Another federal deadline expired on Monday for seven states in the American West to finalize work for a plan to ensure that the drought-stricken Colorado River could supply water to the 40 million people and businesses that depend on it.
The states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – have been working on emergency plans for drought for years. But Arizona and California have missed two deadlines by the American Bureau of Reclamation and still have work to do.
Without a consensus among states, the agency will allow governors of the seven states to weigh with recommendations on what to do. The federal government could also step in and impose its own rules in the lower river basin, with consequences for California, Arizona and Nevada.
The comment period closes on March 19th, but the Bureau of Reclamation says it can abort the process if all states complete their work.
Here is a look at the river and the drought plan and why it is important:
What is the Colorado River?
The river carries molten snow from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California.
The water has allowed large desert cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix to flourish. But an almost two decade long drought, climate change and the demand of growing cities increase the threat of water shortages.
The water is distributed through inter-state agreements, international treaties and court rulings.
Users are legally entitled to more water than the river actually transports, because the flows were abnormally high when the water was allocated in 1922.
What is the drying plan?
Some of the best health indicators for the Colorado River are Lake Mead on the border between Arizona and Nevada and Lake Powell upstream on the border between Arizona and Utah – the largest artificial reservoirs in the country.
US officials project each year in August to see whether Lake Mead can supply a full amount of water to Arizona, California and Nevada. At the moment there is a chance of more than 50 percent of a new shortage in 2020.
If there is a shortage, Nevada and Arizona are faced with the first round of austerity. California would never lose water in the Colorado River because it has the oldest rights.
During the drought, Arizona, Nevada and California volunteer water from 2020 to 2026. The cutbacks will not stop people from turning on their cranes at home. A large part of the water will be stored behind Lake Mead to prevent it becoming so low that it can not release any water at all.
Mexico has also agreed to cutbacks when the US completes the drought schedule.
Why is the American government involved?
The Bureau of Reclamation is the delegated & # 39; watermaster & # 39; of the lower river basin of the Colorado under a law of 1928 that created the Hoover Dam, which stops Lake Mead. This means that Commissioner Brenda Burman can intervene if the states do not develop a plan themselves. Her authority is broad and unspecified.
Most water users believe that any action it would take that is not in line with the agreed drought policy would cause long-term legal challenges.
"It is much cleaner and much more appropriate to implement a series of plans negotiated by the states and approved by a number of constituencies outside the states themselves, which have a general level of consensus," said former Commissioner Mike Connor.
What do states suggest?
California and Arizona are seen as the holdouts. California more now because some water managers want the latest revision of the drought principle and one irrigation area wants $ 200 million in federal funding to restore a huge salt lake more southeast of Los Angeles.
Most states do not intend to make recommendations to the Bureau of Reclamation immediately and are likely to include some aspects of the drought period in their comments.
Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have historically not used their full allocation of water. The drought plan there aims to ensure that the dam that stops Lake Powell can generate hydropower.
Has the work ever been done? The drought schedule has been approved?
No. Water users in the seven states are already thinking about what to do when the drought period ends in 2026. Hydrology, climate change, growth and demand all play a role.
Farmers in central Arizona eventually lose access to the Colorado river water and switch to groundwater pumps. Developers will make decisions about where to build on the basis of water supply.
"If the DCP is implemented and you get experience implementing some of those bigger cuts, I think you'll learn a lot about what the reality is to live with less supply than we might have become accustomed to," former Reclamation Commissioner Estevan Lopez said.