There will be no Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan before the end of the Obama administration

“We are not going to get the Drought Contingency Plan completed.” That was the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Jeff Kightlinger this morning during the opening panel at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas.

It was a very public expression of something that has been increasingly clear in recent weeks – that the intense negotiations to work out details of a broad plan to reduce Colorado River water use in Arizona, Nevada, and California haven’t converged on a solution.

In the public session this morning, two key unresolved issues loomed over California’s participation:

  • a plan for the Salton Sea, which will soon be significantly diminished as the huge ag->urban Imperial Irrigation District->MWD/San Diego water deal reduces ag runoff to the sea.
  • a commitment to action on the Northern California Bay Delta, hub of California’s water system. Without a clear solution to MWD’s Bay Delta water reliability problem, it’s harder for that huge player in these discussions to make a commitment to more flexible use of its Colorado River water.

Behind the scenes, there is a lot more complexity that is causing this deal to drag on, including discussions within Arizona about how to deal with shortages that state’s water users would have to take on to prevent Lake Mead from crashing. There’s also a huge chicken-egg problem with a parallel negotiation underway with Mexico. The goal is to get Mexico to join in the shortage sharing provisions with U.S. water users. But can that deal be signed soon – ahead of the Jan. 20 change of administration – without also getting a deal within the United States?