Eric Kuhn prepared for his final Colorado River District Seminar, “Points of No Return,” by riding his bike east to west across the Colorado National Monument the day before. He has announced his retirement from the district and I’m sure he’ll make good use of the time on his road bike, mountain bike, and kayak. He undoubtedly has outdoor interests that I don’t know about. He will be missed by those of us that have learned to listen to his wise counsel about the hardest working river in the world, the Colorado River.
He assured folks in the room, on Twitter and live on Facebook that the seminar was not his last, just his last as the GM of the district he worked at for 34 years. In his early retirement he is authoring a book on Colorado River hydrology that he hopes will “de-nerdify” the subject and appeal to a wide audience. The water nerds in the room all hoped to snag a copy as soon as is it avaiable.
He explained the politics and history of the River. “100 years ago the Colorado River was a beast,” he said, adding, “and we were in a wet time but already seeing shortages.” The beast would unleash huge floods in the Lower Basin, submerging towns and farms and destroying headworks and other facilities. Late in the irrigation season the river often failed to deliver water to finish crops.
Kuhn detailed the US Supreme Court decision in Wyoming v. Colorado where the court ruled that Wyoming irrigators were senior to a proposed project on the Laramie River in Colorado. Both states relied on “The Doctirine of Prior Appropriation” within their boundaries.
Coloradans, led by Delph Carpenter, realized the danger to development of water in Colorado if prior appropriation prevailed on the Colorado River. The Lower Basin states of Arizona and California were first in time and the Upper Basin states were at risk of not being able to develop the farms, cities, and industry at a fast enough pace. The result was the Colorado River Compact which allocated water equally to the Upper Basin and Lower Basin based on the hydrology at Lee Ferry.
The Lower Basin needed storage to manage the river and the Upper Basin needed time. Boulder (now Hoover) Dam, and Lake Mead would fulfill the need for flood control, hydropower, and late-season irrigation water. Lake Powell was slated to store the Upper Basin water for downstream deliveries.
A hundred years later:
During his talk Eric stated that the West Slope, “Should not support and more transmountain diversions,” because that would put, “plans at risk.”
While not being a “not one more drop” line in the sand it still is a pretty strong statement. Kuhn cited protection of West Slope agriculture, the power pool at Lake Powell, and the Upper Basin delivery requirements under the “Law of the River,” the recreation industry, water quality, and the environment, as reasons.
“River governance must be as flexible to meet a wide range of future possibilities”, he said.
He believes that we need to reduce consumptive use on the river. He added that, the Lower Basin will have to make the lion’s share and they are doing that. Then he backed it up with the numbers:
Mr. Kuhn said that, “If we had a 1950s drought we would probably drain Lake Powell.”
Eric was preceded on the program Bill Hasencamp from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He said that 1 in 17 Americans get their water from the district (and their members), 19 million folks all told.
“I am from the Lower Basin and we’re about as different as can be,” he said,
Metropolitan’s water supplies come from the Colorado River, Northern California, and locally through conservation and reuse:
California has an active water market, he said, but there is great variability in price:
Demand for water is low this year due to huge winter snowpack:
“The Salton Sea will a dramatic effect on how water is managed going forward,” said Hasencamp. The water body, formed when the Colorado River destroyed an irrigation headworks during construction and has become important habitat for birds displaced by San Diego’s growth. Now it is drying up due to the lack of irrigation return flows and has become a health hazard for residents nearby.
Hasencamp stressed the importance of solving California’s Bay Delta problem. The proposed project will cost $17 billion and firm up the water supply from Northern California:
Hasencamp closed by quoting Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”
Dave Kanzer from the Colorado River District moderated a panel about irrigation efficiency. The goal is to avoid unexpected consequences such as increased salinity or less water in the streams due to lower return flows.
Panel member Bill Trampe said that society has to tell irrigators what is required. The return flows from irrigation provide habitat for wildlife and after a 150 years or so that habitat is part of the fabric of the watershed. Absent direction from society ranchers and farmers will go where the money is because the business is very tough.
There was a long session about challenges and successes in Grand County with Lurline Curran, Paul Bruchez, and Mely Whiting. The county at the headwaters of the Colorado River sees 60% of its water exported to the East Slope by Denver Water and Northern Water. The two water agencies are working on projects to firm up supplies and the result could be that more headwaters flows could move east.
One project will rebuild the channel of the Fraser River to better fit the lower flows to keep river temperatures colder. Rocks are being placed to create pools for trout.
Another project, in concert with Northern’s Windy Gap Firming project will create a new natural channel around the reservoir to take it off-channel. The hope is that there will be greater scouring of the Colorado River below the reservoir to support stonefly populations that have been severely impacted.
At lunch Jack Schmidt explained his research into the Glen Canyon Institute’s proposal to drain Lake Powell to dead pool and store the water in Lake Mead. He said that their numbers with respect to evaporation and seepage may not be supported by the studies he has found. He confirmed that under a changed hydrology due to climate change that the option of re-drilling the original bypass tunnels around Glen Canyon Dam to completely drain Lake Powell might work to restore the Grand Canyon.
Afternoon sessions included a panel with Heather Hansman and Eric Kuhn with their thoughts on telling water stories and concluded with a panel of members of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and its new Director, Becky Mitchell.
The Colorado River District staff knocked it out of the park again this year. Thanks again.
Take a trip through the Tweets from the conference. The hash tag was #CRDseminar. Be sure to click on the “Latest” button at the top of the page, scroll down to the bottom and read upward from oldest to newest Tweets.