Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey are hoping a monthslong experiment to release low, steady flows of water from Glen Canyon Dam will give the eggs that bugs lay just below the water’s surface a better chance at survival. It starts this weekend…
Scientists are anticipating a 26 percent increase in black flies and midges by next summer, and the eventual return of bigger bugs seen in other stretches of the Colorado River that largely have disappeared from a prized fishery known as Lees Ferry. When insects thrive, so do fish, bats, birds and other predators, scientists say.
Insects attach their eggs to hard surfaces like rocks, wood or cattails near the river’s shore. Fluctuations in the water for hydropower create artificial tides that can expose the eggs and dry them out.
If they’re not back underwater within an hour, they die, said Jeff Muehlbauer, a research ecologist with the Geological Survey.
The so-called bug flows are part of a larger plan approved in late 2016 to manage operations at Glen Canyon Dam, which holds back Lake Powell. The plan allows for high flows to push sand built up in Colorado River tributaries through the Grand Canyon as well as other experiments with the flow that could help non-native trout.
“It’s an ongoing endeavor to understand first, what’s the status of all these different resources — the fish, the sandbars, the cultural resources — and then making adjustments based on how the ecosystem is changing,” John Hamill said, a volunteer with Trout Unlimited who helped work on the plan.
The flows won’t change the amount of water the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation must deliver to three states and Mexico. The lower water levels on the weekend would be offset by higher peak flows during the week, the agency said. Still, hydropower is expected to take a $335,000 hit.
The Department of the Interior will conduct the first experimental flow at Glen Canyon Dam since implementing its Long-Term Experimental and Management Plan (LTEMP) in 2016. The goal is to provide enhanced habitat for the lifecycle of aquatic insects that are the primary food source for fish in the Colorado River.
Experiments under LTEMP consist of four flow regimes: high flows, bug flows, trout management flows, and low summer flows. Collaborative discussions among technical experts resulted in a decision to begin this first experiment on May 1 and continue through August 31, 2018. It will slightly modify the schedule and flow rates of water releases from Lake Powell through Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona. The normally scheduled monthly and weekly release volumes will not be affected.
Flows during the experiment will include steady weekend water releases with routine hydropower production flows on weekdays that include normal hourly changes in release rates. Those steady weekend flows are expected to provide favorable conditions for aquatic insects to lay and cement their eggs to rocks, vegetation, and other materials near the river’s edge. Steady weekend flows will be relatively low, within four inches of typical weekday low water levels. It is unlikely casual recreational river users will notice the changes in water levels.
“Experiments like these are an important tool as we continue to work collaboratively to balance the need to deliver water and power resources with our obligation to actively preserve and protect the river system through Glen, Marble, and Grand canyons,” said Dr. Timothy Petty, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science. “We expect this experiment will positively benefit crucial insect populations, which will benefit the entire ecosystem while limiting the impact on other resources and Colorado River users.”
The decision to conduct this experiment was based on input from a collaborative team, including Department of the Interior agencies—Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs—the Department of Energy’s Western Area Power Administration, six consulting American Indian Tribes, and all seven of the Colorado River Basin States. Before proceeding with these experiments, experts determined there would be no unacceptable adverse impacts on other resource conditions. Technical experts with the Department of the Interior have coordinated the experiment’s design to optimize benefits to the aquatic ecosystem throughout the Grand Canyon while meeting all water delivery requirements and minimizing negative impacts to hydropower production.
Insects expected to benefit from this experiment are an important food source for many species of fish, birds, and bats in the canyon. Beyond expected resource benefits, this experiment will also provide scientific information that will be used in future decision making.
For more information about flow volumes, please visit the following websites:
DENVER – Some heavy hitters were invited by Colorado State University to speak at the inaugural Water in the West Symposium in Denver last week, including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the prior secretary of agriculture; Tom Vilsack of Iowa; U.S. Sen. Michael Bennett; and Gov. John Hickenlooper.
But the two players likely to have the biggest long-term impact on water in the West — climate change and drought — were escorted to the event at the McNichols Civic Center Building in downtown Denver by Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at CSU who studies the Colorado River Basin.
Udall’s version of climate change came wearing a T-shirt Udall designed with five “climate basics” listed on it: “It’s warming; It’s us; Experts agree; It’s bad; We can fix it.”
“The outlook is for a much drier Colorado” Udall told an audience of about 400 people on Thursday, which means less water and more fires in the state.
And he noted, “climate change is water change.”
‘Odd and unusual’
Colorado State is preparing to build a new water center in partnership with Denver Waver on the National Western Center campus that’s being developed on the site of the long-running stock show in Denver.
And the symposium was a way of illustrating how one aspect of the new water center will function by bringing people together to talk about water policy and science.
The current 18-year-drought in the Colorado River Basin now has a name: the “Millennium Drought,” and it’s got Udall spooked.
“Something very odd and unusual is going on here,” Udall told the symposium crowd.
He said the period from 2000 to 2017 “is the worst drought in the gauged record” of the Colorado River and that flows have declined an average of 20 percent a year since the turn of the century due to rising temperatures.
It’s also time, Udall said, to consider that “drought” is no longer an apt description for what Colorado is facing, which is really long-term “aridification.”
“‘Drought’ implies we’re going to get out of it,” Udall said.
Perdue, who was governor of Georgia in 2007 during an extreme drought in that state, said Friday that he learned that drought brings out intense emotions in competing water users.
“Drought is probably one of the most insidious, stressful occasions that I can think of,” Perdue said, in large measures because “you have no idea when it is going to end.”
He acknowledged that water shortages in Georgia are rare compared to Colorado and the West.
“We found ourselves with some of the issues that I know you all are wrestling with, and that is the things that happen between municipalities, agriculture, recreationalists, endangered species, and all those things,” Perdue said.
Perdue, a Republican in President Donald Trump’s cabinet, was interviewed onstage by Vilsack, a Democrat who led the Department of Agriculture under President Barack Obama and is now working with CSU on food and water issues.
The exchange between the two was civil, given the current political climate, and it ended with the two of them reaching out to warmly shake hands and look each other in the eye.
Perdue had also been praised earlier in the day by Sen. Bennett, a Democrat, for Perdue’s help in passing a bill to restore operational funds to the U.S. Forest Service that had been eaten up by the cost of fighting major fires in the West.
Bennett said he’d been working on the issue for nine years and considered both Perdue and Vilsack, for his earlier help on the issue, “heroes of Colorado.”
Bennett also praised the Colorado Water Plan published by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2015.
While acknowledging that the plan is “not perfect” and some people find it lacking in details, while others consider it too detailed, Bennett said the plan is a testament to how the state came together over water, “understanding that there is no way we can address this issue if we are at each other’s throats.”
Gov. Hickenlooper, who signed the executive order in 2013 calling for a state water plan by 2015, spoke to the symposium Thursday, noting that with 259 days to go, he is now actually counting the days until his term of office ends.
He said the water plan, which weighs 4 pounds and took countless meetings over two years to produce, was referred to in the governor’s office during the process as “the colossal exercise.”
Regardless of what one thinks of the plan itself, the governor’s water-planning process did result in a working agreement between water interests on Colorado’s Front Range and Western Slope over a future potential new transmountain diversion under the Continental Divide.
Senior water mangers from both the Front Range and West Slope praised that agreement, or “conceptual framework,” as recently as April 18 at a regional water meeting in Grand Junction.
Given this year’s low snowpack, Hickenlooper also said Thursday the state was now “drawing up the paperwork” to activate the second stage of the state’s drought management plan.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times, which published this story on Monday, April 30, 2018, and with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, which published the story on Tuesday, May 1, 2018, the Vail Daily, which published the story on May 1, 2018, and the Summit Daily News, which published it on May 1, 2018.
Fifteen miles of the Rio Grande are dry in the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge area south of Socorro, but that’s no accident of nature.
The drying out of the river, which started April 1, is an intentional process aimed at preserving water resources, according to David Gensler, water operations manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District…
“We don’t have enough water to keep everything wet,” Gensler said. “We began drying the river while we had some water (in storage) to work with, drying it slowly and controlled so fish can migrate upstream.” He said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been rescuing endangered silvery minnows trapped in pools during the drying-out operation.
Gensler has good reason to be cautious. Exceptional drought, which translates into “as bad as it gets,” has invaded portions of New Mexico for the first time since May 2014…
The most recent map, released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s drought monitor, shows 9 percent of New Mexico – in the northeast and northwest parts of the state – in exceptional drought. About 37 percent of the state is in extreme drought, the second-most serious category, and almost 99 percent is experiencing some level of drought.
There has been little or no snowpack in the mountains, and, as a result, next-to-no runoff.
But there will be water for farmers this year, Gensler said, because of good storage in El Vado and Heron reservoirs in Rio Arriba County. He said there are about 84,000 acre feet in El Vado and 40,000 acre feet in Heron…
And although Gensler notes that this has been an abysmally bad year for precipitation, he said some rain north of Chama earlier this month put 10,000 acre feet of water into El Vado.
That rain was indeed a rare occurrence in New Mexico the past six months. What water there is in New Mexico reservoirs is due, in large part, to really good rains in late September and early October. But since then, not much…
Exceptional drought conditions started creeping into the northern part of the state earlier this month. Before then, Fontenot said, May 27, 2014, was the last time that degree of drought had been recorded in New Mexico. If history is any indicator, it could get much worse than the 9 percent it is now. Fontenot said that in a drought that stretched from May 2011 to May 2012, as much as 49 percent of the state was in exceptional drought and that in 2013, exceptional drought blanketed up to 45 percent of New Mexico.
According to Brian Domonkos, Colorado Snow Survey Supervisor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, precipitation in April brought the northern half of the state to near-average levels of snowpack for the year. That was a surprise, he said, since by this time of year, snowpack already is starting to melt, but from the Gunnison River Basin north, nearly all basins saw gains in snowpack numbers.
The southern half of the state, though, fell further behind average. The snowpack south of the Gunnison River Basin has already started to melt, and this part of the state didn’t receive as much moisture as its northern counterpart…
The majority of Colorado is considered to be in some level of a drought, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s U.S. Drought Monitor, last released on April 26 with data updated on April 24. Areas of extreme drought expanded in southern Colorado. The only area of the state not considered to be in a drought or abnormally dry is the northeastern and north central parts of the state.
Eric Brown, spokesperson for Northern Water, which collects water on the West and East Slope and provides water for much of northeastern Colorado, said April’s moisture was very beneficial for the area, especially considering the abnormal dryness throughout the month of March…
The South Platte River Basin was at 89 percent of normal levels as of April 26, after peaking at 93 percent after some of the storms in April, Brown said. The Colorado River Basin, which is where Northern Water’s large Colorado-Big Thompson project captures the majority of its water, has also seen increases from the recent moisture. Before the storms in April, it hovered around 80 percent of the average, and is now at 86 percent of the historic average, according to snowpack data from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The added moisture in some parts of the state should make for better runoff this spring, which helps paint a prettier picture for farmers in the northern part of the state. Plus, Brown said the direct moisture falling on farmland should have improved soil quality…
And those gains in soil moisture were much needed. According to the Drought Monitor, topsoil moisture in Colorado was 53 percent very short to short as of April 22, but that was an 8-point improvement from the previous week. That said, winter wheat conditions declined for the week ending on April 22, with a 5 percent increase to 29 percent of the crop rated very poor to poor in Colorado.
In early April, the Northern Water board of directors voted to increase their C-BT project quota allocation for 2018 to 80 percent from its 50 percent quota in November. The C-BT quota sets the percentage of water from the project each participant can use for the year, and the 80 percent quota means that in 2018, each water user can use 8/10 of each acre-foot of water they own. For example, if someone owns rights to 100 acre-feet of water, they can use 80 of those acre-feet of water over the year.
Brown said the allocation was increased based on strong levels of regional water storage and the below-average precipitation this winter. As a whole, Colorado’s reservoir system is at 110 percent of its historic average, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He also said that the quota each year is set to ensure enough water is left in the reservoir system to protect future years’ water supply.
As we move into the spring and summer, Domonkos said the further south you go in Colorado, the more worried farmers are likely starting to get about moisture levels — and they’re not wrong, he said.
On April 19, Monte Vista City Council approved a resolution enacting watering restrictions for all of the city’s water customers. The restrictions take effect on May 1, 2018 and are as follows.
Residential and Commercial businesses with odd numbered addresses are allowed to water on odd numbered calendar days and even numbered addresses can water on even numbered calendar days. No watering is allowed on Sundays and no watering is allowed between 10:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.
The restrictions are in effect beginning May 1, 2018 and extending until October 1, 2018. City Council exempted gardens from watering restrictions. For those that want to plant new grass, they can request a variance with a simple letter containing their name, address, and approximate area they want to landscape. The City Manager or his designee will draft a letter back either approving or disapproving the request.
The Elkhead Reservoir filled April 11, and Stagecoach Reservoir is expected to fill within the next two weeks, as long as flows remain steady. Snowpack in the Yampa/White River Basin is at 86 percent of the average, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service. The Yampa River is projected to flow at 64 percent of its long-term average flow this year, according to the Colorado River District.
Still, water managers are concerned about the impacts a long-term drought could have on Moffat County and its rivers.
Statewide graphs of snowpack this year have been similar to the water year in 2002, which was a record low year for reservoir storage and river runoff. Twelve Colorado counties, including Bent, Crowley, Delta, Garfield, Gunnison, Kiowa, Montrose, Las Animas, Pitkin, Pueblo, Mesa and Otero have been designated as primary natural disaster areas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture due to losses and damages caused by the recent drought.
During the winter, drought conditions have crept toward Moffat County from the southwestern part of the state. Southwestern Moffat County is experiencing severe drought conditions. Central Moffat County faces moderate drought conditions, and eastern Moffat County is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
On April 1, the Colorado River District said it anticipated it would send only 43 percent of the long-term average amount of water it sends downstream to Lake Powell between April and July…
With more and more drought years occurring, water managers are growing more and more concerned about meeting compact requirements.
The Colorado River basin is expected to contain 20- to 35-percent less water in the Upper Colorado River Basin by 2100, due to rising temperatures. Compound that with population growth and a growing demand for Colorado River Basin water on both Colorado’s Front Range and in Lower Basin communities, the river is being “pulled at both ends,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, during last week’s State of the River event.
When the elevation of the waterline in Lake Powell falls below 3,525 feet, the Glen Canyon Dam cannot reliably produce power, Mueller said. Power generated by the dam produces revenue to operate several major reservoirs, including the Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal Reservoirs in Colorado and the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah. It also helps fund the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program.
On [April 24, 2018], Lake Powell sat a few inches above 3,609 feet, only 84 feet above that critical line.
Within Colorado, Western Slope agriculture is the largest consumptive use of water in the Colorado River Basin, according to the Colorado River District. About 69 percent of the water depleted in the basin goes to growing food, feed and livestock on the Western Slope. The next greatest portion of use is municipal and industrial use on the Front Range, which takes 18 percent of the depletions in the Colorado River.
That’s how Socorro County farmer Chris Lopez feels about the drying Rio Grande…
“They may make us cut back on the water, but if we’re able to water between the cutting, we’ll be able to make a crop. That’s what happened five or six years ago.”
That said, Lopez doesn’t remember a time when the Rio Grande has dried up in this area so early in the spring. His family farms along the river between Luis Lopez and San Antonio.
“It is completely dry in San Antonio,” Lopez said.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge Manager Kevin Cobble told El Defensor Chieftain last week the river is dry for a stretch of at least 14 miles, including on the refuge. Travelers will notice a completely dry Rio Grande as they drive over the river bridge on U.S. 380 in San Antonio.
“It started on the refuge and went north,” Cobble said. “I know it’s up to the bridge on 380 in San Antonio. It may be a little beyond that.”
“It usually doesn’t get this dry until the end of May,” Lopez said. “But then they’ll usually release the water to save the silvery minnow.”
The early drying of the Rio Grande has threatened the silvery minnow on the refuge. It forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to perform a rescue of about 15,000 silvery minnows on the refuge.
The Bureau of Reclamation is coordinating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure fish rescue crews are active in the areas of the river that have dried. It is working with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, Albuquerque Water Utility Authority, and other stakeholders on an operational pulse to facilitate silvery minnow egg collection efforts.
Cobble said the drying of the river could impact other endangered species that live on the refuge…
A dry winter is being blamed for the early drying of the river.
“It was one of the worst snow melts, if not the worst, in about 80 years,” Cobble said.
Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District chief hydrologist David Gensler said the water flowing in the river is about 1/6th of what it was last year when snow melt was above average.
“I think we had 18 percent of the snowpack we had last year,” Gensler said.
The lack of moisture in the winter had an effect on Lopez.
“Last winter, we didn’t get any moisture,” Lopez said. “I planted alfalfa in the fall and lost the entire crop.”
Gensler said a change in regulations to protect species such as the silvery minnow forced water in storage to be released into the river earlier.
Lopez has a well, and has had to do some adjusting this spring. Lopez said he has done some shifting around with his chile crop.
Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District Board Member Valarie Moore agrees with Lopez that farmers won’t be affected as much by the drying of the river.
“Thankfully, we don’t have to entirely depend on the Rio Grande,” Moore said. “Thankfully, we have a lot of water stored in El Vado (Reservoir).”
Officials expect the river to dry within the Albuquerque reach later this spring or early summer before monsoon rains can perhaps provide some relief.
The Town of Ridgway recently announced voluntary outdoor water restrictions — which isn’t necessarily surprising, given the current drought engulfing the entire state, and beyond — but mandatory restrictions could soon follow, according to town manager Jen Coates.
That’s alarming, especially since Coates explained mandatory outdoor water restrictions haven’t been implemented in town for at least a decade, if not longer. (Coates has lived in Ridgway for the past 13 years, and been town manager since 2010.)
Colorado, along with several other Western states, has been experiencing harsh drought conditions this season. According to a map released April 19 by the U.S. Drought Monitor — a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, the USDA and NOAA — dry conditions in Colorado have moved from “extreme” to “exceptional,” the monitor’s highest category. The monitor ranks drought conditions on a scale of five, from D0 (abnormally dry) and D1 (a moderate drought) all the way to D3 (extreme drought) and D4 (exceptional).
Mandatory restrictions in Ridgway may come down from the town or be the consequence of a “water call,” which would be made by officials in Montrose County, Coates said. During such an event, the town would be required to send its water elsewhere, per the call decision.
Coates explained that the town uses a couple of different water sources — mainly ditch water — which are either directed to the town water-treatment plant for the potable-water system or used to irrigate public parks as part of the town’s non-potable water system that doesn’t require treatment at the water plant. All of the town’s water sources contribute to the town’s water reservoir. Currently, the town isn’t using water from the reservoir, but it would have “a limited supply of water (in the reservoir) if other water sources are restricted (or called elsewhere),” Coates said.
Water-usage concerns are nothing new to Ridgway, she added, but the town hasn’t had an official plan outlining ways to deal with such circumstances until this year, when town officials adopted a Water Conservation and Management Plan at the April 11 council meeting. The plan includes six stages and accompanying actions, including restriction practices, for water use…
The current voluntary restrictions include no irrigating between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., as well as no irrigating at all on Mondays. The restriction also instructs people not to irrigate when it’s windy, in an effort to “minimize evaporation,” according to a town news release. Properties on the south side of State Highway 62 and Hunter Parkway may irrigate on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. North side property owners have Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays to irrigate…
For more information about the recently adopted Water Conservation and Management Plan, visit the town’s website at http://colorado.gov/ridgway and scroll to the Public Notices section at the bottom of the page.
The Four Corners drought has reached a more critical level, and as the wildfire threat heightens, forecasters say there is little hope for relief this summer.
The drought is rooted in a dry spell that began in October and reaches from southern California to central Kansas. Conditions are even worse in the Four Corners, where Montezuma and La Plata counties have warranted the description “exceptional drought.”
Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the conditions that arise for an “exceptional drought” are considered a 1-in-50-year chance.
“It’s pretty significant in the context of history,” Rippey said.
He authored the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It ranks drought conditions on five levels ranging from “abnormally dry to “exceptional drought.”
Rippey blamed the current conditions on a dry winter and early spring…
In the Cortez area, National Weather Service forecaster Matt Aleksa said only 1.6 inches of precipitation has fallen since Jan. 1. That’s 2.4 inches less than the 4 inches the county normally receives by this time of year. Last year, the area accumulated 4.07 inches of precipitation by mid-April. Meteorologist intern James Fowler added that Cortez also hit record high temperatures four times this year. Temperatures on Jan. 1 reached 57 degrees, beating the record of 54 degrees, and Jan. 10 beat the record of 59 degrees with a high of 61. On Jan. 20 and Feb. 2, the temperatures were tied with the highest temperatures ever recorded on those dates – 60 and 61 degrees, respectively…
The drought has already resulted in fire bans and a lower expectations for irrigators.
A Dolores Basin snowpack that came in at half its normal level means McPhee Reservoir will not fill to capacity, and farmers may receive 20 percent less water this season. The Dolores Water Conservancy District estimates that full-service irrigators will have 17 inches of water per acre available for their crops, down from 22 inches per acre when McPhee is full.
The carryover storage of 125,500 acre-feet – water left in the reservoir from last winter’s above-average snowpack – is only helping to ease the pain…
Aleksa said the short-term outlook for Montezuma County remains bleak, with lower-than-normal precipitation and higher-than-normal temperatures through June. But he offered a glimmer of hope, saying that some climate models predict a monsoon will carry heavy precipitation into the area starting in July.
According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, 2018 is a record year, but this is not a record to cheer for. The water runoff season (January-May) in the Salt-Verde watersheds is likely to be the driest since records have been collected. ADWR’s Arizona Water News summarized the situation with information from multiple sources. The Salt River Project’s runoff totals in the Salt and Verde reservoir systems for the period January-March are at their lowest since 1913. These discouraging totals come in the wake of a disappointing December-February snowpack season, which produced most of the snowpack only at the highest elevations in the watershed. Using SNOTEL data, the Natural Resource Conservation Service estimated snowpack values in the range of zero to 40 percent of normal. The spring does not hold much hope for moisture either. Forecasts indicate Arizona will experience drier than normal weather through at least the first half of April, and chances do not look good for a “Miracle May” like the one that rescued the Colorado River in 2015.
Here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map via the NRCS.
The real problem isn’t one water user striving to achieve a “sweet spot” in reservoir levels to maximize its own water use; it’s the failure so far of the basin states to adjust to the new hydrology. Region-wide aridity and a warming climate just might force that hand for them.
Over the last week, those of us who eat, sleep, and drink Colorado River issues have watched with alternating measures of surprise, concern, and alarm as water users from the Upper Basin states publicly called out the operators of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) for “gaming” reservoir levels to maximize water deliveries to Arizona. The worry is that CAP’s efforts to find a “sweet spot” in managing the Colorado River has the effects of undoing nearly a decade of collaborative conservation successes and threatens to pull the entire Basin into shortage more quickly than is already likely.
Media coverage of this dustup has been welcome, highlighting the complexity and conflicting motivations at the heart of efforts to manage the Colorado River as a water supply for seven states and 40-plus million people. The states and major water users along the river agreed in 2007 to a set of guidelines that spelled out collaborative responses to drought and shortages in water supply. But these guidelines don’t resolve the tension between an ethic of “we’re all in it together” and the long-practiced tendency of each state to maximize their own water use. More critically, the guidelines are a good effort to respond to short-term drought, but deftly avoid the substantive management changes needed to address permanently diminished flows associated with long-term aridity.
Conflict between states and water users is regrettable, but more so, there is a missed opportunity within ongoing multi-state negotiations to fully acknowledge what all of us privately admit… there isn’t going to be enough water in the Colorado River in the future to fulfill all of the previously made promises. If the Colorado basin ever really provided a reliable fifteen to seventeen million-acre-foot (MAF) supply, those days were brief, and they are long gone. The consensus of climate science and hydrology points toward a future in which Colorado River flows total 12 MAF or less, perhaps as low as 9 MAF. The real problem isn’t one water user striving to achieve a “sweet spot” in reservoir levels to maximize its own water use; it’s the failure so far of the basin states to adjust to the new hydrology. Region-wide aridity and a warming climate just might force that hand for them.
In this regard, Arizona certainly could be doing more. Individual users of Colorado River water, some of the major urban water providers, and an irrigation district or two, have shown innovation and commitment to conserving water and creating more flexible tools for sharing their water resources. Likewise, cities in southern Nevada and southern California have demonstrated real foresight, either in reducing demand or developing resilient local water supplies as alternatives to uncertain and declining Colorado River imports. But as a whole, the states that share the river haven’t yet shown a full commitment to solving the underlying problem of getting by with a smaller share of Colorado River water.
If there’s a silver lining in last week’s airing of dirty laundry, maybe, just maybe, it’s in the way the family feud has highlighted our need to get to the real issues. As the basin looks toward negotiations around a new set of operating guidelines to succeed those adopted in 2007, let’s hope they can bring a spirit of innovation and honest, intentional, collaboration to meet this challenge.