Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Amid the upcoming confirmation hearings for the president-elect’s Cabinet appointees, pending congressional debate on the Affordable Care Act and any number of other front-burner issues, a matter that won’t come to a head for seven months might not seem like an urgent priority for Donald Trump and his team.
But it’s critical for the new administration to start working immediately to avert a problem that could affect millions of Americans unless there’s progress to resolve it by August of this year.
That problem would be a water shortage in states that draw from the Colorado River.
In mid-August, authorities will release a report on Lake Mead’s projected elevation. Under current policy, if the forecast calls for the level to drop under 1,075 feet on Jan. 1, 2018, it would trigger mandatory cuts in allotments for some states, Nevada included. The state would be required to reduce its allocation by 21,000 acre-feet of water — enough to meet the needs of 42,000 homes for more than a year.
Where does Trump factor into this?
First, the administration needs to finish negotiations with Mexico to extend a 4-year-old agreement on how to share the water and on how much Mexico will store in Lake Mead. Under a 1944 treaty, the U.S. is required to send water from the river across the border to Mexico, but the agreement allow the countries to share in both surpluses and water shortages. Less water is sent to Mexico during drought years, and Mexico is allowed to store some of its water in Lake Mead.
But the agreement expires in December 2017. Although there had been hope that the negotiations on an extension would be completed before President Barack Obama left office, it’s looking unlikely. Now, there are concerns that trouble may lie ahead, given Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric during the campaign and outrage among Mexicans after Ford announced last week it was halting a $1.6 billion plan in San Luis Potosi. It’s critical that the incoming administration set a constructive tone and work out a deal quickly.
Also, the administration needs to prepare to step in if negotiations on a multistate drought contingency plan fall apart. The plan, which is aimed at keeping the surface level of Lake Mead high enough to forestall the shortage declaration, involves voluntary reductions in water use by California, Nevada and Arizona. But after 18 months and counting, the deal is being held up because of concerns among river users in California about environmental and ecological damage that could occur if they were required to forgo too much water by storing it in Lake Mead. Sensitive areas include the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, home to endangered fish, and the Salton Sea, which is in danger of drying up.
On the positive side, Northern California’s rainfall has already been 76 percent above normal this season, and forecasters went into this weekend calling for a major storm that would push the Sacramento River to its highest flow since 2006. So there’s hope that drought conditions will ease in that region this year and reduce California’s strain on the Colorado. However, Southern California remains dry.
So for Nevada, it’s good that a number of officials, advocates and activists like the Nuestro Rio Regional Water Caucus — a bipartisan group of Latino elected leaders from across the Southwest — are working at the state and national levels to prevent the shortage declaration this August and take steps to maintain Lake Mead’s volume in the long-term.
The clock is ticking, and mid-August isn’t far away. It’s critical for the Trump administration to get up to speed quickly on the issue.