YUMA SUN: Group: Lower Colorado River "most endangered"

Blake Herzog 

The lower Colorado River has been named the "Most Endangered River of 2017" by American Rivers, a widely circulated list which focuses on the river southward from where it crosses over the Utah state line into Arizona, near Page.

American Rivers, a national advocacy group for protecting and repairing rivers across the country, has been keeping all or part of the 1,450-mile river in the spotlight for the last several years.

The whole river had the No.1 distinction in 2013, and the Upper Colorado got second place the following year. In 2015, the stretch winding through the Grand Canyon was named No. 1. In 2015 the designation was confined to the Grand Canyon. This time, the focus has shifted to the stretch which includes Glen Canyon and Hoover dams, as well as Lake Mead, which is the primary water source for millions of people in Arizona, California and Nevada.

Climate change and demand are listed as the greatest threats to the river the report calls "the lifeblood of the Southwest," and the risks of not protecting its flow include reliable water supplies and the regional economy.

"This is a tremendously important issue, as I'm sure you're aware, the river drives a huge economy, a lot of really important agriculture in places like Yuma, and is incredibly economically important to the region. Over the last decade or so, this reality has driven cooperation, collaboration among the lower basin states and the federal government," said Matt Rice, Colorado River basin director for American Rivers.

Over the last few years the official elevation of Lake Mead has sunk perilously close to 1,075 feet, the point which triggers mandatory delivery cutbacks, starting with the Central Arizona Project's agricultural uses. This year's spring snowmelt has improved the picture, but the damage of a long-term drought which persists in most parts of the West is done.

Last year representatives from Arizona, California and Nevada had been negotiating on a drought contingency plan, in which the parties would take voluntary cutbacks to keep water in the river system to avoid further drought declarations later on.

He said the plan "almost got done, and we just don't know where the new administration is on this. The federal government is a very important player when it comes to water management in the lower basin, and we're making the Lower Colorado River our most endangered river to turn the federal government's attention back to the Colorado River.

"We're asking them to provide leadership and continue to make good on previous funding commitments to get the drought contingency plan done," he said.

Yuma water rights attorney Wade Noble is part of the team working on the contingency plan, and the negotiations continue, though the parties have run into a couple of speed bumps, including not knowing what the Trump administration's approach to the topic.

"And why we do not know? Because as yet in the transition process. The new leadership is not in place in the Department of the Interior or the Bureau of Reclamation.

"So we're waiting to see what happens, who gets appointed, other vacancies that are filled, and in order to deal with these things you have to have someone who responds to you, and there really aren't those kinds of people. They have acting people in place, but we don't have the long-range ability to make plans," Noble said.

The other issue which has hit the drought contingency plan is simply record rainfall amounts seen in California in particular. "The governor has withdrawn the emergency drought declaration. So there's a significantly smaller emphasis on taking care of the emergency drought issues. And it's just natural for those people to be out from under those restrictions as soon as possible," he said.

But, he added, "the people who are involved in this understand that this is just a small change in the overall drought picture. Now, it could happen again next year and the year after that, and the drought will be ended, and we'll be back into a wet cycle. But you can't plan for that and have the drought continue."

Yuma and its agricultural industry's dependence on the river are getting special emphasis from American Rivers this year through "Milk and Honey," a 14-minute documentary it has co-produced with the Hispanic Access Foundation.

It features Hispanic farmers and residents in and around Yuma, showing church congregations being baptized in the river at Gateway Park and an interview with Gadsden native Louie Gradias about the visible toll overallocation has taken on the southern end of the river, which barely reaches the Gulf of California anymore.

"I remember the river running like an ocean, and right now it's just a trickle," Gradias says. "I don't know what the future holds, but it doesn't look good as far as water availability."

Maite Arce, president and CEO of Hispanic Access Foundation, said farmworkers in San Luis and Yuma were interviewed for the film, which emphasizes the importance of those workers in producing the entire nation's food supply, particularly in the winter.

"I think it was a beautiful, beautiful community that I was so proud to meet through the film, and will always continue to work with, and I think the rest of our nation will see that this is going to touch hearts, but also raise concern that the water flows all the way through southern Arizona need to be strong, not only for that beautiful community in southern Arizona but for our own benefit."

The documentary will be available for public viewing beginning today at https://vimeo.com/198051067.

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