PHOENIX — Federal officials say they won't release water that Arizona and other Lower Colorado River Basin states have stored in Lake Mead to another state.
Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor wrote in a letter this week that the department will only release unused water belonging to one state to another if all three states agree. The Lower Basin is comprised of Arizona, Nevada and California.
The assurances only protect water through 2016 because there will be an administration change in January. But they come as a victory for U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, who has been trying to get formal protection for Arizona's water stored in Lake Mead.
"Arizona can now rest assured that no other state will get its hands on the water we have saved in Lake Mead," Flake said in a written statement. "This is a big win for Arizona in the combined effort to combat the drought, prevent water shortage, and ensure continued access to our share of the Colorado River."
Connor, as well as Arizona and California water officials, said similar assurances could be included in a long-term agreement covering water use in the region currently under negotiation. "It is through formal agreements that issues such as this can be 'locked in' across multiple years and across executive branch administrations," Connor wrote.
California water officials are in agreement with Connor. Tanya Trujillo, with the Colorado River Board of California, said a longer-term agreement could be forged in the ongoing negotiations over how to slow the steady decline of Lake Mead.
Lake Mead has been steadily dropping since 2000. Arizona has left 345,000 acre-feet in the lake over two years to help boost water levels. An acre-foot will supply two typical households with water for a year.
Arizona officials including Flake have been concerned that the water could be reallocated by federal officials to another state such as California, Arizona's rival for water rights for generations.
The interior secretary has legally had the right to transfer one state's unused water to another state since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decree allowing such transfers in 1964.