From Aspen Journalism (Lindsay Fendt):
Colorado closed out its second-driest water year on record Sept. 30, with 72 percent of the state in some level of drought.
The water year, which started October 1 of 2017, was marked by abnormally high temperatures, low precipitation and some of the largest fires in Colorado history, but state climate scientists and hydrologists say the 2019 water year, which began Oct. 1, is off to a much better start.
“We are trending towards the path of a good or near-average water year,” Becky Bolinger, a research associate with the Colorado Climate Center, said at a statewide water-availability task force meeting Tuesday in Denver.
October and the first half of November saw above-average precipitation and below-average temperatures in most of the state. While much of this precipitation along the Front Range will have little bearing on the water year as a whole, the heavy snowfall in the mountains near Grand Junction, on the Western Slope, will probably stick around until spring.
Despite a good start to the 2019 water year, water managers warn that a few early snowstorms will do little to lift Colorado from its water problems. The state has been in water-shortage conditions for almost two decades.
“I continue to be skeptical,” Russ George, a board member representing the Colorado River basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said during the board’s meeting Thursday. “We know — and we need to keep telling the public — that this moisture doesn’t solve the Lake Powell problem.”
Lake Powell, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, has dropped more than 94 feet since the year 2000 and is now 44-percent full.
If the reservoir falls much further, it will be below “minimum power pool,” and water will not be able to flow through the penstocks in the upstream face of the dam down to turbines near the base of the dam.
And if water levels drop even further, the surface of the reservoir will be below the level of the outlet pipes in the dam, and not enough water will be sent downstream to meet the legal obligations of the upper basin states as required by the Colorado River Compact of 1922.
The threat of El Niño has also tempered water managers’ celebration about recent snowfall.
Climate models show an 80 to 90 percent chance for a winter El Niño. The weather phenomenon typically causes drier weather in the northern part of North America and wetter weather in the south.
Since Colorado falls in the middle of the continent, El Niño weather patterns are hard to predict for the state, but past El Niños have left most of the mountains on the Western Slope drier than normal and sent large amounts of snow to the state’s southeastern corner.
Although an El Niño could be bad news for Western Slope ski resorts and limit the mountain snowpack that feeds the rest of the state, it could help alleviate drought conditions in the Four Corners region.
This section of the state experienced its worst drought this year since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. To meet summer demand, the region drew down its reservoir storage to record levels and will need a wet winter to recoup those reserves.
“There’s a lot of winter to come, but that’s an encouraging start,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
From Arizona Central (Ian James):
The agency that delivers Colorado River water to parts of Arizona offered a new proposal Thursday amid difficult negotiations on a proposed deal aimed at preventing the declining levels of Lake Mead from dropping even further.
The Central Arizona Water Conservation District’s board members voted to pass a motion they described as an “interim mitigation plan.” The proposal lays out a scenario in which the agency could provide “mitigation water” to soften the blow for farmers in central Arizona who have the lowest priority in the state’s pecking order of water users.
The proposal quickly faced questions, however, because it calls for using some of the Central Arizona Project’s stored water in Lake Mead — called “Intentionally Created Surplus” or “ICS” water — at a time when the larger goal is to prevent the reservoir from falling to critically low levels.
“The broader community has not yet produced a consensus proposal. We’re working very hard on it,” CAP General Manager Ted Cooke told the district’s board. “We have brought the interim plan forward because we think it will work.”
Still uncertainty about details
A meeting billed as the committee’s final gathering is scheduled for Nov. 29, and both federal and state water managers have said they hope to finish a deal by December.
“There have been some productive conversations over the past few days,” said Suzanne Ticknor, CAP’s director of water policy. “Discussions are helping to move things forward.”
But she said three proposals have come and gone, and there is also uncertainty about the availability of funding to help compensate parties that would transfer some of their water elsewhere.
From The Phoenix New times (Elizabeth Whitman):
That proposal, intended to renew lagging DCP talks, was a bare-bones version that board members said they did not expect everyone to agree with. Nevertheless, they authorized Board President Lisa Atkins and Director Karen Cesare to present it to the next DCP Steering Committee meeting on November 29. Arizona had hoped to agree on a drought contingency plan by then, before meeting with California and Nevada officials in mid-December to discuss a broader Lower Basin DCP…
[Ted] Cooke said that the complexities of the plan could be worked out later, after a Drought Contingency Plan had been agreed upon by other states, passed by the Arizona legislature, and approved by Congress.
Cooke also said that his foremost concern was the cost of water: “What’s this going to do to our rates? I know that’s very important to our customers,” he said. He presented graphs showing that CAP’s fixed rates would increase if its water deliveries to customers decreased, as would occur without mitigation.
The seven Colorado River states are developing a DCP because an ongoing drought, now in its 19th year, is on track to worsen sooner than existing drought guidelines can accommodate.
Those guidelines, passed in 2007, were supposed to last until 2026. But Lake Mead, the reservoir on the Colorado River that supplies Arizona, Nevada, and California, has been given a 57 percent chance of falling into shortage in the year 2020. The DCP is supposed to be a six-year plan bridging the years 2020 to 2026.
During the meeting’s public comment period, representatives of other Arizona water users focused on several concerns. One was the new proposal’s reliance on intentionally created surplus (ICS) water sitting in Lake Mead. Another was the question of whether the latest plan was fair.
Like money in a savings account, ICS water has been stored by states in Lake Mead, with the idea that keeping it in the reservoir could help stave off shortage, which is declared when the reservoir’s level dips below 1,075 feet above sea level.
The ICS program, created by interim drought guidelines in 2007, allows states to pull that water out of the reservoir in the future, as long as no shortage has been declared.
The CAWCD board’s $36 million to $54 million proposal would cover three years. It would compensate users in the Non-Indian Agriculture (NIA) pool — mainly tribes and cities — 100 percent for their losses under a DCP. It would also compensate agriculture and developers for their cuts. For farmers, it promised to provide them with the 595,000 acre-feet of water through 2026 that the sector has been seeking.
To compensate these users, the proposal suggested pulling up to 400,000 acre-feet of water out of Lake Mead. To many participants in the DCP talks, who attended Thursday’s meeting, that sourcing was a problem, because that would mean using Lake Mead to compensate Arizona water users for reductions to their water supply from… Lake Mead.
“The CAP proposal in its current form does not conform to the state of Arizona’s guiding principles,” Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the other co-chair of the Steering Committee, told the board Thursday. “The state wants to continue discussing the proposal and other proposals to synthesize the meritorious elements of each one, into a package acceptable to all.”
He pointed out that the proposal did not align with several principles for any DCP plan laid out by Governor Doug Ducey in an opinion article in the Arizona Capitol Times on Tuesday. Among them were that water must be left in Lake Mead, not taken out.
Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community echoed that point in his remarks. He reiterated a point the Community has made before — that it was “strongly opposed” to using water from Lake Mead, including ICS water, unless offset by other contributions to the reservoir. Mitigating cuts with other sources of water would raise costs, but that was something the Community was prepared for.
“Rates will have to go up, because DCP will have to become the new normal, and it is best to transition to that new reality sooner than later,” Lewis said.
Lewis reiterated, too, that the water cuts had to be shared equitably and fairly. “DCP cannot be used as subsidy for one affected group,” he said.
The Arizona agricultural sector seeks compensation of 595,000 acre-feet of water from 2020 to 2026, which many other stakeholders see as unfair, given that farmers would fare better with mitigation under DCP cuts than without. These stakeholders also point out that farmers gave up their legal contract to Colorado River water in a 2004 settlement.
Still, the agricultural sector pushed back against calls for equity and criticized the CAP plan.
“I’m disappointed that there are still some folks who think that is too much for agriculture,” said Paul Orme, general counsel for Pinal County agriculture districts. He argued that although agriculture interests had been trying to find ways to use groundwater instead of surface water from the Colorado River, the expectation of farmers had been that they would not have had to figure that out until 2031…
Bas Aja, a lobbyist for agricultural interests, tried to draw a distinction between equity in priorities and contractual agreements, and equity in the impact of cuts. “There’s no equity in impact in these proposals,” he said.
Despite these disagreements, during its meeting, the board added an important clause to the initial proposal, agreeing to “continue to negotiate a mitigation plan” within the general parameters of that proposal…
Cynthia Campbell, water advisor for the city of Phoenix, said that the new CAP plan had some “fundamental issues” in its use of ICS. “It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to us,” she said. “We think that there have been other discussions going on of other ways to do it, and that today’s action represents the board being expedient. This is the ‘easy button.'”
“Kudos to them that they’re trying to put a proposal forward,” Campbell added, “But we think that we can still do a little bit better to help protect Lake Mead.”
From the Associated Press via KTAR.com:
A major Colorado River water user has proposed an interim plan for Arizona as the state faces looming a looming deadline to manage expected shortages. The Central Arizona Project board said its proposal could jumpstart talks after previous ones failed to gain consensus among water users.
The agency wants to draw up to 400,000 acre-feet of water it stored in Lake Mead and 50,000 acre-feet in Lake Pleasant, and implement a $60 million conservation program to lessen the burden of shortages on mainly farmers and developers. Another program would help improve groundwater systems but doesn’t have a price tag.
The agency said the proposal theoretically would result in a net benefit to Lake Mead because it could not pull out as much water under regular deliveries in shortages, stabilizing the lake before it reaches a level where no one could get any water.
Arizona water users had a mixed response to the proposal presented at a board meeting Thursday. It covers only three years of a required seven-year, multistate plan to manage the shrinking Colorado River.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said this week that any drought contingency plan has to align with four principles, one of which is to build on efforts to prop up the lake that determines how much water can be sent to Arizona, Nevada and California from the river’s lower basin.
“I will not sign a bill that does not adhere to these important principles, or any bill that does not adequately help to secure our state’s water future,” Ducey wrote in an opinion piece.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman has said she wants a plan from the seven states that relies on the river by the end of the year. The upper basin states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – are working on a separate plan…
An Arizona drought contingency committee is scheduled to meet later this month to consider the Central Arizona Project proposal and any others. The Colorado River Indian Tribes recently offered 50,000 acre-feet of water to help reach agreement, with strings attached.
State Sen. Lisa Otondo struck an ominous tone in a recent letter to fellow committee members.
“The longer we argue and delay, the more we risk,” she said. “Time is our enemy. We are facing a common crisis and will all have to take a hit or face the judgment of history.”
Dan Thelander, whose family farms 5,000 acres in Pinal County, said he will have to fallow 2,000 acres under the Central Arizona Project proposal.
“This is a tough pill to swallow, but we understand it,” he said at Thursday’s meeting. “We’re ready to do it.”
From the Las Vegas Review-Journal (Henry Brean):
In a 6-0 vote Thursday, the Southern Nevada Water Authority board officially signed onto its portions of an interstate agreement aimed at keeping more water in the shrinking river system through voluntary cuts.
The so-called Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan seeks to protect critical water levels in lakes Mead and Powell while giving the states that share the river more flexibility to store and use water in dry years to come.
Nevada became the first of the seven river states to ratify the agreement with the approvals granted this week by the water authority board and the Colorado River Commission of Nevada.
“It is a huge step in restoring equilibrium to the system,” said authority General Manager John Entsminger. “We’re going first.”
But the groundbreaking deal is far from finished.
California and Arizona still need to work out internal disputes over how to divvy up the cuts among water users in those states…
Entsminger said valley residents have already conserved more than enough water to absorb any of the voluntary or mandatory cuts expected in the near future.
“It’s well within our pain tolerance,” he told board members Thursday. “We’ve been planning for this for 20 years.”
In addition to protecting the water level in Lake Mead, Entsminger said, the new plan would dramatically increase the amount of water Nevada is allowed to “bank” in the reservoir and free the state to make withdrawals from that bank even when the river is in shortage — something he described as “a major tool in our chest.”
The plan also would trigger the provisions of an earlier deal with Mexico, under which that nation could store more water in Lake Mead while shouldering an equal share of cuts in river water usage…
Meanwhile in the river’s upper basin, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are closing in on their portion of the contingency plan, which seeks to keep enough water in Lake Powell to protect hydro-power generation at Glen Canyon Dam and allow that reservoir to be used as a bank for conservation savings made upstream.
After Thursday’s vote, Entsminger said he thinks the talks among the upper basin states are “in pretty good shape,” and California seems close to signing on as well.
From The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):
The board’s vote allows the water authority’s general manager, John Entsminger, to execute the Drought Contingency Plan, a result of years of negotiations between the seven states with rights to use Colorado River water. The plan’s goal is to stabilize Lake Mead, the dwindling reservoir outside of Las Vegas that stores water in Arizona, California and Nevada. Under the proposal, the states would temporarily cut their water use to leave more water in the reservoir.
For instance, at low lake elevations, Nevada would leave up to 10 percent of its total right to Colorado River water, or about 30,000 acre-feet (the amount of water that can fill one acre of land up to one foot). In past interviews, Entsminger has said that Nevada could sustain those cuts. Because of conservation efforts, Las Vegas, he said, already leaves water in the lake…
With the board’s authority, Entsminger now has the authority to sign the drought plan when it is approved by the other states. Other states, including California and Colorado, are still resolving in-state issues before their state negotiators can sign on the plan. But all eyes are on Arizona, where there remains an ongoing debate over how the cuts should be implemented.
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