Colorado basin pact reached
7 states agree to changes in river use

Shaun McKinnon
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 1, 2006 12:00 AM

Setting aside years of differences, the seven Colorado River states agreed Tuesday to significant changes in the way the river is operated, both in times of drought and as demand for water increases across the growing West.

The proposal more closely links the river's two biggest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, giving managers specific rules about how to regulate water levels to best protect users against shortages. The new rules should eliminate what was becoming an annual fight over how water moves downstream.

Those rules are important to Arizona because shortages on the river are declared based on the level of water in Lake Mead, which rises and falls depending on releases from Lake Powell. Arizona takes the first and hardest hit of the states when a shortage is declared.

The seven-state plan, described as a framework, also calls for augmenting the river's flow using technologies such as desalination and weather modification and for reducing waste by lining canals or building extra storage near the river's end.

Arizona officials said they not only achieved their goal of protecting the state from any losses but they also counted some gains, such as a change in how and when water is released from Lake Powell. The state had also pushed hard for adding to the river's flow and improving efficiency.

"This is a major step forward for relations among the seven states," said Herb Guenther, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. "I don't think we've been in agreement on this many varied details and complicated issues for as far back as I can remember."

As recently as last week, the talks among the river basin states appeared to be in jeopardy because of differences between Arizona and California, but negotiations through the weekend paved the way for the pact among those states as well as Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming. The states finished the draft Tuesday in Las Vegas.

The proposal will be sent to Interior Secretary Gale Norton. She sought the plan after a five-year drought on the Colorado exposed weaknesses in the river operating plan, which did not address shortages in a comprehensive way.

"I am pleased that the basin states have a preliminary recommendation that they can provide us," Norton said. "I appreciate their dedication to working on a long-term solution and recognize that it took much time and effort."

The states' plan will be included as one of several alternatives to be studied by the Bureau of Reclamation in an environmental-impact statement. Those alternatives will be released for public comment in March. Norton will sign off on a final plan by the end of 2007.

Among major provisions:

• The two reservoirs would be operated cooperatively, with water levels based on the condition of the river and the lakes. The guidelines should postpone shortages in Arizona longer than current rules would.

• Water levels at Lake Mead would determine when a shortage is declared and how much water would be withheld from the states and Mexico.



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