WATCH: Sen. Kelly Defends Arizona’s Water Rights to the Colorado River

Calls on Basin States, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to Partner on Drought 

In a Senate hearing about the unprecedented drought that is gripping the West, Arizona Senator Mark Kelly called on the U.S. Department of the Interior to consider implementing drought restrictions on states that do not take meaningful steps like Arizona to conserve water in the Colorado River.

“Arizona has done everything that Arizona has been asked. And we’re going to continue to step up here. But we need partners and long-term commitments from the federal government because this is a Basin-wide problem, not just an Arizona problem,” said Kelly yesterday in a hearing in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Senator Kelly highlighted to the committee that Arizona is a leader on water conservation in the Colorado River basin, noting that cities are making their water budgets more efficient, tribes are foregoing their full water deliveries, and that farmers in central Arizona were hit especially hard by restrictions that took effect this year. 

In the Senate, Kelly has maintained a focus on combating western drought and water issues affecting Arizona and its surrounding states. Last year, Kelly chaired a hearing on western drought following water level projections issued by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for Lake Mead and Lake Powell that triggered the first-ever drought restrictions on the Colorado River. Kelly also helped draft and negotiate the portions of the western water and drinking water legislation in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which became law last November. Last month, Kelly spoke with Commissioner Touton during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy  and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power about his bill that would prevent the federal government from charging Arizona communities operation and maintenance fees for dams that are not generating hydropower due to low water levels during the drought.

For a full transcript of Kelly’s remarks and exchange with the witness, see below. To watch the exchange, click HERE

Kelly: Thank you, everybody, for being here today. Commissioner Touton, good to see you again. I think we’ve all established that this drought is unprecedented. And I understand from your testimony, Commissioner, that the Colorado River is facing a structural deficit of between two and four million acre feet of water next year. To put that amount in perspective for everybody in the room or anybody who’s watching, Arizona’s allocation of Colorado River water is 2.8 million acre feet. California, 4.4 million. Colorado gets 3.9 million acre feet from the river.

Arizona has junior water rights in their allocation to the river. So if our state absorbed this two to four million acre feet loss, it would wipe out deliveries, water deliveries, to cities, tribes and farms in Phoenix and in Tucson. This is certainly not in the public interest, given our state’s national role in ag, strategic minerals, and semiconductor manufacturing.

You mentioned, Commissioner, that Reclamation is working with Basin States to develop a consensus agreement to conserve more water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell by August. I want to make sure we understand your testimony. If Basin States cannot reach an agreement, is the Department prepared to take actions to impose restrictions on other states without regard to river priority?

Commissioner Touton: Thank you for that question, Senator. Yes, we will protect the system, but we’re not at that decision point yet. So let’s get to the table and let’s figure this out by August. 

Kelly: When do you anticipate you might get to that decision point?

Touton: For us on the river, the August 24 month study is usually where we determine what our operations are for the next calendar year. That’s August 16th is the date that normally where we had the first Tier One shortage announcement last year.  That’s what we’re working towards. 

Kelly: All right. Thank you. So, Arizona has been leading the Basin in conserving water to date. Farms have been fallowed. Tribes are foregoing their full water rights allocations. Cities are tightening their water budgets. We’ve worked to conserve nearly 850,000 acre feet in the lower basin. And Arizona has done everything that Arizona has been asked. And we’re going to continue to step up here. But we need partners and long term commitments from the federal government, because this is a Basin wide problem, not just an Arizona problem. We laid the groundwork for increasing conservation and augmentation in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill that was passed and we fully funded programs like the Drought Contingency Plan and the 500+ Plan to keep more water in Lake Mead. Commissioner Touton, does California or the Upper Basin have a plan for how it will utilize resources under the Drought Contingency Plan?

Touton: Those are conversations that are ongoing, including with the Upper Basin states and certainly with California.

Kelly: So you don’t know if they currently have a plan. 

Touton: There is the Drought Relief Operations Act that the Upper Basin has. But could there be more system demand management?  Yes. 

Kelly: And will the administration be pushing Mexico to conserve more Colorado River water? 

Touton: That is a conversation we’re having with our partners in Mexico. They’re fully aware. We’ve briefed them in the way that we’ve briefed you on what we’re seeing on the river. They are absolutely a partner here that we need to work with. 

Kelly: And Commissioner, can the federal government move faster in deploying desalination and water recycling projects under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law? 

Touton: Yes, we will.

Kelly: And finally… and I might go over by 30 seconds, I hope that’s okay, Mr. Chairman. Based on your testimony, Arizona could see more tier two water curtailments as soon as next year. The first round of cutbacks last January hit farmers in central Arizona especially hard. And if we don’t invest more in conservation, augmentation, and assistance to farmers, it could raise food prices at a time when food prices are at record highs.

The White House Interagency Drought Task Force recently called for a whole-of-government response. Does Reclamation have a cost estimate for the resources needed to mitigate future year shortages? 

Touton: That is something that we’re talking about now. Especially with the scale of what we’re looking at in the magnitude of actions we need to take. What I’ll say, Senator, is I’ll spend the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law money to make sure that we’re meeting the goals as Congress intended, but also to provide sustainability in the West.

Kelly: And when you get that cost estimate can you get it to my office? 

Touton: Absolutely, Senator. 

Kelly: Thank you. And it appears that drought is outpacing the annual appropriations process right now. So it’s faster than we’re appropriating the money to deal with it. Could you get back to me on how reclamation might benefit if Congress expanded the Stafford Act for drought?

Touton: Yes. I will get back to you. 

Kelly: All right. Thank you. And thank you, Mr. Chairman.