink it.

“It’s not something you’re going to drink today and you’re going to have a problem tomorrow,” Samaras said. “It’s over the course of your life time and the certain amount you consume, the risk is greater.”

Residents continued to drink from the troubled water system while county officials worked to tap into a new well. In September 2016, the county started delivering bottled water to residents so they didn’t have to use their taps.

Smith’s situation was eased by having a reverse osmosis filter, but she still worried about using tap water for cooking and feeding her dogs. Out of concern from her doctor that the water was causing skin issues, she emptied a jacuzzi on her property and sold it.

“I”m laying out there one night enjoying the stars in 104-degree water,” she said, “and I’m thinking to myself, ‘What the heck are you doing? Are you out of your mind?’”

Reverse osmosis wasn’t an option for the town’s system because it requires the loss of water to produce clean water. There just wasn’t water to spare.

County officials reached an agreement with the Hi-Desert Water District to connect to a well the district was no longer using in Yucca Valley.

“For them that well, as high output as it is, would have just been just a piece of what would have helped their town,” Miller said. “For us, it’s everything and then some.”

A system from ‘Star Wars’

In contrast to the town’s Old West style, its new water system is pretty high tech.

Miller called it “Star Wars.”

The $5.4 million project, funded mostly by state grant money, included rehabilitation of the well and construction of a new system with pumps, tanks, and more pipeline than existed inside the town.

A station halfway between the well and the town, was built mostly underground to avoid harming the hillside views. County water officials can control the system remotely and numerous safety features ensure it’s not tampered with.

At 180 gallons per minute, the new well pumps two and a half times more water than all the wells in Pioneertown, Samaras said.

The water now exceeds all standards and is only treated with a small amount of chlorine as a precaution, he said.

Crews with Sukut Construction worked through spring and summer to get the project done. They excavated rock to install the pipeline, causing some traffic delays, but nothing serious, Miller said.

“It all went so smoothly that people now have just all good things to say about this,” Miller said. “That was healing up 35 years of scarring. It was an amazing thing to watch.”

More water, more growth

The new pipeline will open up the town to some new construction, but not too much.

Today, there are 120 water meters in Pioneertown, serving a little more than 400 people.

While the county works to determine the maximum number of connections that can be safely served by the new system, nine property owners with meters were told they can build and another 42 may soon get permission to connect to the water source, Samaras said.

Still, residents want their Old West town to stay small.

“People have been fighting to keep it exactly the way it is now,” said Kenneth Gentry, who wrote a book about Pioneertown’s history.


Founded: 1946

Founders: Hollywood investors, including Dick Curtis, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry

Location: About 4 miles northwest of Yucca Valley, in San Bernardino County

Notable filming: “The Cisco Kid,” “The Gene Autry Show,” “Annie Oakley,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Ingrid Goes West,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Funnel of Love” music video

Attractions: Mane Street, where many original Old West buildings stand; film museum; Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, which serves barbecue and hosts concerts, including a surprise show from Sir Paul McCartney in 2016; Pioneertown Motel, built in 1946 as lodging for western film stars; nearby Joshua Tree National Park

September 16, 2019

New pipeline replaces contaminated wells in Pioneertown

Morongo Basin Conservation Association president and Pipes Canyon resident Steve Bardwell tastes the new drinking water from the Pioneertown Pipeline during Friday morning’s ceremony. (Jené Estrada. Hi-Desert Star)

By Jené Estrada
Hi-Desert Star

PIONEERTOWN — After over 30 years of community effort, Pioneertown now has clean, potable drinking water straight from the tap and on Friday morning, Sept. 13, people from across the Morongo Basin gathered outside of Pappy & Harriett’s to celebrate the achievement.

The Pioneertown Pipeline will pump water into this small community to replace the source water in Pioneertown, which has several quality issues.

Most of the county-run wells in Pioneertown were taken out of service due to high concentrations of uranium and arsenic. The new pipeline connects the existing Pioneertown water distribution system to a Hi-Desert Water District well through the installation of approximately 4 miles of transmission pipeline and two booster stations.

This project was funded through a State Proposition 84 grant that was approved by the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund on Nov. 14, 2018, for $5.4 million.

The new pipeline was completed on July 27 but the county asked residents not to drink the water until after the ribbon-cutting ceremony to allow the lines to run the clean water and purge all old contaminates.

Dawn Rowe, the 3rd District supervisor for San Bernardino County, opened up the ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday morning by thanking local agencies including the Hi-Desert Water District and the Mojave Water Agency for their contributions. She also gave a special thanks to the San Bernardino County Special Districts Department for pushing the project forward.

Jack Dugan, a longtime Pioneertown resident and the former Pioneertown representative on the Morongo Basin Municipal Advisory Council, spoke about the history of the project and thanked everyone for pushing through the roadblocks that halted the project’s progress; these included the incline into Pioneertown from Yucca Valley and the rocky terrain.

“Between 1947 and 1948, Dick Curtis was talking to San Bernardino County about piping water into Pioneertown,” Dugan said. “Well, it’s here. It took a while, but it’s here.”

Dugan went on to thank the county for securing grant money to pay for the pipeline, which was installed in Pioneertown at no cost to the local residents.

Division Manager Steve Samaras with the Special Districts Water and Sanitation Department said he was excited to see the project reach its completion. Up on the podium, he took a drink of water from the pipeline brought in for the ceremony.

“This water exceeds all federal and state quality regulation,” he said. “This is a new chapter in the history of Pioneertown.”

After he spoke, Rowe and longtime resident David Miller then turned the key, opening the Pioneertown Pipeline.

September 11, 2019

Unquenchable Thirst: Groundwater Bill Could Shift State’s Water Management Approach

The Colorado River Aqueduct looking east. | Bruindon/Creative Commons

Char Miller

The latest salvo is California’s long-running water wars, SB307, has the potential to emerge as one of the most important pieces of water regulation in recent years. Although its target was narrow — it was designed to undercut the capacity of Cadiz, Inc. to pump annually upwards of 16 billion gallons of groundwater in eastern San Bernardino County and sell it to ever-thirsty Southern California — the legislation may prove to be far-reaching in its consequences.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law on July 31, requiring independent review from the State Lands Commission, Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Water Resources to ensure that pumping from the groundwater basin doesn’t harm the natural or cultural resources at the site and in the surrounding watersheds. Focused on short-term impact, columnist at the Desert Sun, decried the bill as a job-killer and legislative overreach. The Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee read the law as yet another Golden State rebuke of the Trump administration and made much of the legislation’s protection of imperiled Mojave Desert springs and species. The environmental impact of the law was a point that Sen. Dianne Feinstein confirmed: “If Cadiz were allowed to drain a vital desert aquifer,“ she declared, “everything that makes our desert special — from bighorn sheep and desert tortoises to Joshua trees and breathtaking wildflower blooms—would have been endangered.“

These are all important considerations to be sure. But the new law is actually more expansive in reality and reach. Although the enduring battle over the control and distribution of white gold dates back to the Spanish conquest of Alta California in the late 18th century, this particular piece of 21st century legislation offers an important twist in the state’s longstanding struggle to secure a sustainable supply of this most-essential resource.

In this case, the play has been for desert groundwater. That unusual wellspring is a bit of a shock, not least because ever since the Gold Rush it has been Sierran snowmelt that has dominated the state’s mirage-like fantasies of an unending stream of water that would blast open mineral riches, fill reservoirs, irrigate farms and lawns, drive industrial production, and wash windows, cars, and sidewalks. This natural tap would forever boom the state’s economy. But could the desert, specifically the Mojave Desert, one of the most arid regions on this blue planet, become a rich repository of water? That has seemed a contradiction in terms.

Adding to the confusion is that the main actors in this most-recent drama are not the usual suspects. This story isn’t about water grabs devised by big ag in the Central Valley. It isn’t about a scheming Metropolitan Water District (though it would surely benefit from the deal). Neither the City of Los Angeles nor the State of California, each of which in the past has diverted vast amounts of other region’s water for its own ends (and ticked off a lot of people in the process), are the creators of this particular narrative.

Taking center stage instead is a clutch of venture capitalists who have invested in the Cadiz Project, and whose investment has underwritten the purchase of 34,000 desert acres and associated water rights in San Bernardino County. Theirs is a supply-side operation, a tantalizing pool of water that has not yet been integrated into California’s highly complex water-market. Should it ever be so — and you can be certain that Cadiz will do everything in its power to make that happen, SB307 notwithstanding — then its privately owned groundwater will become a cash cow for Wall Street profiteers.

Standing in their way is this new law, the promise of which is that it unflinchingly calls the question on water agencies and consumers: why are we still fixated on securing new supplies of hitherto unexploited water, by hook or by crook? Cadiz, after all, is one more shimmering proposal, in a long line of such illusions, that ever-dry Southern California can solve its water crises by pumping out the Owens River Valley, the Colorado River, or that trio of NorCal rivers, the Feather, Sacramento, or the San Joaquin. Absent this law, and the Mojave would be yet another victim of our unquenchable thirst.

The adoption of this law sheds light on a new approach to water management: the smartest, least expensive, and most efficient method of building a more water-resilient state is to tackle the demand side of the equation. That’s at the heart of an argument by Peter Gleick, president Emeritus of the Pacific Institute, in a 2018 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In it, he probes the new water-management paradigm that he dubs the "soft water path,“ a refocusing on the “multiple benefits water provides, improving water use efficiency, integrating new technology for decentralized water sources, modernizing management systems, committing to ecological restoration, and adopting more effective economic approaches.“ By rigorous conservation we can do more with less.

That prospect isn’t new. It has been demonstrated in the implementation and constant improvement of low-flow technologies that are required features in building codes across California. It was strikingly manifest, amid a punishing four-year drought, in the rapid decrease in urban water use following Gov. Jerry Brown’s April 2015 declaration of mandatory emergency restrictions to cut consumption by 25%. It is evident as well in Orange County’s highly successful groundwater replenishment operation — to date, the world’s largest — that captures and treats stormwater and effluent to the EPA’s highest standard for potable water; the project currently serves more than 500,000 people a year (with an expansion underway to increase its capacity to an estimated 850,00 consumers by 2020).

This system is making a critical contribution to the county’s ambition to become water independent by 2050, an ambition that the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability believes Los Angeles County could replicate. In its 2018 report, the center highlighted “potential pathways to a transformation of the city’s historical reliance on imported water to an integrated, green infrastructure, water management approach that provides water quality, supply, flood control, habitat, open space and other benefits.”

Although galvanizing policymakers, politicians, and taxpayers to invest in these proven, real-world outcomes will not be easy, UCLA researchers believe “the recent extreme drought on water supplies throughout California has created a new urgency to increase the city’s ability to provide a secure, resilient water supply through local sources.“ SB307 might accelerate that transition by helping break our bad habit of relying on Cadiz-like pipe dreams, which the late historian Norris Hundley argues in “The Great Thirst“ was “born of an earlier era when abundance encouraged abuse.“ If it does so, then it will mark a significant turning point in the state’s contentious water history.

Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College, and among his most recent books are "Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream," "The Nature of Hope: Grassroots Organizing, Environmental Justice, and Political Change," "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy," and "Death Valley National Park: A History."

February 20, 2019

Mojave River flows through Barstow for first time since 2011

The Mojave River flows near the Deep Creek area during a winter storm last week. Inflow to the Mojave River at its headwaters peaked at approximately 15,000 cubic feet per second during the storm, according to provisional estimates. [James Quigg, Daily Press]

By Matthew Cabe
Victor Valley Press

BARSTOW — Recent rains allowed surface water in the Mojave River to flow through the city for the first time in eight years, signaling good news for recharge in regional aquifers, according to Mojave Water Agency officials.

MWA Senior Hydrogeologist/Engineer Tony Winkel told the Daily Press inflow to the Mojave River at its headwaters on Thursday peaked at approximately 15,000 cubic feet per second, according to provisional estimates.

That inflow surged through the inlet within the Mojave River Dam, sometimes called the Forks Dam, where the Deep Creek and West Fork tributaries converge.

Winkel said previous storms in recent weeks allowed the river to soak up water “like a big dry sponge.” Because the river can only absorb water so quickly, though, water from last week’s storm subsequently “skirted” along through Barstow, petering out just beyond Minneola Road in Yermo late last week.

“Minneola Road is kind of the upper end of the Baja subarea, but it was kind of a trickle,” Winkel said. “So right at the headwaters, it’s raging. You get down to the tail end of it, it’s just trickling because that much water has soaked in, which is a good thing because that’s water supply.”

Amid the worst drought in California history several years ago, the High Desert finally received some wet weather in 2017. But that water didn’t reach Barstow, which makes last week’s storm significant because it was the city’s “first influx of water since 2011,” Winkel said.

To understand just how much water flowed into the Mojave River on Thursday, MWA Water Conservation and Forecast Manager Nick Schneider said to imagine 15,000 basketballs bouncing through the inlet — in one second.

The analogy isn’t precise, according to Schneider and Winkel because a basketball isn’t exactly one cubic foot. Schneider, however, said the “industry conversion idea” is fair for visualization purposes.

“For the layman, if you think of a basketball, that’s a good way to process it,” Winkel said. “For an engineer, it drove me nuts.”

While 15,000 CFS is impressive and welcome, Winkel said last week’s storm, historically, pales in comparison to older weather events that brought significant inflow at the Mojave River’s headwaters.

On March 4, 1978, inflow peaked above 35,000 CFS, according to data Winkel provided. Some 40 years earlier, during what’s been called the “flood of the century” that ravaged the High Desert in March 1938, inflow peaked at nearly 75,000 CFS.

The data, which included estimates as far back as December 1859, showed at least 16 peak events with a magnitude above 25,000 CFS, including a Jan. 22, 1862, incident during which inflow is estimated at more than 100,000 CFS.

That peak came during the Great Flood of 1862, which started with a series of storms in December 1861 and is considered the largest flood in California’s history. It’s unknown how much damage occurred locally, but Sacramento was underwater for months. Schneider said newly elected Gov. Leland Stanford had to travel by rowboat to and from his inauguration in January.

Winkel said last week’s storm was nowhere near even the peaks seen in the wet winters of 2010 and 2011, which were also below 25,000 CFS. That said, it’s important in its own right because it equals recharge for the High Desert’s water supply, he said.

Consequential weather events occur, on average, every six to eight years, but that cycle isn’t consistent and the peaks are “very variable”, according to Winkel. Still, the High Desert, insofar as water supply is concerned, relies on peak events like the one experienced last week, he said.

“So how significant is it that the water made it to Barstow?” Winkel said. “Very. Because that’s the natural supply that we depend on.”

Specific recharge data for last week’s storm is not yet available because “we’re still in the storm swell,” according to Winkel, who said he’s hoping for more rain this year.

“Aside from the excitement factor of a river that’s actually flowing, which is very exciting because it usually doesn’t, I want to see more for water supply purposes.”

February 2, 2019

A monumental flight over Mojave Trails

Mojave Desert Land Trust aerial tour shows splendor of national monument whose status could be reassessed

Amboy Crater is a significant geological feature of the Mojave Trails National Monument. Last week, the Mojave Desert Land Trust hosted an aerial tour as part of the third anniversary of the monument. [James Quigg, Daily Press]

By Matthew Cabe
Victor Valley Daily News

Storm clouds hovered over the city and patches of rain fell from above the nearby San Jacinto Mountains, but two Mojave Desert Land Trust officials arrived at the international airport here last week ready for a celebration.

Staff at the Joshua Tree-based nonprofit recently completed plans to commemorate the upcoming third anniversary of Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains national monuments.

All three were established Feb. 12, 2016, by former President Barack Obama through use of the Antiquities Act. Combined, they encompass nearly 1.8 million acres in the Mojave, Colorado and Sonoran deserts.

To offer a comprehensive view, MDLT partnered with the nonprofit EcoFlight for a series of flyovers within the Mojave Trails National Monument, which boasts 1.6 million acres and is the largest national monument in the 48 contiguous states, according to MDLT Communications Director Jessica Dacey.

Shortly before 10 a.m. Tuesday, Dacey and MDLT Education Coordinator Adam Henne briefed a group of passengers that included a Daily Press reporter and photographer.

“You get a bit of a buzz when you go up there,” Dacey said. “Especially coming from this angle ... you start to understand the seamlessness between the parks.”

Tuesday’s flight traveled first above Joshua Tree National Park, then over Sheep Hole Pass, which served as the Cessna 210′s entrance into Mojave Trails.

For Dacey and others, part of the monument’s importance is its function as a wildlife corridor connecting the national park and the Mojave National Preserve, the more than 1.5-million-acre swath of National Park Service land between interstates 15 and 40.

Within the monument, the Cady Mountains serve as one of the best areas in the Mojave Desert to see bighorn sheep, according to MDLT.

The North American population of the muscular animal with curved horns was once estimated in the millions. By 1900, human encroachment diminished bighorn sheep numbers to several thousand, National Wildlife Federation statistics show. Conservation efforts have since brought those numbers up to nearly 8,000.

Bonanza Spring, located near the monument’s northern border, is the only wetland for 1,000 square miles. Like the Cady Mountains, the spring is also home to bighorns and 70 bird species.

Dacey said the habitat connectivity created with the monument’s establishment allows many animals to roam, helps increase their populations and protects plant life they need to survive.

There are also unique historical and cultural aspects to the monument’s significance, she said.

Mojave Trails is home to the longest undeveloped section of U.S. Route 66. Preservation of the “Mother Road,” according to the World Monuments Fund, would equal positive economic effects like “sustainable tourism.”

The monument also includes some of the best-preserved sites from the World War II-era Desert Training Center where, under the command of Gen. George S. Patton, more than a million troops were trained on 18,000 square miles for desert combat in North Africa.

Deep within the vast expanse visible through the Cessna’s starboard-side windows, another geographical feature appeared, albeit inconspicuously from 2,500 feet above the desert floor.

The Cadiz Dunes Wilderness spans nearly 20,000 acres in the heart of the monument. The dunes appear to “hum in the wind,” Dacey told passengers.

“I think they’re more majestic than the Kelso Dunes in the Preserve,” she said.

Bruce Gordon, who piloted the Cessna, nodded in agreement from behind his aviators. Gordon founded EcoFlight in 2002 to advocate for environmental protection via programs and aerial visuals that expand public awareness of wild lands.

He couldn’t help but take his hands off the Cessna’s yoke to capture photographs of the pristine topography below. He used the 80-minute flight to share his own knowledge of the region.

Several concerns were noted, as well.

One, MDLT contends, is Cadiz Inc.’s planned water project, which would pull 50,000-acre-feet of water a year from an ancient aquifer beneath the Mojave Desert. The water would later be sold in Southern California.

Cadiz owns roughly 34,000 acres within Mojave Trails, Dacey said. Company officials have said the pumping would not harm the environment. Rather, the project would conserve surplus water lost to evaporation at nearby dry lakes.

Cadiz’s research maintains that Bonanza Spring would not be impacted by pumping. Other research published in 2018 called the company’s findings into question and said the project would threaten Bonanza Spring, according to MDLT, which funded some of the research.

Cadiz CEO and President Scott Slater has stated the company is confident of no interconnection between groundwater and water levels in Bonanza Spring, the company’s website shows.

MDLT officials say the project could harm the bighorns that use Bonanza Spring. Dacey said a pipeline for the project has not yet been constructed.

Gordon navigated the plane toward Amboy Crater, situated about three miles southwest of Roy’s Motel and Cafe. At 80,000 years old, Amboy is “North America’s youngest volcano,” Dacey said.

MDLT is one of several environmental groups working to secure Mojave Trails’ status, which Dacey said is “in limbo.”

In April 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke — who resigned his post last month — to review national monuments of at least 100,000 acres that have been designated since 1996.

Trump’s goal was to determine whether the monuments needed reduction or elimination. Mojave Trails was subsequently included for review. Trump called the monuments, particularly Bear Ears National Monument in Utah, a “massive federal land grab.”

An initial report released in December 2017 included changes to 10 monuments. That same month, Trump signed proclamations that scaled back Bear Ears, as well as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In doing so, he declared, “Public lands will once again be for public use.”

Mojave Trails has not been altered, but Dacey said it’s never officially been declared safe.

When the monument was established, a management plan had to be drawn up by this month. That process was halted amid the Interior Department’s review. MDLT is part of a coalition working on a community proposal for a management plan. Dacey said the expectation is for it to guide future planning for Mojave Trails.

In 2016, visitors to Joshua Tree National Park more than doubled to over 2.5 million, prompting Park Superintendent David Smith to declare it was being “loved to death.” Dacey said attendance now is well over 3 million per year.

Amid the rise in popularity, as well as a massive clean-up effort underway in the damaged park following the partial federal government shutdown, groups are hoping to increase awareness of places like Mojave Trails as alternative destinations.

The question MDLT wants people to ask is, “What do these other public lands have to offer?” Dacey said.

From overhead, the answer seems simple enough.

February 1, 2019

Feds start process to manage Colorado River after states miss drought plan deadline

A view of Hoover Dam is seen from the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

By Daniel Rothberg
The Nevada Independent

Citing increasing risks of shortages on the Colorado River, federal water managers said they are starting a process to protect the overused and drought-stricken watershed, after the seven states that use the river missed a deadline Thursday to complete a drought plan.

On Friday morning, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency that manages waterways and dams across the West, submitted a formal notice asking each Colorado River Basin state to submit comments about how to manage the river in lieu of a drought plan. In December, Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told the states that the states had until Jan. 31 to finish negotiating a drought deal that has been in the works for about three years.

“While we are getting closer, we are still not done,” Burman said on a call with reporters.

Despite Friday’s action, Burman said the agency’s preferred approach would be to implement the drought plan, which is nearly complete. If a plan is approved before March 4, when states start submitting comments, Burman said the agency would rescind its action. But if Arizona and California, the two states that have not finished the plan, cannot come to an agreement before then, Burman vowed to move down a path giving her broad authority to manage the river.

Such an action, Burman said, was not the agency’s “preferred approach.”

“However, any further delay elevates existing risk for the basin to unacceptable levels,” Burman told reporters. “The basin is teetering on the brink of shortage and there is a potential for Lake Powell and Lake Mead to decline to critically low elevations in the very near future.”

For years, the basin states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — have been working on a deal to cut usage amid a nearly two-decade drought. Lower average streamflows have intensified overuse on the Colorado River, a watershed that stretches from Wyoming to Mexico and supports more than 40 million people in the Southwest. As a result, the elevation of the river’s main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, dropped to historic lows.

Five states, including Nevada, have signed off on the deal, known as the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). Several Southern California irrigation districts have yet to review and sign off on the final plan. For more than a year, the biggest roadblock to finishing the drought plan was in Central Arizona, a region that could be required to cut nearly half of its Colorado River supply under the plan. Those cuts, which will hit agricultural producers the hardest, had been the subject of intense negotiations between farmers, tribes and cities, as irrigation districts pushed for mitigation water.

But on Thursday, Arizona lawmakers reached an agreement passing legislation that allowed the drought plan to move forward. Burman called the development a “tremendous step forward” and said it was a signal that Arizona’s approval of the drought plan could be “imminent.” Still, Burman said she issued the notice because the final contracts were still not in place.

“We appreciate the acknowledgment of Arizona’s accomplishment and look forward to all parties across the basin to work together to complete the DCP process by the commissioner’s March 4 deadline,” said Crystal Thompson, a spokesperson for the Central Arizona Project, which controls a 336-mile canal that delivers Colorado River water from Lake Havasu to Tucson.

Nevada, through the Southern Nevada Water Authority, became the first state to approve the drought plan in November. Because the water authority is using less water than it is allowed to use under the Colorado River Compact allocation, it would be able to sustain cuts to its supply.

Colby Pellegrino, the water authority’s Colorado River manager, said the water authority is “pretty optimistic” that “we will have that seven-state consensus within the next few weeks.”

Intervention from the federal government would be a significant departure from the state-driven approach that has characterized Colorado River management. When it comes to the Colorado River, the agency has traditionally allowed the states to craft collaborative rules for how it should manage its complex rulebook for operating dams and processing water deliveries.

Burman did not elaborate on what a possible action would look like and noted that she had legal authority to take necessary action under Arizona v. California, a 1963 Supreme Court case. But Burman said that the best approach would be for the states to approve a collaborative plan.

“It’s better to have consensus,” she said. “These are questions that a lot of people don’t want to answer. It’s better to have consensus on the river than exploring a lot of legal hypotheticals.”

Long before Burman threatened federal action in December, the states have sought to avoid that outcome. Many water managers believe that handing over more control to the federal government would take away the certainty and predictability they have in making decisions.

“Certainty to us is being able to predict the quantity and timing of shortages,” Pellegrino said.

That certainty, Pellegrino said, allows the water authority to plan for shortages, create accurate modeling and conduct risk assessments. Under current streamflow forecasts, the Bureau of Reclamation is expected to issue its first shortage declaration for Lake Mead at the start of 2020.

January 31, 2019

Arizona joins Colorado River drought plan

Decision to join drought plan, authorized by lawmakers and Gov. Doug Ducey, went right up to edge of federal deadline.

In this July 28, 2014, file photo, lightning strikes over Lake Mead near Hoover Dam that impounds Colorado River water at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Arizona. (John Locher, Associated Press)

The Denver Post and Associated Press

PHOENIX — Arizona delivered one of the final puzzle pieces for a Colorado River drought plan, agreeing Thursday to join six other states and Mexico in voluntarily taking less water from the constrained river.

The decision to join the drought plan, authorized by lawmakers and Gov. Doug Ducey, went right up to the edge of a federal deadline that threatened to blow up the agreement. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation director Brenda Burman said all parties must agree to cutbacks by Jan. 31 or she would begin the process to impose them.

Arizona was the only state that required legislation to join the agreement to protect the water that serves 40 million people in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.

“We inherited as human beings a pristine land with pristine water, and we messed it up as human beings ourselves,” said Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, a Democrat who represents the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona and voted to join the drought plan. “It is incumbent for us to safeguard, protect what we have left.”

The so-called drought contingency plan is an effort to keep the Colorado River’s major reservoirs from reaching catastrophically low levels.

The nightmare scenario for Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico — which draw from Lake Mead — is a phenomenon called “dead pool,” in which the level of the lake’s surface falls below the gates that let water out. To avoid it, the agreement calls for an escalating array of cutbacks as the lake level drops.

Arizona has junior rights to river water and would be hit first and hardest if Lake Mead on its border with Nevada drops to shortage levels. Most residents will not see an impact from cutbacks, which will primarily hit farmers in Pinal County — between Phoenix and Tucson — who have the lowest-priority access to Colorado River water and stand to lose the most.

The Arizona legislation is the product of months of negotiations between major water users in the state, who agreed to reduce their take in exchange for cash or access to groundwater in the future. The farmers, who reluctantly supported the agreement, said it would require them to fallow as much as 40 percent of the county’s farmland.

“We know nothing is perfect, but this is pretty darn good,” said Senate President Karen Fann, a Republican from Prescott.

Arizona water officials say joining the agreement is critical to the state’s water future.

“The drought is real, and there’s less water in the river,” Dennis Patch, chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, told lawmakers this week. “We can see it. We must all take a realistic view of this river and realize it does not have as much water as it used to.”

Opposition came from a handful of Democrats who said the deal didn’t do enough to rein in the state’s water consumption. Sen. Juan Mendez characterized the deal as a giveaway to interest groups that promotes unsustainable water policy, ignores climate change and doesn’t address the fact that Arizona will have less water in the future.

If Arizona were serious about the drought, Mendez said, “we would be entertaining an honest assessment of whether we can continue to base our state’s economy on continuous growth and on welfare for water intensive uses.” Mendez, a Tempe Democrat, was one of only a handful of lawmakers to vote against the measures.

Arizona lawmakers backed two measures. One allows Arizona to join the multi-state agreement. The other includes a variety of measures to help Pinal County farmers. Those include $9 million for the farmers to drill wells, dig ditches and build other infrastructure needed for them to change from the river to groundwater.

Tucson would get more groundwater credits for treated wastewater, allowing the city to pump more in the future in exchange for providing water to Pinal farmers.

The drought plan requires Arizona to find a way to reduce its use of Colorado River water by up to 700,000 acre-feet — more than twice Nevada’s yearly allocation under the drought plan. An acre-foot is enough for one to two households a year.

Still, the agreement is only the beginning of discussions about conserving Colorado River water. It lasts through 2026, after which point even steeper cuts are widely expected. Ducey created a commission Thursday to study ways the state can conserve water.

“There’s a lot more work to be done to ensure that Arizona is prepared for a drier water future,” Ducey said.