Colorado River Basin: Reclamation’s ‘Next Steps’ conference recap #ColoradoRiver


From the Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

“The river has been described as the most litigated and fought for resource in the United States” he said, noting that has changed in the past 15 years with the onset of multiple collaborative agreements among the states.

Connor was among the speakers featured at the bureau’s “next steps” conference Tuesday in San Diego as the agency begins another phase of the Colorado River Supply and Demand study.

“The challenges are very real and daunting,” [Mike Connor] said.

The bureau announced that solutions will be crafted going forward that address three main areas: municipal water conservation and reuse, agricultural conservation and transfers, and maintaining flows for a healthy environment and recreation industry.

The conference was attended by representatives from the seven basin states, including Utah, as well as groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund…

The conference noted there had already been conservation success stories in places like Nevada and Southern California, but more work needs to be done.

“With another winter of low snowpack, the basin is facing another summer of drought conditions,” said Molly Mugglestone, co-director of Protect the Flows. “We need to put these common-sense solutions into action in order to protect the water that we all depend on. Now that the study has concluded, it is time for action.”

From the Albuquerque Journal (John Fleck):

The San Juan River, one of the Colorado’s largest tributaries, is a major source of water in New Mexico. In addition to serving the Navajo Nation and other communities in northwest New Mexico, San Juan water is transferred through tunnels to the Rio Grande Valley, where it is used for drinking water in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

With the Colorado in drought since the late 1990s, major water users have continued to get full supplies by slowly draining the river’s major reservoirs, which were built for just that purpose. But Lake Mead, the reservoir near Las Vegas, Nev., that provides water for Arizona, Nevada and California, is dropping fast. This year alone, the big storage reservoir’s surface level is projected to drop 11 feet, enough water to serve some 2 million typical households.

By 2016, there is a one in three chance of it dropping so low that the federal government will reduce the amount of water it delivers to Arizona and Nevada, according to Connor.

While that will not affect New Mexico in the short run, shortfalls projected in the long run could force New Mexico and other states in the Colorado’s upper basin – Wyoming, Colorado and Utah – to also grapple with shortages, Connor said…

In December, the Bureau of Reclamation released a massive study documenting the long-term risk to Colorado Basin water supplies, along with a long list of possible options to deal with the problem. The San Diego meeting launched a review of those options, including a search for those that can be realistically implemented in the near term, said Estevan López, head of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. “If it’s real, let’s make it happen,” López said in a telephone interview from San Diego, where he was representing New Mexico at the meeting…

In New Mexico, the effect of a Colorado Basin shortage would be felt by users of water from the San Juan River, where the state of New Mexico, the Navajo Nation and the federal government are close to culminating a major deal settling the Navajos’ water rights.

There is a great deal of legal uncertainty about who might see their water deliveries reduced, and by how much, if Lake Mead and the other Colorado Basin reservoirs keep dropping beyond 2016. But under the state-federal-Navajo agreement, if a shortfall forces water use cutbacks on the San Juan River, the Navajo Nation’s large agricultural operation, which uses water stored behind the Bureau of Reclamation’s Navajo Dam, would be among the first to be curtailed, according to López.

The state-federal-Navajo agreement also sets aside a large pool of water for Albuquerque and Santa Fe in an effort to ensure their use of Colorado Basin water would not be curtailed in a shortage.

From the Water and Power Report:

“The study underscores the importance of working together to meet our collective future water supply needs,” said Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) General Manager Patricia Mulroy. “While the solutions won’t be easy for anyone involved, the consequences of failure are too dire to ignore. All of us who depend upon the Colorado River—from the suburbs of Denver to the California coast—need to step up and meet this challenge.”

Denver Water CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead stressed that while cities alone cannot alleviate the river’s projected shortfall—municipal use of the Colorado River accounts for less than 15 percent of its depletions, while agriculture uses more than 75 percent—they must be involved in helping find solutions. As the study shows, the biggest driver of the potential imbalance is not increased use but rather reduced Colorado River inflows due to a warmer, drier climate.

“While everybody knows that this problem can’t be solved solely by the cities because we use a relatively small percentage of Colorado River water, that fact does not absolve us from our duty to use this resource responsibly and do our part,” Lochhead said. “We have already made great strides in water efficiency, and our work will continue. We want the agricultural and environmental interests to know that we’re in this with them, and we’re going to hold up our end.”

During the past decade, major cities throughout the Colorado River Basin have slashed their water use and found creative ways to extend their supplies through reuse and augmentation projects. Denver, for instance, decreased its consumption by 20 percent. In Las Vegas, virtually all indoor water is captured and directly or indirectly recycled, while community-wide conservation efforts have included the removal of more than 150 million square feet of grass. These efforts, combined with strict water use policies, reduced the desert city’s annual water consumption by 29 billion gallons during the past decade despite the addition of 400,000 new residents during that span…

While conservation measures and investments have been effective, urban agencies acknowledge more must be done to reduce the anticipated Colorado River imbalance, which is largely driven by a decrease in Colorado River flows rather than increased demand but is projected to dwarf the total combined consumption of all of these cities. Still, CAP General Manager David Modeer said a continued commitment to conservation and coordination between the water agencies is critical to a cohesive basin-wide demand management strategy.

Solutions that offer the greatest potential to yield additional water supplies are also important.

“Augmentation projects and water conservation can restore the reliability and sustainability of the Colorado River to meet current and future water needs,” said Modeer. ” These efforts are needed immediately and include feasibility studies and, potentially, legislation and policy development.”

The economic stakes involved are difficult to overstate. According to data compiled by the United States Conference of Mayors, the combined metropolitan areas utilizing Colorado River represent the world’s 12th largest economy, generating more than $1.7 trillion in Gross Metropolitan Product a year and supporting millions of jobs.

“While people east of the Mississippi might look at this as a Western problem, the reality is that our national economy is integrated,” said Mulroy. “If these cities’ economies are curtailed by water shortages, the shockwave is going to be felt throughout the country.”

From The Desert Sun (Ian James):

A study prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation has projected a large gap between the river’s flows and demands for water, and the meeting in San Diego was intended to provide a forum for stakeholders from throughout the region to start planning their steps in response. Officials launched three working groups that are to come up with plans for conservation and other measures this year…

The three working groups, which will hold initial meetings in San Diego on Wednesday, focus on municipal and industrial conservation and reuse, ensuring flows for a healthy environment, and agricultural conservation and water transfers…

“What we want to get out of these three work groups are specific action plan items,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor said in a telephone interview. “We want to understand, based on their expertise and sense of prior accomplishments, what really we can achieve and get down to some specific, on-the-ground actions where we can focus our resources.”

Connor said during the meeting that he is optimistic that collaborative efforts can help bridge the gap. “Certainly, the challenges we face are very real and they’re daunting to say the least. We’re sitting here in the middle of what is the fourth driest year on record in 2013, coming off the heels of the fifth driest year on record,” Connor said.

From Aspen Public Radio (Marci Krivonen):

Jim Pokrandt with the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District says Tuesday’s meeting was meant to lay the groundwork for a path forward: “As with any study, does it sit on the shelf and gather dust, and everybody says, ‘atta boy,’ and we move on? Or, does something actually happen? In this case, something may actually happen.” The report lays out “next steps” for the seven states that rely on the River. It’s their job to understand what’s working and what’s not, and find solutions. Anne Castle is the U.S. Interior Assistant Secretary for Water and Science. She spoke at Tuesday’s meeting in San Diego. She was joined by dozens of stakeholders including representatives for the seven Colorado Basin States and Indian tribal leaders. Castle says the steps forward include a set of committees. “What we’re doing is setting up three different work groups that will look at first, municipal conservation and reuse, second, agricultural conservation and transfers, and the third will look at flows for a healthy environment,” she says.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

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