2016 was a busy session for the Colorado legislature and conservationists. Western Resource Advocates and our partners had tremendous success shaping several bills that affect protection of Colorado’s rivers and lakes.
2016 was a busy session for the Colorado legislature and conservationists. Western Resource Advocates and our partners had tremendous success shaping several bills that affect protection of Colorado’s rivers and lakes. Partnerships we solidified at the Colorado state Capitol this year will help in 2017, where we hope many proposals from Colorado’s Water Plan will move forward to advance water conservation and water recycling. A recap of key 2016 bills includes:
Rain Barrels Are Legal!! HB 16-1005 will legalize the use of residential rain barrels for all Coloradans. The bill received a rainfall of votes in the House and Senate, passing 61-3 and 27-6, respectively. Governor John Hickenlooper signed the bill at the Governor’s Mansion on May 12th. WRA was involved in crafting bill language, lining up supporters, testifying in committee, and pushing media coverage. Legalizing rain barrel use is part of our work, for more than a dozen years, to accelerate urban conservation as the cheapest, fastest, and most flexible water supply. Legalizing rain barrels will help build the water conservation ethic we need for all Colorado residents to implement Colorado’s Water Plan and its landmark urban water conservation goal.
Minimizing Water Loss: HB 16-1283 set out to decrease the water lost by municipal water providers from leaky pipes and faulty water meters. WRA worked on bill language, consulted with sponsors, and created legislative fact sheets. A concerted water loss management effort enabled through this bill could have added 20,000 acre-feet to our state’s water supplies each year, enough water for 200,000 people. Improved efficiency is a cornerstone of Colorado’s Water Plan, and water loss reduction is one of the single most effective efficiency measures we can undertake. Unfortunately, this bill did not pass out of committee. We will work to advance this bill next year after further refinements from a variety of stakeholders.
Protecting Flows for Fish: HB 16-1109—which addressed conflicts between state water law and certain proposed federal policies—passed after WRA Staff Attorney Rob Harris and our partners successfully lobbied for inclusion of language to safeguard existing laws that protect fisheries. We preserved “bypass flows,” an aquatic habitat standard that ensures enough water is kept in rivers for fish to survive. Our defensive efforts helped keep a political squabble between certain land users and federal agencies from accidentally hurting fish and other wildlife.
Adding Flexibility in Water Management to Benefit the Environment: Mixed Results: At least two bills aimed at increasing the flexibility of water management to achieve community, environmental and agricultural goals had mixed success. HB 16-1228, to enable temporary transfers of irrigation water rights to cities or other users, passed and awaits the Governor’s signature. This allows Front Range agricultural users to retain their water rights but share some of their water with other users in times of need. HB-1392, proposing to establish a statewide water bank – which would have enabled sharing water inside river basins and potentially dedicating some water for streams themselves – died in committee. WRA engaged with sponsors on both bills to help create beneficial alternative water transfer mechanisms, to enable providing water for the environment and recreation, while ensuring that the legislation did not create loopholes for unneeded and environmentally damaging water projects.
Legislative advocacy is essential. The nitty-gritty work at the Capitol is where aspirations meet reality and where hard won gains for our rivers and lakes must be defended. We are proud that we defended key protections and helped advance a better water future for all Coloradans.
If you just went by the numbers on the map of state snowpack, you’d be digging out the mittens and skis to enjoy a winter wonderland in the high country.
But the state’s lush snow numbers are more a function of timing, not quantity. [ed. emphasis mine]
Colorado snowpack moisture content was reported at 144 percent of median on Thursday, largely because of late spring snowstorms last week and cool temperatures that kept it from melting.
“I’m not sure it means a lot,” said Roy Vaughan, manager of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project for the Bureau of Reclamation, at the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s monthly meeting Thursday.
He showed graphs that explained why the numbers look so good right now. In most years, the snow would have already begun a precipitous melt-off by now, and that may happen with warmer temperatures this weekend.
In the Arkansas River basin, the total snowpack briefly climbed higher than the average peak for the entire season — usually that occurs in mid-April. The snowpack was listed at 158 percent, but that’s mostly because some high-altitude sites are 2-5 times normal, while lower points already have melted out.
The same is true of the Rio Grande basin, which was listed at 153 percent of normal.
Reclamation projects that 65,000 acre-feet of water will be brought over the Continental Divide this year through the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. While above average, it would be far from a record year. It would rival last year’s imports of 72,000 acre-feet, which increased throughout the season because of heavy rains.
Storage in the Arkansas River basin remains at high levels with nearly all reservoirs at above-average elevation.
Pueblo’s precipitation for the year is 5.19 inches, more than an inch above normal, but an inch less than at this time last May, when it rained nearly every day.
Farms will get a lot more water from the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project as cities curtailed their requests for water under the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s annual allocation.
Because many municipal storage accounts are full, they did not take as much water as they would otherwise be entitled to. About 53 percent of Fry-Ark water is tabbed for cities.
Instead, the cities took only about 16 percent, leaving 84 percent for agriculture.
The district projects there will be about 52,500 acre-feet of water available to allocate this year, the net amount from about 65,000 acre-feet that could be brought through the Boustead Tunnel into Turquoise Lake from the Fryingpan River on the other side of the Continental Divide. The difference accounts for obligations to deliver water, evaporation and transit losses.
Only 80 percent of the allocations will be delivered initially, providing a cushion if less water is imported.
Even though imports are higher this year, cities requested less water because storage is higher, said Garrett Markus, engineer for the district.
Both Pueblo and Pueblo West declined their allocations this year. El Paso County cities were allocated about 3,700 acre-feet; cities east of Pueblo, 4,500 acre-feet; cities west of Pueblo, 214 acre-feet.
Agricultural ditch companies requested more than 100,000 acre-feet of water, but will get only 43,200 acre-feet of water that’s available. The largest ditch, the Fort Lyon Canal, will get 17,000 acre-feet.
“It’s always good to see a little more go to agriculture,” said Carl McClure, of Crowley County, who chairs the allocation committee.
Another 15,200 acrefeet of return flows will be allocated to well associations or farmers to replace depletions of groundwater under either state well or surface-water irrigation improvement plans. Fort Lyon farmers are exercising their first right of refusal for about 4,900 acre-feet of that total.
Could the end be near for one of the West’s biggest dams?
When Glen Canyon Dam was built in the middle of the last century, giant dam projects promised to elevate the American West above its greatest handicap — a perennial shortage of water. These monolithic wonders of engineering would bring wild rivers to heel, produce cheap, clean power and stockpile water necessary to grow a thriving economy in the desert. And because they were often remotely located, they were rarely questioned.
But today, there are signs that the promise of this great dam and others has run its course.
Climate change is fundamentally altering the environment, making the West hotter and drier. There is less water to store, and few remaining good sites for new dams.
Many of the West’s big dams, meanwhile, have proved far less efficient and effective than their champions had hoped. They have altered ecosystems and disrupted fisheries. They have left taxpayers saddled with debt.
And in what is perhaps the most egregious failure for a system intended to conserve water, many of them lose hundreds of billions of gallons of precious water each year to evaporation and, sometimes, to leakage underground. These losses increasingly undercut the longstanding benefits of damming big rivers like the Colorado, and may now be making the West’s water crisis worse.
In no place is this lesson more acute than at Glen Canyon.
And yet even as these consequences come into focus, four states on the Colorado River are developing plans to build new dams and river diversions in an effort to seize a larger share of dwindling water supplies for themselves before that water flows downstream.
The projects, coupled with perhaps the most severe water shortages the region has ever seen, have reignited a debate about whether 20th-century solutions can address the challenges of a 21st-century drought, with a growing chorus of prominent former officials saying the plans fly in the face of a new climate reality.
“The Colorado River system is changing rapidly,” said Daniel Beard, a former commissioner of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the government’s dams in the West. “We have a responsibility to reassess the fundamental precepts of how we have managed the river.”
That reassessment, Mr. Beard and others said, demands that even as new projects are debated, it is time to decommission one of the grandest dams of them all, Glen Canyon…
It took 17 years for the reservoir to fill; 19 years later, a steady decline began. Thanks to the steady overuse of the Colorado River system — which provides water to one in eight Americans and supports one-seventh of the nation’s crops — Lake Powell has been drained to less than half of its capacity as less water flows into it than is taken out.
That relative puddle is no longer capable of generating the amount of power the dam’s builders originally planned, and so the power has become more expensive for the government to deliver, with the burden increasingly falling on the nation’s taxpayers. In 2014 the agency managing power at the dam spent $62 million buying extra power on the open market to make up for shortfalls. The dam’s power sales are relied on to pay for the operations of other, smaller, dams and reservoirs used for irrigation in the West, and as Glen Canyon crumbles financially, so might the system that depends on it.
But it is not just the reservoir’s overuse that is causing it to shrink. More than 160 billion gallons of water evaporate off Lake Powell’s surface every year, enough to lower the reservoir by four inches each month. Another 120 billion gallons are believed to leak out of the bottom of the canyon each year into fissures in the earth — a loss that if tallied up over the life of the dam amounts to more than a year’s flow of the entire Colorado River.
In all, these debits amount to “the largest loss of water on the Colorado River,” Mr. Beard said, enough to supply some nine million people each year.
Glen Canyon is not the only dam to fall out of favor. Other major projects are also being decommissioned or re-evaluated.
The Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead, which on Wednesday fell to its lowest level ever, some 145 feet below capacity, also loses hundreds of billions of gallons to evaporation and is now 37 percent full. The lake behind Arizona’s Coolidge Dam, one of the state’s largest reservoirs, is virtually empty.
…on the Colorado, water managers dispute the notion that it’s time for a change.
Glen Canyon Dam may be past its prime, said Michael Conner, the deputy interior secretary and a former commissioner of reclamation, but it’s not past its usefulness. Though he called the amount of water lost to evaporation and leakage “incredibly significant,” Mr. Conner credited Glen Canyon with numbing the pain of the recent drought. “Look at the last 15 years,” he said. “It’s the lowest inflow in history and there’s been no shortages on the Colorado River, and that’s because of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell and Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.”
There is also a political tide to be reckoned with: the delicate peace accord struck among seven Western states in 1922, and later with Mexico, that divides Colorado River water among them, and the fear that they’d never be able to reach such an agreement again. Lake Powell is the gateway that gives the Colorado’s upper basin states control of their water, and a way to withhold every drop not required to be sent to the states downriver. Get rid of Powell, its protectors warn, and the states will drag one another into legal chaos.
But decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam could offer a solution hard to ignore — a cheap, immediate and significant new source of water where it is most desperately needed.
The idea is this: Since two of the nation’s largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell, just 300 miles apart — depend on the same dwindling water source but are each less than half full, they should be combined into one. Lake Mead would be deeper, and its evaporative losses would increase. But the surface area of Lake Powell would be substantially reduced, and the evaporating water from there would be saved. Furthermore, sendng the water out of Glen Canyon would move it from a valley that leaks like a sieve into one that is watertight. Evaporation losses at Mead — say plan proponents — would be more than offset by savings at Lake Powell.
In all, according to Tom Myers, a hydrologist who studied the proposal for the Glen Canyon Institute, an environmental group advocating for combining the two reservoirs, about 179 billion gallons of water would be saved each year — more than enough to supply the population of the city of Los Angeles.
The argument has weight because both reservoirs have been struggling to remain half full, and may never refill as temperatures rise because of climate change. At the same time, the Bureau of Reclamation predicts that demand for water will continue to increase on the river so much that by 2060 the region will run short by a trillion gallons each year.
The Glen Canyon Dam itself would not be removed. Rather, its gates would be opened, and the water behind it allowed to pass through, restoring the natural flows into the Grand Canyon just below it, draining Lake Powell, and allowing the magnificently scenic landscape of Glen Canyon to be resurrected.
The water would not be lost. It would simply flow down through the Grand Canyon and be recaptured behind the Hoover Dam in Lake Mead.
“To me it is a no-brainer,” said David Wegner, who studied Glen Canyon as a scientist with the Department of Interior. “You’ve got very few options.”
Vast tracts of land now submerged would be restored, and broad sections of river pinned between vertical canyon walls would be transformed into remote wilderness valleys, their floors once again inviting exploration on horseback or on foot. Dozens of archaeological sites, their walls covered in petroglyphs, would be revealed. The flow of the river through the Grand Canyon would again be defined mainly by the precipitation gathered by the mountains upstream.
Restoring Glen Canyon this way has long been the campaign of ardent environmentalists. Mr. Brower, who agreed to the dam’s construction without having ever visited Glen Canyon, mounted an intense campaign to save “the place no one knew” after seeing it. He called the reservoir his greatest regret, and the Glen Canyon dam has been a potent symbol of the desecration of wild places ever since.
Now the shortages on the river, and the likelihood that climate change is certain to make them worse, have breathed new, pragmatic life into their arguments.
Whether the “Fill Mead First” proposal would improve the water supply depends on whether Mr. Myers is right about the amount of water that leaks out of the bottom of Lake Powell. He puts that number at about 124 billion gallons each year. But the Bureau of Reclamation has not adopted Mr. Myers’s findings and has long said that water that seeps into the ground eventually returns to the river. Combining the reservoirs would save negligible amounts of water, in the bureau’s view.
“This is an attempt to find a water supply rationale which supports their recreational focus and narrow view of what the river should look like,” said Colby Pellegrino, the Colorado River programs manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Ultimately, the decision to drain Lake Powell — or perhaps to forgo the other new dam and water projects now in the works on the river — comes down to a question of whether the seven states and Mexico that share the Colorado River really need the water badly enough.
If they conclude that they do, abandoning parochial concerns about how the river is supposed to work, and changing the status quo, however uncomfortable or complicated, will begin to seem worth it.
But Jim Lockhead, chief executive of Denver’s water utility, said decommissioning the dam would probably require an act of Congress, a new agreement among seven state legislatures, a revised treaty with Mexico, and a lengthy federal environmental impact analysis.
“A half a million acre feet sounds like a lot of water,” he said, referring to the water saved by combining the Powell and Mead reservoirs, “but I don’t think it’s significant enough, frankly, to justify going through all of that.”