Legislation essential to implementing drought contingency plans in the Colorado River Basin has passed in Congress with a swiftness more commonly found in the currents of Class 5 rapids than in Washington, D.C., thanks in part to the help of Colorado's two U.S. senators.
The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act needs only the signature of President Trump to become law following its passage by Congress just six days after its introduction in the Senate.
It authorizes the Interior secretary to execute and implement several agreements reached between states in the basin, including Colorado. The deals have the goal of keeping water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling so low that they affect hydropower production and trigger water supply reductions.
The agreements come in response to drought conditions that generally have prevailed over the last two decades.
In the Upper Colorado River Basin, including Colorado, the agreements will allow for coordinated operation of reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell to help shore up Powell's water levels. They also will allow for any water conserved by future demand management programs in Upper Basin states to be stored in a separate account in Lake Powell for the sake of protecting water levels in that reservoir. That would keep the conserved water from being subject to release downstream under a 2007 agreement seeking to balance water levels in Powell and Mead.
The bill is a mere two pages long. Its brevity didn't hurt in terms of getting it passed, said James Eklund, who is Colorado's representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.
But he added, "It still took the leadership in both chambers seeing this as a win for their constituents and for the country, and they did, so my hat's off to them."
U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., both worked in support of the measure's passage. Eklund said that with their help, the measure was able to avoid a Senate committee proceeding and move immediately to a Senate floor vote.
Lawmakers amended the bill to make clear that it doesn't authorize any exemption from federal environmental laws. It then passed in both the Senate and House Monday.
In a joint news release with Gardner, Bennet called the bill's passage "a win for the millions of people across the West who rely on the Colorado River. Following the leadership of Coloradans and communities across the seven affected states, we are now one step closer to countering drought, addressing climate change, and strengthening Colorado's agricultural and outdoor recreation-based economy."
Said Gardner, "In the face of long-term drought, the Colorado River states have come together to successfully create coordinated plans that would aid efforts to prevent severe water shortages in the region and stabilize water storage levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell. I'm glad to see this commonsense legislation head to the president's desk to be signed into law."
Protracted negotiations within and between basin states to reach agreements preceded the passage of the bill needed to implement them. And the job won't be finished with Trump's expected signature. In Colorado, for example, talks will be ongoing on what measures might be taken in the state to address demand management to take advantage of the water storage account that would be created in Powell.
"I think we can get there but it's going to take more work," Eklund said.
The Colorado River District, based in Glenwood Springs, wants to make sure that any demand management program not overly burden Western Slope agriculture. It wants any program to entail voluntary, temporary and compensated reductions in water use.