Opinion: Western water strategy shifting from ‘use it or lose it,’ to ‘waste not, want not’ — The Hill

Arkansas Valley organic farmer Dan Hobbs photo via the Pueblo Chieftain

From The Hill (Sandra Postel, Lesli Allison):

In recent weeks, federal officials have warned residents of the southwestern United States that their two major lifelines — the Colorado River and the Rio Grande — will deliver alarmingly low water supplies in the coming months.

This summer, the Rio Grande may actually run dry through Albuquerque, New Mexico, a rarity. Meanwhile by 2020 the Colorado’s biggest reservoir, Lake Mead, stands a 52 percent chance of dropping to the level at which an official shortage is declared, requiring cuts in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

As snowpacks dwindle, temperatures warm, and periodic drought dehydrates the West, unprecedented levels of cooperation will be needed if farmers, ranchers, tribal communities, cities and rivers are all to have a degree of water security. That cooperation, in turn, requires some reframing of the water mantra embedded in the minds of just about every producer in the western United States: “Use it or lose it.”

The phrase stems from state laws that say if a water right is not fully put to beneficial use, the owner risks forfeiting the unused portion.

Historically, states considered farming, mining, manufacturing, and supplying drinking water to cities to be beneficial uses of water. Providing water to a river itself was a lower priority, and often considered a waste.

One irrigator in central Arizona describes this traditional thinking as, “divert all you can and use all you can.”

Agriculture accounts for 80 percent or more of water consumption in the western states. While many farmers and ranchers agree on the need to conserve water, existing policies make it hard to do so.

As a result, for decades, thousands of miles of rivers and streams in the West have run low or completely dried up at critical times of the year, decimating fish populations, bird and wildlife habitat, and recreational activities that support rural economies.

In Montana alone, more than 4,000 miles of streams are chronically or periodically de-watered.

But thanks to innovative policies, new collaborations, and smart technologies, zero-sum stalemates are giving way to more flexible water management, benefiting farmers, rivers and local economies at the same time.

In western Colorado, for example, ranchers have partnered with a non-profit water trust to curtail diversions from Colorado River tributaries when streamflows drop dangerously low. This is made possible by a 2013 Colorado law that loosens up the use-it-or-lose-it rule by allowing a water user enrolled in an approved conservation program to forego some water use without losing any water rights. The ranchers still get the water they need, the program protects the rights of other water users, and the river gets more flow to sustain its trout fishery.

In a similar vein, a 2003 Colorado law allows farmers, ranchers and other entities to temporarily loan water to rivers and streams without risking the loss of water rights.

Arizona’s Verde River Valley, a ribbon of green in the desert and a hotspot for migratory birds, is becoming a poster child for smarter water management. Farmers, conservationists and the business community are collaborating to upgrade century-old ditch systems, convert fields from flood to efficient drip irrigation, and shift some acreage to barley, which requires less water in the summer months when the river is hurting most.

As a result, portions of the Verde and its tributaries now flow stronger, enhancing habitats and recreational opportunities, a local beer-maker gets a supply of grain, and irrigators receive all the water they need from a modernized irrigation system.

Another tool gaining popularity in the West is the split-season agreement, whereby a conservation organization or public agency compensates an irrigator to forego water use in the late summer, when rivers are most depleted. A five-mile section of Colorado’s Little Cimarron River will benefit permanently from such an agreement, turning a stretch of previously dry riverbed into a flowing stream, while maintaining the agricultural use of the water right during the most-productive part of the growing season.

Strategies like these can preserve streams while sustaining agriculture and rural economies.

It is time to build on lessons learned from farmers, ranchers, businesses, and conservationists who are moving beyond the win-lose battles of the past and are working together to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes for agriculture, the environment, and local economies.

Before long, the “use it or lose it” mantra may give way to “waste not, want not.”

Sandra Postel is the author of “Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity” and co-creator of the water restoration campaign Change the Course.

Lesli Allison is executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance.

Short On Water In The Mountains? Beavers, To The Rescue — KUNC

A beaver dam on the Gunnison River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

We wade through a creek just downstream from a beaver dam, one of many in this stretch near the headwaters of North St. Vrain Creek. Without the beavers’ work, their engineering prowess, this diverse wetland wouldn’t be here. The valley bottom instead would slowly transform back into a grassy plain and the stream would return to its banks, cutting deeper into the landscape, [Juli] Scamardo says. The whole ecosystem would suffer.

“They definitely are engineers,” she says. “They change their environment to suit them and it also happens to suit a lot of other species.”

Scamardo is a master’s student at Colorado State University, studying how beavers alter landscapes.

Few species manipulate their surroundings enough to make big ecological changes. Humans are one. Beavers are another.

At one point, the rodents numbered in the hundreds of millions in North America, changing the ecological workings of countless streams and rivers. As settlers moved West, they hunted and trapped them to near extinction. Now there are new efforts — not just in Rocky Mountain National Park, but across the Western U.S. — to boost their numbers, and in turn, get us more comfortable with the way they engineer rivers and streams.

Beaver benefits

The North St. Vrain Creek beavers are a tough bunch.

Heavy snow melt runoff from the jagged peaks of the Front Range frequently undoes all their hard work. On the main creek, away from the marshy wetland, Alex Brooks, a Colorado State University watershed science PhD student, points to a beaver dam made of willows, mud and aspen branches. Last year, the creek blew out the dam. And now it’s back.

“So they were homeless for a little while,” I say, not fully understanding the mechanics of beaver habitats.

“They don’t actually live in these,” Brooks says. “They build these to flood the vegetation … They’ll build lodges where they live. The dams they build all over the place not just where they live.”

“Oh, I feel like that’s a misconception,” I say. “Don’t people think that every dam has beavers inside of it?”

Brooks kindly agrees.

“Yeah, I think that’s probably true,” he says.

Much like us, beavers build dams for their own benefit. They make ponds to protect their lodges and flood areas to increase the vegetation they feed on and use for building materials. While their motivations are selfish, they end up helping their woodland friends, like elk, moose, birds, fish and insects.

Scientists have shown we get lots of benefits, too. Beaver dams improve water quality, trap and store carbon — and in the aggregate could be a significant way of storing groundwater in dry climates.

Beaver reintroduction projects are already underway in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Washington state. Sections of Rocky Mountain National Park, and vast swathes of the American West, seem primed for a beaver comeback, Scamardo says, but they’re not showing up.

“So we’re still asking the question of like, ‘What else do you want?’” she says. “Having a beaver psychologist would really be the best for one of these projects but we don’t have any of those.”

From WyoFile (Maggie Mullen):

It’s no secret that water is a problem in the West. Historically, the humble beaver helped maintain wetlands and ponds across the arid landscape but their populations were decimated during the fur trade and their numbers dropped dramatically from 400 million to just 100,000 by the turn of the twentieth century. But Canada’s national animal is making a comeback and scientists think they have an important role to play as our region fights drought.

Too many ranchers and landowners out here, the beaver is a destructive little beast. Not only can it wreak havoc on irrigation systems, it can take down trees, nibble through fiber-optic internet cables, and cause the occasional flood. But if you ask Jeremy Maestas, he said there’s much more to the animal.

“Just through their diligence and 24-hour work ethic, they’re making amazing things happen in the streams,” said Maestas. “And because they’ve been here for millennia, the plants that live here have evolved with their browsing and beavery.”

Maestas is a wildlife biologist and he said the beaver is essentially a walking, talking ecosystem. Instead of just using dams to control water, Maestas said we could also follow the beavers lead. He called it a “sticks and stones” approach.

“Rather than diesel fuel and Tonka toys, we just direct the water to move sediment and grow vegetation, and do all the good things we want the ecosystem to do,” said Maestas.

One of those good things includes storing more water in the ground. Across the Mountain West, most precipitation comes in the wintertime. But when snow melts, it can often be in a hurry. Turning into runoff or rushing down a stream to a bigger river, and far away from where it’s needed.

But if it encounters something like a beaver dam, Maestas said the water gets delayed.

“The longer that we can keep that on the landscape, we increase the productivity of those plants. And ultimately leads to more drought resilience, right? These sponges fill up with water. It’s like putting money in the piggy bank for those lean times,” Maestas said.

Lean times like when you don’t get a lot of snow. Or, when rising temperatures mean snowmelt happens early and the rush of water comes too soon for peak water demand in the growing season…

“But it really isn’t until you get down in the mud and you start building these that you understand the process that you’re trying to fix,” Maestas added.

So one afternoon in early August, about 40 people got their toes wet—and muddy—building a few of these beaver-like dams on a Nature Conservancy testing ground in Wyoming. The group mostly included people from agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and Game and Fish.

“I feel like this is the perfect day to try something new,” said Corissa Busse, who works for The Nature Conservancy in South Dakota.

She and the others spent about a day and a half in the classroom, learning what makes a beaver tick. They won’t have the power of chisel-like teeth, so workshop instructor Joe Wheaton told them to be creative.

“You’ll have shovels—very useful. You’ll have buckets. Please don’t put the buckets back together without cleaning them first. You’ll have loppers. You’ll have hands. Make sure everybody’s got gloves, everybody’s got eye protection,” said Wheaton.

They brought some untreated fence posts from town to build the dams, but otherwise, they had to use supplies from the area just like a beaver would. That meant willow branches, sticks, stones and mud. The materials allow the structure to be porous. Water can trickle through, but flows will still slow down long enough to soak deep into the ground.

Jeremy Maestas said there’s another big difference between this and a dam.

“We don’t want to be constantly coming back in here with human labor and effort trying to keep it alive,” said Maestas. “So, the sooner we can turn it over to Mother Nature, to do her job, the better off we’re all going to be.”

By Mother Nature, Maestas meant beavers. Once these human-made dams are established, they will re-introduce the animal into the area.

Maestas said this won’t work everywhere, especially in more urban settings, or places where the animal could interfere with infrastructure. But in the right setting, Maestas said, “We’re bringing nuisance animals into areas where they’re wanted.”

That way, he said, maybe beavers can begin to solve the problem of water in the West.

#ColoradoRiver Research Group: It’s hard to fill a bathtub when the drain is wide open: the case of #LakePowell #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River Research Group has published a new paper. Click here to read the release. Here’s an excerpt:

Across the Colorado River Basin, the elevation of Lake Mead is a common point of discussion and concern. Even casual observers have come to recognize 1075’–roughly 4 feet below current (late August 2018) levels—as the elevation at which curtailments begin, and for many, the point at which the Colorado River crisis becomes real. As of today, it is highly unlikely that this threshold will be reached on January 1st of 2019, and Lower Basin curtailments will be narrowly avoided for the fourth straight year. But this is not all good news, and is not evidence of successful crisis management. The reality of the situation is that the dominos have already begun to tumble, and the proof lies upstream in Lake Powell.

From 2000 through the end of 2018 (projected), Lake Powell’s elevation will have dropped approximately 94 feet despite Upper Basin consumption only averaging about 4.5 million acre‐feet (maf)/year. Several particularly dry years—including 2018—in a process of continuing aridification contributed to the drop, but ultimately it is the operational rules that are slowly but surely draining Lake Powell. Through 2018, cumulative releases since 2000 from the reservoir will be approximately 11 maf higher than the 8.23 maf/year baseline traditionally utilized by Reclamation (see figure on page 3). Had those excess releases remained in Lake Powell, the lake level would not have declined. However, those extra releases—now governed by the 2007 Interim Guidelines—are the only thing that has kept Lake Mead from dropping into shortage conditions. Current storage in Lake Mead is approximately 10 maf.

Continuing this operational pattern will further drain Lake Powell and erode the benefits associated with its water storage, including Lower Basin water deliveries, Glen Canyon hydropower generation, and perhaps most importantly, the delicate interbasin truce brokered by the Law of the River and made operational by the two massive reservoirs. The structural deficit is the true villain in this story, mixing with the operational rules to drain Lake Powell.1 The process is already well underway. If storage in Lake Powell cannot rebound in an era where the Upper Basin consumes less than two‐thirds of its legal apportionment, then the crisis is already real.

Deciphering the Story of Lake Powell Elevations
Lake Powell entered the 21st century nearly full at 3681’ (21.4 maf), then declined rapidly before stabilizing at an uncomfortably low level (as shown below). Although Lake Powell does not have shortage triggering elevations as does Lake Mead, further elevation declines at Lake Powell prompt a variety of operational issues at Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower facilities (via vortex and cavitation problems). This likely begins around 3525’ (approximately 5.9 maf); the official minimum power pool occurs at 3490’ (roughly 4.0 maf of live storage). This is significant for more than just hydropower users, as many key environmental and salinity control programs are funded from these hydropower revenues.2 Should the reservoir decline further, Lake Powell would move through the upper, mid and lower operational tiers that dictate the release volumes downstream to restore Lake Mead storage. At 3370’, Powell is at dead pool, and releases of any kind are impossible. To put these numbers in context, Powell is expected to end 2018 around 3587’ (approximately 10.5 maf, or half the 2000 value), while Lake Mead will hover around 1080’ (roughly 10 maf).

In the Lower Basin, the reasons behind Lake Mead declines, and the solution to those declines, is now widely understood: it is all about the structural deficit—i.e., the practice of consuming more water each year (including system losses) than enters the reservoir. Those simple inflow/outflow mathematics also apply to Lake Powell, but Powell ultimately tells a more complex story. For starters, storage in Lake Powell responds to the whims of nature with sudden, dramatic movements. Dry periods, such as 2002‐ 2005 and 2012‐2013, have an immediate impact (as shown above). We will see more of these dry periods, which become especially problematic when the reservoir is already low.3 In fact, 4 of the 10 lowest runoff years in record (going back to 1906 and using estimated values for 2018) have occurred since the turn of this century. Our hydrology is changing; so must our water use practices.

The story told by the wet years, however, is perhaps more illuminating. In reservoirs designed to provide multi‐year carryover storage, declines are expected in dry years, and recovery is expected in wet years. In the case of the Colorado, wet years occurred about 50% of the time in the 20th century, but since 2000 have occurred only 25% of the time. When large inflows do occur, current operational rules immediately trigger large releases. The experience in 2011 is illustrative: inflow was more than 5 maf higher than usual, but so was the subsequent release (as shown below). The inability of Lake Powell to achieve a lasting recovery in the wet years is another causality of how the Lower Basin structural deficit works its way through the operational rules. To view the structural deficit as a Lower Basin and/or a Lake Mead problem is thus much too simplistic; it is central to all the basin’s water supply woes.

Addressing the Lake Powell Problem
The ability of Lake Powell storage to recover in wet years could be enhanced by new operational rules, perhaps including changes to the location of the “balancing tiers” and/or the equalization threshold, the establishment of Upper Basin ICS (Intentionally Created Surplus) programs, and a wide range of other possibilities that reduce water consumption. These items will undoubtedly be discussed further in coming years. Better options might be found by thinking outside of this familiar framework. Lakes Mead and Powell, after all, are essentially one giant reservoir (bisected by a glorious ditch) if not for the Lee Ferry accounting station and the administrative delineation of Upper and Lower Basins. Managing—and thinking—of these facilities as two distinct reservoirs, one for the benefit of the Upper Basin and one for the Lower, now seems outdated. Even tinkering with these familiar elements of basin administration and the Law of the River are categorically off‐the‐table for many interests, but it might be worthwhile to think about what could be achieved in terms of water security, Grand Canyon (and perhaps Glen Canyon) restoration, and other objectives if we allowed ourselves more flexibility in managing (and perhaps modifying) the massive infrastructure investments already in place. Long‐term, we may have no choice to consider reform on this scale.

Currently, the future of Lake Powell—and for that matter, Lake Mead—is largely tied to the drought contingency plan (DCP) negotiations underway in both basins. The primary focus in the Lower Basin continues to be on avoiding deep curtailments, while the Upper Basin is increasingly coming to terms with potentially needing to manage a compact call or, at least, a loss of hydropower generation in Lake Powell. Already, these negotiations are pressing up against the deadline for starting negotiations on version 2 of the Interim Guidelines. For many in the basin, the next generation of Guidelines are the place to adopt a comprehensive solution—a sustainable water budget. This is something the current rules do not provide, even though they have extended the window of time for doing so. The new framework can potentially take many forms, but at a minimum, will need to recognize the linked future of the two basins, and the political necessity of addressing equity concerns among users, sectors, and regions. Admittedly, this is a tall order on a tight deadline, but the recent history of Lake Powell shows us that the status quo is untenable. In different ways, both reservoirs illustrate the same lesson: it is impossible to keep a bathtub full while the drain is left open.

@USBR: Long-term #ColoradoRiver forecasts highlight need for action #COriver #drought #aridification

The Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam. Photo credit: USBR

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aaron/Marlon Duke):

The Bureau of Reclamation has released updated 5-year probability-based planning model projections for future Colorado River system conditions, which underscore the ongoing impact of record dry conditions across the basin. With spring and summer inflow to Lake Powell at only 36 percent of average, this year is one of the driest years in the past 19 years, which is the driest 19-year period in recorded history and one of the driest in the past 1,200 years. These projections show increased risk of declining reservoir elevations over the next 5 years. Specifically, the projections include a 57 percent likelihood for Lower Basin shortage in 2020—an increase from 52 percent from the April results. Furthermore, recently published results from the August 2018 24-Month Study operational model showed that another dry year like 2018 could drop the elevation of Lake Mead by 20 feet or more by mid-2020.

“These model projections further illustrate the continuing trend of drought and increasing dry conditions in the Colorado River Basin,” said Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. “There is a real sense of urgency across the basin to protect the river’s supply in the face of increasing demand and ongoing drought—I applaud the actions of water managers in all seven states and look forward to completing a comprehensive, basin-wide drought contingency plan before the end of this year.”

These probability projections include considerable uncertainty as the long-term hydrologic assumptions used may not fully represent the possible future inflows that could occur. The Colorado River Simulation System planning model used for these projections is an important long-term planning tool for water managers across the basin. Conversely, the 24-Month Study operational model—which was most recently released on August 15—produces a single projection of reservoir conditions based on current inflow forecasts and reservoir conditions. Projections from the August 24-Month Study were used to determine annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead for 2019. While Lake Mead is near the level that would—for the first time—trigger mandatory cuts to Lower Basin water deliveries, it will continue to operate in normal conditions through calendar year 2019. Annual operations for 2020 will be determined in August of 2019.

The most current 5-year probabilistic projections of future Colorado River system conditions are available at https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g4000/riverops/crss-5year-projections.html.

The August 2018 24-Month Study operational models are available at: https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/studies/index.html or https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g4000/24mo/index.html.