During the latest drought, even before California Gov. Jerry Brown mandated a 25 percent reduction in urban water use statewide in 2015, residents of the San Francisco Bay Area were consuming less water than they had a few years earlier. “The question was, what was driving them to reduce their water use?” asked Nicole Sandkulla, the CEO and general manager of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, a consortium of 26 cities and water districts.
New research suggests that newspapers were, in fact, part of the answer. Media attention — and the public awareness and engagement that follows — is one way to get people to use less water.”
Now, a controversial proposal — to allow Lake Powell to become a “dead pool,” meaning there is no longer enough water to generate hydropower at the nearby 710-foot-tall Glen Canyon Dam — is no longer dismissed as unthinkable. Under that plan, Powell’s sister, Lake Mead, would serve as the main reservoir.
“Fill Mead first” was a thought exercise when put forward two decades ago by environmentalists. The goal was to encourage conversation about restoring the dammed Glen Canyon to its natural state. However, with the growing acknowledgement that neither Lake Mead nor Lake Powell has been filled anywhere close to capacity since 2000 — and that climate change will increasingly stress water resources along the Colorado River — the proposal is inching its way toward being a real outcome.
“When we first made this argument in the ’90s, Lake Powell was essentially full and it was seen as totally ludicrous,” said Eric Balken, head of the Glen Canyon Institute, which first proposed “fill Mead first” in 1996. “What’s changed in the last 20 years is climate change and what it’s been doing to flows on the Colorado River. What we’re seeing now is almost a scenario in which some form of ‘fill Mead first’ could happen by default in as little as six years.”
Between the drought years of 2000-2005, Lake Powell lost 13 million acre-feet of water and dropped almost 100 feet, about one-fifth of its maximum depth. A repeat dry spell could decimate what remains.
Despite a number of high-profile dam removals along America’s rivers recently, allowing Glen Canyon Dam to cease operations is no small decision. It would likely take a major rework of the laws that govern the Colorado River. That’s a political minefield. The proposal to “fill Mead first” divides water experts and managers, with each side wielding dueling analyses. Despite the consternation, the Colorado River Basin is already feeling the impacts of a changing climate, and many states are preparing for a future with less water.
Whether they support “fill Mead first” or not, nearly everyone is acknowledging that sooner or later there will come a time when even far-fetched options will have to be considered.
“From that perspective, to not even look at the idea seriously seems crazier to me than to explore the idea,” Balken said.
Here’s the release from Save the Colorado (Don’t click through at work.):
Groups File Lawsuit to Stop New Diversion and Protect Flows in Colorado River: Suit seeks to halt Windy Gap Firming Project and force alternatives
A coalition of environmental groups today filed a lawsuit in federal court to prevent additional diversions from the already struggling Colorado River. The suit questions the need for the Windy Gap Firming Project, which is a plan to divert on average an additional 30,000 acre-feet or 9 billion gallons of water annually from our state’s namesake river to pipe, store, and use on the Front Range. Save the Colorado, Save the Poudre, WildEarth Guardians, Living Rivers and Waterkeeper Alliance challenge the environmental review and approvals by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that gave the green light for this new diversion.
“This project is a terrible idea and the Bureau of Reclamation’s decision to support it was completely irresponsible,” said Dan Beard, former Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and current Save The Colorado board member. “The water supply situation on the Colorado River is in bankruptcy right now, and this project is like going to the ATM for another deficit withdrawal.”
The Windy Gap Firming Project is a proposal by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District seeking to divert more water from the Colorado River, pump it through the existing facilities of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project to the eastern slope, store the water in the new 90,000 acre-feet Chimney Hollow reservoir near Loveland, and finally deliver it for municipal and industrial uses by the project participants. The Firming Project comes on the heels of the former and botched Windy Gap Project—that sought to increase diversions from the Colorado River in 1985 to deliver to the Front Range—but has largely failed to deliver the expected 56,000 acre-feet. The Windy Gap “Firming Project” hopes to make up for the original project’s shortfalls.
“Taking any more water out of the Colorado River or its tributaries seems like a kind of insanity right now,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., President of Waterkeeper Alliance. “This project would drain billions of gallons of water from the already depleted Colorado River while ignoring more sustainable alternatives.”
Reclamation and the Corps spent more than a decade conducting the environmental review of the Windy Gap Firming Project; however, the agencies’ effort was woefully inadequate. As one example, the “alternatives analysis” did not analyze any actual alternatives to the project and only discussed options that would further drain the Colorado River. Even worse, the Bureau and Corps’ environmental review concluded that the project was the “Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative” without actually analyzing any true alternatives including water conservation, water recycling, or obtaining water from farmers, all tried and true methods for getting new water on the Front Range of Colorado.
“Federal agencies must evaluate not only the impacts of a proposed project, but also alternatives to the intended course of action,” said Zach Lass, Student Attorney at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. “Reclamation and the Corps fell victim to a sunk costs bias that infected the entire review and approval process when they failed to consider alternatives that did not involve spending more money trying to salvage their failed Windy Gap Project.”
The Colorado River in Grand County already loses 70 percent of its flow by the time it reaches the town of Hot Sulphur Springs. If the Windy Gap Firming Project is built – along with Denver Water’s proposed Moffat Project – that loss would reach 80 percent.
“Water agencies that want more water need to focus on alternatives like conservation, water recycling, and leasing or buying water from farmers,” said Gary Wockner, Director of Save The Colorado. “Draining 80 percent of the water out of the Colorado River is ecological annihilation. If you try to further dam and drain the Colorado River or its tributaries, we will do everything we can to stop you.”
Climate change is also taking its toll on the Colorado River. A new scientific article released this week by the U.S. Geologic Survey, Evidence that Recent Warming is Reducing Upper Colorado River Flows, concluded that temperature increases over the past three decades have already reduced flows in the Upper Colorado River Basin by 7 percent. These significant flow reductions due to increasing temperature are the largest ever documented. The predicted flow declines for the Upper Colorado River Basin for the remainder of the century are equally bleak and estimate flow declines as high as 40 percent.
“The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the desert southwest,” said Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “Every drop of additional water taken from the river will come at the expense of the quality of life we have come to love here in Colorado. Further draining our lifeline is unacceptable.”
Representatives of two of the utilities that hope to store water in Chimney Hollow say that if a lawsuit filed to halt the reservoir is successful it may not stop the water from being diverted from the Colorado River, and a leading conservation group says the lawsuit will hurt the river not help it.
“It could mean that instead of one big project that holds the 90,000 acre feet, participants use a bunch of smaller options (for water storage),” said Michael Cook, district manager of the Little Thompson Water District, one of 13 participants in the reservoir project led by Northern Water.
The participants already own the supply of water, called Windy Gap, that would be diverted into the reservoir. However, they do not have a place to store it during years when water is plentiful for use in dry years when it is needed.
This reservoir would provide that storage to firm up the supply, which is why it also is called the Windy Gap Firming project.
The Little Thompson Water District accounts for about 6 percent of the overall project and has been using some of its Windy Gap water each year.
The city of Loveland, which owns 10.5 percent of the water, has used it infrequently but is relying on the water, which it purchased with money from a bond, for future water needs as the city grows.
The city needs a place to store this water to firm up the supply and would be forced to look at other storage options for its Windy Gap water if the lawsuit were to prevail, said Larry Howard, the city’s water resources manager…
However, he, like Werner, expressed confidence that the 14-year permitting process was sound and that the reservoir project will go forward despite the lawsuit, which was filed Thursday.
An attorney for Trout Unlimited, too, expressed doubt that the lawsuit will stop the project, stating that, despite the lawsuit, water will continue to be diverted from the Colorado River as populations grow and other solutions are needed to turn the tide.
“This lawsuit likely won’t stop Windy Gap, but it could succeed in delaying real solutions to the problems,” Mely Whiting, attorney for Trout Unlimited, said in a written statement. Trout Unlimited was a leading participant in negotiations for mitigation and conservation efforts included in the project.
“Habitat restoration projects and other solutions are already being implemented and showing great success in improving the health of the Colorado River. That’s why many conservation groups who’ve been working the longest on this problem support our collaborative approach.
“These solutions offer the best hope for keeping the valuable resources of the Upper Colorado alive. This short-sighted lawsuit would only delay progress.”