SALT LAKE CITY — Because Arizona and California failed to craft sufficient drought contingency plans for the Colorado River by a Thursday deadline, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced it is moving forward with its own plan to address shortages on the Southwest's most critical river.
"Close isn't done," said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman during a teleconference Friday.
"I am highly concerned that delays inappropriately increase these risks" of shortages on the Colorado River, she said.
Utah and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin submitted required drought contingency plans at the end of 2018, but California and Arizona did not finish the work.
That misstep means Washington, D.C., could end up being the final arbiter of how Colorado River water is divvied up to keep Lake Mead from shrinking even more.
On Friday, Burman requested the governors of all seven states submit recommendations on what actions to take amid dwindling water supplies due to prolonged drought. Those recommendations are due no later than March 19.
An earlier report by the bureau predicts that Lake Mead may drop to an elevation of 1,075 feet by May this year — the threshold that would trigger a shortage declaration and mandatory federal cuts to water allocations.
"The basin is teetering on the brink of shortage," Burman said. "In 2007 we were in a seven-year drought. Today we are in a 19-year drought."
Burman said Friday the rushed drought contingency plan passed by Arizona lawmakers Thursday was a "tremendous step forward," but was incomplete.
Nevada, California and Arizona were supposed to have come up with a Colorado River reduction plan aimed at preserving Lake Mead and safeguarding hydropower production from Hoover Dam.
But the largest user on the entire length of the Colorado River, the Imperial Irrigation District in California, did not sign off on the drought agreement because it wants $200 million for the restoration of the saline Salton Sea.
The Colorado River irrigates 5.5 million acres of farmland, provides water for 40 million people and is the most managed and diverted river in the country.
Nearly 20 years of drought is forcing state and federal water managers to rethink how the river's resources are used and may force a historic reform of water allocations.
A 1922 compact gives Utah 23 percent of Colorado River water. The upper basin states, where the water originates, are required to deliver 7.5 million acre feet to the downstream lower basin states. Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico are the upper basin states while California, Arizona and Nevada are the lower basin states.
Burman did not detail what federal cuts to water sharing among states may look like, but warned the outlook isn't rosy.
"We are at the point where two roads are diverging in the woods and we need to decide what path to follow," she said. "There are questions that a lot of people don't want to answer."