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Executive Summary for September 29th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including a secret proposal by Arizona tribes to lease Colorado River water, repercussions from a setback to California’s WaterFix, and threats to Earth-sensing satellites in Trump budget cuts.

Published on Sep. 29, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

In Secret Talks, Arizona Tribes Offer to Lease Colorado River Water

Four Native American tribes in Arizona started secret negotiations in 2015 to lease vast amounts of their Colorado River water to urban areas, according to an investigation by the Tucson Star.

Although the talks have been suspended, it appears all participants are still interested in the deal.

The news has huge ramifications for the Southwest because the water held by the tribes has the highest priority of any other lower-Colorado diversion rights, including those held by California. And while leasing the water would require federal legislation, the deal has already prompted concern that a new bonanza of water could bring more sprawl development in urban Arizona.

The proposal comes from the Navajo, Hopi, Mohave and Chemehuevi tribes, which operate jointly on water issues as the Colorado River Indian Tribes. They offered to lease 150,000 acre-feet of their Colorado River supplies to the Salt River Project, which delivers water across a wide swathe of Arizona. The proposal calls for new water deliveries to Tucson, Prescott, Benson, Sierra Vista and parts of Phoenix.

The tribes would make the water available by growing less alfalfa, gaining a much more valuable return from the water in the process.

“What the tribes have discussed are options to illustrate to the water users in the state of Arizona the many possibilities from a possible new supply,” tribal attorney Margaret Vick said. “We are still in the process of evaluating the proposal.”

Collapse of California Tunnel Project Could Strain Colorado River

In other Colorado River news, some are fretting over a recent setback to California’s WaterFix project, the $17 billion proposal to build two giant water diversion tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Last week, the Westlands Water District in California’s San Joaquin Valley voted not to fund the tunnels, a possible death knell.

If the tunnels don’t get built, this could force the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to become even more reliant on the Colorado River, Jeffrey Kightlinger, Met’s general manager, told High Country News. The Colorado is experiencing severe strain from a prolonged drought, climate change and urban growth, so a hardening of Southern California’s demand would be worrisome.

“We need to understand with some certainty where we stand on the Delta to make commitments on the Colorado River,” Kightlinger said.

The jury is still out on whether the tunnel project can go forward without financial support from Westlands. Met’s board of directors is scheduled to vote on October 10, but it has already indicated support. Other key players have votes planned in the weeks ahead, including the Kern County Water Agency and Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Trump Budget Puts Weather, Climate Satellites at Risk

Vital Earth-sensing satellites could be under threat if proposed Trump administration budget cuts are approved.

In the weeks to come, Congress will debate the federal budget for 2018. If approved as President Trump has requested (and the House supports his proposal), it could mean billions in cuts for NASA. This could jeopardize satellite missions that are crucial to analyzing weather and climate change on Earth – and thus water supplies for everyone on the planet.

The budget cuts could also affect the Environmental Protection Agency, which has a hand in funding several of the satellite missions.

“I’m very worried about the future, both for NASA as a whole and the Earth sciences in particular,” Byron Tapley, the director of the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas at Austin, told the New York Times.

Some new satellite launches appear to be secure because they’re ready for launch and funded partly by other nations. An important one is GRACE-FO, a “follow-on” replacement for the existing GRACE satellite that has been so crucial in monitoring water, ice and weather. GRACE, for instance, played a crucial role in monitoring and measuring the recent devastating hurricanes that hammered Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico. It also measured groundwater depletion during California’s recent drought.

The weather and climate data we rely on every day comes largely from satellites launched and maintained by the U.S. government, even if it seems to come from CNN or the Weather Channel. If the budget cuts go through, new Earth-science satellite missions will likely be scrapped and holes will open in data records.

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