The Department of Interior will go ahead with an environmental study that will include the plan to allocate Colorado River Basin water in times of drought. Utah plans to pursue a pipeline to carry Lake Powell water to the St. George area.
The seven Colorado River Basin states Tuesday apparently overcame a final intramural feud and will send a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton this week indicating that they have reached a basic agreement on how the river will be managed under drought conditions.
Some details remain to be worked out. But Upper Basin states Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, and California, Arizona and Nevada in the Lower Basin agreed to forward a document to Norton that will allow the Bureau of Reclamation to proceed with an ongoing environmental study of how future water shortages on the river will be dealt with. Norton had given the states a Feb. 1 deadline to have their proposal included in the study.
The seven states have been meeting regularly since December 2004 to try to reach an agreement. The absence of a deal, all sides agree, probably would lead to expensive and prolonged litigation that could endanger future water projects, such as Utah's proposed Lake Powell pipeline.
Larry Anderson, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said he and other water officials representing the basin states believed they had a tentative agreement earlier this month after two days of meetings in Las Vegas. But it took another round of meetings in Vegas on Monday and Tuesday to resolve a battle pitting Arizona against fellow Lower Basin states Nevada and California. The three states met for several hours Monday, and by Tuesday had apparently resolved enough issues to sign on to the letter and document sent to Norton.
"I don't think they've resolved everything to everybody's satisfaction," said Anderson. "But they have resolved a lot of it. Otherwise we wouldn't have come this far."
Arizona has sought changes to the 40-year-old river management agreement that has left it as the junior partner in the Lower Basin, putting it first in line to absorb water shortages in future droughts.
"Arizona cannot accept a seven-states alternative that has within it any harm to us, that would increase the chances for a shortage," Herb Guenther, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told the Arizona Republic prior to this week's meetings.
Under the proposed agreement going to Norton, water delivery to the Lower Basin from Lake Powell will be reduced by 400,000 acre-feet annually when the water elevation at Lake Mead drops to 1,075 feet. That shortage will increase by another 100,000 acre-feet at 1,050 and 1,025 feet, respectively. And the Interior secretary will be called in for what Anderson calls "reconsultation" if Mead's elevation falls below 1,000 feet.
The agreement also will modify and coordinate the operation of Powell and Mead, the basin's two largest reservoirs, to ensure that neither suffers at the expense of the other.