President Donald Trump signed off on bipartisan legislation that would allow the Bureau of Reclamation to carry out the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan on Tuesday—and a California district has already sued to halt the plan.
The plan, supported by all 14 senators from the Colorado River Basin states, aims to cut back on water use from the Colorado River by preventing water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling to severely low levels. The legislation is the culmination of years of negotiations among the neighboring states.
The Colorado River serves 40 million people in the western United States. And amid a nearly 20-year drought, Lake Mead—a man-made lake and the largest reservoir in the U.S. in terms of water capacity—fell to its lowest level ever in 2016. Lake Mead hasn't been full since 1983, and water levels have declined since then. This is the most severe drought in 1,250 years for the Colorado River.
But this drought may be the new normal, and many experts believe it is being driven by climate change. Policies designed to encourage more productive water usage will likely increase at the federal, state, and local levels as water scarcity increases as a result of climate change.
Arizona, California, and Nevada all rely on Lake Mead for water, and the plan outlines how they will share limited water (and distribute water cuts) to prevent future water crises. "Mitigation" water deliveries will, in part, alleviate impacts of increasing water restrictions (especially for states like Arizona, which receives nearly 40 percent of its water from the Colorado River). The plan also includes stipulations for providing payments for those offering compensatory water.
Water managers told the Arizona Republic that the plan would serve as a "bridge" while negotiations continue regarding water usage for potential shortages after 2026.
New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah also agreed to explore more productive management of Lake Powell.
"This is a historic moment for the Colorado River, the West and the entire country. Passing the drought contingency plan sets in place a foundation for conservation that will ensure a more secure future for the American Southwest," Kevin Moran, senior director of the Environmental Defense Fund's Colorado River Program, said in a statement.
However, not everyone is in favor of the new deal. The Imperial Irrigation District has sued to halt the plan, filing a petition in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. The IID has some of the oldest and most significant rights to the river, according to the Desert Sun. The petition argues that the Salton Sea—one of the world's largest inland seas—was wrongly ignored in the plan, and that this exclusion violates state environmental laws, including a statute that requires state and local agencies to identify and mitigate significant environmental impacts of their actions.
The district also alleges that it would be at a loss of hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water annually from the Colorado River that the plan doesn't consider or address.
"[The plan] is missing 21 percent of the Colorado River's delivered water and instead of squarely addressing the greatest environmental challenge facing the entire river system—by name—tries to pretend that the Salton Sea doesn't exist," Erik Ortega, president of the Imperial Irrigation District's board of directors, said in a statement earlier this month.