From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):
The Upper Colorado River Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to execute three agreements designed to bolster Lake Powell’s and Lake Mead’s water levels, which have been falling due to persistent drought and encroaching aridification in the Colorado River system.
The members of the commission, established in 1948 to help administer the Colorado River Compact, include representatives from the “upper basin” states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, as well as a federal representative.
The three agreements — and a set of companion agreements still being worked out in the “lower basin” states of California, Arizona and Nevada — are contingent upon federal legislation, which the involved parties hope to obtain during the current “lame duck” session of Congress.
Before the vote, James Eklund, who represents Colorado on the commission, said the set of “drought contingency planning” agreements were “historic” in their importance.
Asked after the meeting to put that into context, Eklund said, “I think we’re going to look back at this moment and realize that this was the opportunity we had to stand some tools up to keep the river system from crashing, or at least mitigate the impacts of it crashing.”
The first agreement OK’d by the commission allows the upper basin states to coordinate with the Bureau of Reclamation on releasing water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs to send downstream to Lake Powell, currently 43 percent full and at a surface elevation of 3,585 feet above sea level.
If Lake Powell, a huge reservoir formed by Glen Canyon Dam, falls to an elevation of 3,525 feet, then the “coordinated reservoir operations” agreement will kick in and water will be released from the three big upstream reservoirs to ensure that Lake Powell does not fall to 3,490 feet, which is the “minimum power pool” level when the dam’s hydropower generation ceases.
It’s also the level at which it becomes harder to release enough water from the dam to meet the upper-basin states’ obligations, under the terms of the Colorado Compact, to annually deliver more than 8 million acre-feet of water to the lower-basin states.
The second agreement approved Wednesday sets up a program where water can be stored in Lake Powell without the water being subject to a 2007 agreement that seeks to equalize the water levels of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which today is 38 percent full. Under the terms of the compact, Lake Mead is considered to be in the lower basin.
The water eligible under the agreement to be stored in Lake Powell, which would not be subject to being sent down to Lake Mead, must come from “conserved consumptive use,” or water that otherwise would have been mainly used in the growing of crops — such as alfalfa and hay — in the upper basin.
Such a water-use-reduction effort is called a “demand management” program, and the details of programs in each of the upper-basin states still need to be worked out. But the second agreement approved Wednesday will create a way for the upper basin to securely store such “conserved” water in Lake Powell.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, which manages water-supply planning in the state, recently adopted a policy saying it is committed to setting up a demand-management program that is “voluntary, temporary and compensated,” although there are fears, especially on the Western Slope, that such a program could become mandatory, long-term and uncompensated.
The second agreement approved Wednesday allows for as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water to be stored in a demand-management pool in Lake Powell. By comparison, Ruedi Reservoir, above Basalt, holds 100,000 acre-feet of water.
The third agreement is a “companion agreement” to a set of agreements that are still being negotiated in the lower basin that provide for water entities in California, Arizona and Nevada to reduce their water use and store the water in Lake Mead in an effort to keep operational that reservoir, formed by Hoover Dam.
Patrick Tyrrell, who represents Wyoming on the upper-basin commission, echoed Eklund’s sentiments about the nature of the drought-management agreements, saying before the vote that “it is necessary and important to get this done at this time.”
Tyrrell said the upper-basin states were going to keep urging the lower-basin states, especially Arizona, to come to terms on their draft agreements, as it was important for all the entities that depend on the river.
Not ‘done done’
The approval of the three agreements happened in Las Vegas, the location of the annual meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association, where it is customary for water managers from both the upper basin and lower basin to meet for three days in mid-December in the conference center at Caesar’s Palace.
There has been intense pressure for months on the lower-basin states to approve their set of “drought-contingency planning” documents during the conference, as the upper-basin states did Wednesday, but there are still complicated issues to be worked out among water entities in Arizona.
Terry Fulp, the regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation in the lower Colorado River region, on Wednesday told the ballroom full of water managers from the upper basin that the lower-basin entities were making progress and were closer than ever to reaching consensus.
He also said he’s learned to distinguish between agreements that are “done” and those that are “done done,” or truly finalized.
“We’re definitely not ‘done done,’” Fulp said of the lower basin. “And we’re probably not ‘done,’ but we’ve come a long way.”
He also said that over the past three months, the process has managed to step over any number of stumbling blocks that could have set back the entire process.
“It’s within our power to keep ourselves on the trajectory that this basin has been on for two decades,” Fulp said, referring to the overall Colorado River basin. “And that trajectory is one of collaboration and problem solving and doing it together, and not waiting until the secretary of the Interior, or someone, has to come in and solve it for us.”
Fulp’s boss, Brenda Burman, is the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, which is part of the Interior Department.
If the upper- and lower-basin states can’t find a way to keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead functioning, it’s up to Burman to intervene.
On Thursday, Burman spoke to the attendees at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting and set a Jan. 31 deadline for parties in Arizona and California to approve the proposed drought contingency agreements.
“It is high time to wrap up these efforts,” she said.
If the parties have not do so by then, Burman said Reclamation will publish a notice in the federal register and give the parties 30 days to submit proposals to the Secretary of the Interior on what next steps he should take to avoid a crisis in the basin.
“We will act, if needed, to protect this basin,” Burman said.
The possibility of direct federal intervention on the Colorado River system is something that many water managers in the seven basin states want to avoid.
Burman said the combined level of storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell is at 46 percent, the lowest combined level since 1966, when Lake Powell was filling for the first time.
“It is time for us to pay attention,” Burman said. “We are quickly running out of time.”
She praised the upper basin states for reaching agreement, and she challenged the entities involved in California and Arizona to “step up, compromise and contribute.”
She also said just getting close to an agreement was not the point.
“Close isn’t done, and we are not done,” she said. “Only done will protect this basin.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and other Swift Communications newspapers. The Post Independent published a version of this story on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2018. This version was updated on Thursday to include Commissioner Burman’s comments.
From The Arizona Republic (Ian James):
Federal Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman set a firm deadline for Western states to finish a set of Colorado River drought agreements, telling Arizona and California they need to sign on by Jan. 31.
If states fail to meet that deadline, Burman said, the federal government will get involved and step in to prevent reservoirs from falling to critically low levels.
“We are quickly running out of time,” Burman told water managers from across the West at an annual Colorado River conference. “Today’s level of risk is unacceptable and the chance for a crisis is far too high.”
She pointed out that Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two main reservoirs, are together at their lowest level since Glen Canyon Dam was built and Powell was filled in 1966.
“To put it in more personal terms, these are the lowest reservoir levels in my lifetime,” Burman said. “We are teetering on the brink of a shortage today, and we see real risk of rapid declines in reservoir elevations, particularly at Lake Mead, in the very near future.”
Burman’s remarks met resistance in Arizona, where legislative leaders cautioned against rushing into action and said they wanted time to study the final version of the agreement…
“Close isn’t done, and we are not done. Only done will protect this basin,” Burman said. “It is high time to wrap up these efforts.”
She said based on current trends, the level of Lake Mead, which now stands at an elevation of 1,079 feet, is projected to fall about 30 feet, below 1,050 feet, by the summer of 2020 — a level that would put the biggest reservoir in the country deep into a shortage.
“It is time for us to pay attention,” Burman said. She said she’s encouraged by recent progress in the negotiations, and Arizona has made “remarkable progress” in developing the outline of an agreement for the state to participate in the larger three-state deal with California and Nevada.
She warned, though, that the Interior Department can’t wait much longer for the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP, until it takes action.
From The Arizona Daily Star (Tony Davis):
Commissioner Brenda Burman said she would take unspecified actions to protect Lakes Mead and Powell and the river itself if the states don’t approve drought contingency plans by the end of January. Acknowledging that both states are close to approving plans, she emphasized, “almost is not done.”
While it’s unclear what she would ultimately do, officials of the basin states have long speculated that Reclamation would order specific cuts in river supplies to individual states to keep the reservoirs from crashing.
The states have their own legal allocations to water supplies from the river due to the 1922 Colorado River compact, which all basin states have signed. But given federal control over management of the entire river basin, state water officials have long feared such federal intervention if they couldn’t come up with their own drought plans to adapt to river flows that have steadily declined since 2000.
Burman’s statement and a subsequent talk she gave Thursday at a Colorado River conference in Las Vegas focused on the ailing reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell. They store drinking water and generate electric power for the basin states. Mead stores water for the Central Arizona Project that is Tucson’s main source of drinking water.
Burman noted that Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada have all adopted drought contingency plans although Arizona and California have not.
“This is not the (Reclamation) department’s preferred course of action, but action must be taken to protect the basin,” said Burman, who received a University of Arizona law degree and worked in the past for Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and for the Phoenix-based Salt River Project.
Reaction to Burman’s warning was very favorable from many Arizona water officials, experts and activists.
“Right on Commissioner Burman! That’s what she should be doing — keeping the pressure on,” said former Arizona Department of Water Resources director Kathy Ferris.
This isn’t the first time the feds have threatened a takeover of river management to prod the states into action on drought plans. But Burman’s threat is more specific and more imminent than those made during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
From The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):
Looming in the background of her comments was Lake Mead. As nearly two decades of drought and overuse has strained water supplies, the country’s largest reservoir — impounded by the Hoover Dam about 30 minutes outside of Las Vegas — has dropped to nearly 38 percent of its capacity. That means less water stored for users at farms and cities across the arid Southwest.
“We are teetering on the brink of a shortage today,” said Burman, after offering a sobering hydrologic assessment. “It is time for us to pay attention. We are quickly running out of time.”
Even before Jan. 31, Lake Mead will feel the effects of not having a drought plan in physical and concrete ways. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California plans to begin taking stored water out of the reservoir starting in January, said its general manager, Jeff Kightlinger.
The district, a wholesale water provider for Southern California cities, currently stores surplus water in Mead to keep reservoir elevations above a shortage level. With a drought plan in place, it would not be able to access that water in times of shortage. Because of uncertainty with the drought plan, Kightlinger said his staff is planning to begin removing the water in early January. That would further lower the reservoir level, making a shortage at Lake Mead even more likely.
“That’s not what we want to do,” he said, noting that the district needed to protect access to its water but that it could put the water back in the reservoir when a drought plan is agreed to.
“This is not something we do lightly,” he said. “But I don’t want to jeopardize my constituents.”
During a panel Thursday, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger applauded the commissioner for “laying down the gauntlet” to get a drought plan completed.
“I think the states need it,” Entsminger said. “I think this is the appropriate juncture to have it.”
But Entsminger said the Drought Contingency Plan was still the preferred approach. When Lake Mead slips into shortage, that plan would require the states to take additional cuts in their river allocations, which were set forth in the Colorado River Compact of 1922. Because of conservation, the water authority has long argued that it would be able to weather the cuts in its supply.
The idea is that by taking voluntary cuts, the states can avoid even more severe cuts in the future or cuts that might be required by the federal government if it took unilateral action.
The water authority approved the drought plan in November, as have most large-scale users in California (with stipulations to see the final approvals). The primary holdout is Arizona, where cuts in the drought plan would be the most significant for agriculture and some developers.
Arizona negotiators Tom Buschatzke, the head of the state’s Department of Water Resources, and Ted Cooke, the general manager of the Central Arizona Project, said they are close to a deal. But echoing the theme of the Colorado River conference, they both said close is not done.
Unlike in Nevada and California, where state negotiators like Entsminger can sign on behalf of the state, any Arizona drought plan must receive approval from state legislators, making an already complex problem of water law an even more complex problem involving state politics.
In a joint interview after the morning panel, Buschatzke and Cooke said they are working to execute side agreements with stakeholders to ensure that there is enough political support among cities, tribes and agricultural interests to convince the Legislature to pass a resolution…
Kathryn Sorensen, the director of Phoenix Water, said that what Arizona is going through is a challenging discussion of how to lose less water in a basin where that is a reality amid drought and climate change. There is more water on paper than there is actual water to go around.
“Central Arizona is looking at losing potentially half of its [Colorado River] water supply through the [drought plan],” she said. “Every single drop of water is accounted for and being used. So of course, those are really difficult conversations. So we have to come up with a way to make those reductions in a collaborative manner because everyone holds veto power over everybody else in some fashion. And plus, you want to look at the equity of the proposition as well.”
In Arizona, agricultural interests have pushed for the state and federal government to provide funding to offset the water they would lose under the drought plan. Under the plan, farmers would receive water for three years and then be required to switch to groundwater. The state and federal government plan to commit funding to help farmers make that transition to wells…
What concerns Entsminger and others is the forecast that federal water managers are likely to declare a Lake Mead shortage as early as 2020. Such a declaration would be unprecedented, and water managers have stressed that they want to be prepared before a shortage, not after.
“I don’t think responsible water managers can go into Water Year 2020 without a plan,” he said…
James Eklund, the negotiator for Colorado, said the approval was a big deal for the states. But he noted that a full drought plan would not be complete until the Lower Basin states signed on. Even though the short-term plan to use less water across the Colorado River is attempting to address drought, Eklund said that it is, in some ways, also addressing climate change.
For nearly 20 years, the Colorado River Basin has faced a drought that has challenged the assumptions that the watershed would be able to provide the amount of water that states are legally allowed to take from it. Studies have linked warm temperatures with reduced streamflow in the river and have predicted that climate change to continue drawing down future supplies.
“It is inextricably linked with climate,” Eklund said. “There is an existential question on this river about how we deal with climate. It’s not so much climate itself. It’s how we respond — if we respond. And the Drought Contingency Plan is an answer, but it is unlikely to be a panacea, a silver bullet that fixes this for all time. But we have to do what we can when we can.”
From Nevada Today (Andrew Davey):
Officials from the federal government and seven states are meeting in Las Vegas this week to discuss the future of the Colorado River. The original plan was for the states to unveil an unprecedented set of drought contingency plans to adapt to continually dropping Colorado River levels. But due to protracted negotiations within California and Arizona, that isn’t happening.
Instead, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned everyone that if all drought contingency plans are not submitted by January 31, 2019, the federal government will prepare to potentially mandate cuts in 2020. How might this affect Nevada, how are we preparing for prolonged drought becoming permanent “aridification”, and how might we have to change to ensure we’re never left high and dry?
At last year’s Colorado River Water Users’ Association (CRWUA) annual conference, newly confirmed U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman encouraged all seven Colorado River states (Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California) to present their drought contingency plans (DCP’s, or comprehensive agreements that include voluntary water cuts) by December 2018. Federal and state officials then prepared to present all seven states’ DCP’s here in Las Vegas this week.
That’s not happening. Though California may be close to finalizing their own DCP, Arizona stakeholders continue to debate what exactly will constitute their DCP, from Phoenix’s City Council at a stalemate over a water rate hike to pay for infrastructure improvements to the Arizona Legislature preparing to debate the overall DCP when they convene next month. The Arizona officials who spoke at the conference claimed all sides have made considerable progress in nearing a final agreement, a sentiment that Burman herself also expressed today.
In June, High Country News’ Emily Benson wrote about how the word “drought” is no longer the most accurate way to describe the Southwest’s ongoing dry spell. Instead she used the word “aridification”, and Esquire‘s Charlie Pierce followed suit this week as he described the tension that’s led into this year’s CRWUA Conference. Due to that (not-so-little) thing called climate change, this frightening terminology is becoming less of a far-off “worst-case scenario” and more of a clear and present danger that must be solved right here and now.
So how does this aridification affect our already very arid expanse of Southern Nevada? According to Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) General Manager John Entsminger, it’s something they’ve already been preparing for: “Anyone who has lived in Southern Nevada has seen Lake Mead declining. The drought contingency plan […] makes sure more water stays at Lake Mead, but it also gives users flexibility to make sure our supplies are sufficient.”
Unlike Arizona, Nevada has already approved its DCP, as Nevada only needed the SNWA board’s approval and the Nevada Colorado River Commission‘s approval. So what exactly does this DCP entail? According to Entsminger, “For Nevada, that contingency plan requires us to leave more water at the lake at certain levels. It also gives us more tools to bring water into the lake, and take it out when we need it.”
And how exactly will Nevada make this work? For Entsminger, this is why it’s made sense to “stay water smart”. As he put it, “Our community has done a fantastic job with conservation. As a result, we have extra water to leave at the lake. This deal will allow us to leave water in the lake for future use.”
“When you live in the driest state in the union, everything is on the table […] But again, if we can take care of the conservation, we’re not going to need to worry about new sources of water for decades to come.” – John Entsminger, SNWA
So what else can we do? For Entsminger, removing more ornamental lawn grass and reaching the goals set by the conservation standards we already have on the books will make a huge difference: “I believe that removing the 5,000 acres of nonfunctional turf [grass] from the valley and enforcing the rules we have on the books will guarantee us a safe and reliable water supply for the next 50 years.”
From Arizona Public Media (Luke Runyon):
To a gilded Caesars Palace conference room of more than 1,000 attendees of the annual Colorado River conference, the message from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Brenda Burman was simple: Finish these deals before the federal government is forced to step in.
“We are teetering on the brink of shortage today,” Burman said. “And we see real risk of rapid declines in reservoir elevations.”
“We all know it is high time to wrap up these efforts,” Burman added.
Out of the seven U.S. states that pull water from the river, Arizona has struggled the most to figure out which water users would see cutbacks first, by how much and under what conditions. The debate has pitted farmers against the cities, home builders and tribes who rely on deliveries of Colorado River water from a 336-mile canal.
Completion of the plans became more urgent after the record hot and dry conditions within the Colorado River Basin this past year, Burman said. Portions of Colorado and Arizona experienced their record hottest and driest summer during 2018. Snowpack this winter is hovering around average levels.
A final deal will require federal legislation and approval by the Arizona Legislature before it can be put into action.
From the Associated Press (Ken Ritter) via The Denver Post:
Burman identified California and Arizona as the holdouts.
“Close isn’t ‘done,’ ” she told a standing-room crowd at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference at a Las Vegas Strip resort. “Only ‘done’ will protect this basin.”
The river that carries winter snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico is plumbed with dams to generate hydropower and meter water releases. It provides drinking water to 40 million people and cities including Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas. It irrigates crops in wide areas once deemed as reclaimed desert in the U.S. and Mexico.
The keys to contingency plans are voluntary agreements to use less water than users are allocated from the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell behind the Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah state line and Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam just east of Las Vegas…
Indian tribes also are involved, and Burman on Thursday announced publication of a report called the Colorado River Basin Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study . It charts water claims and use by tribes that hold rights to divert almost 20 percent of the water in the river.
A drought-shortage declaration next year would cut 11.4 percent of Arizona’s usual river water allocation beginning in 2020, and 4.3 percent of Nevada’s share. That amount of water, combined, would serve more than 625,000 homes. California would voluntarily reduce its Colorado River use by about 6 percent…
In California, the largest municipal suppliers have signed on, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California serving some 19 million people.
However, the sprawling Imperial Irrigation District, which holds some of the largest and oldest rights to river water, has so far granted only tentative approval. James Hanks, board president, said in an interview the district wants to be last to sign so it can see what others agree to.
It also wants government help to save the Salton Sea, a briny shallow desert lake east of Palm Springs, California, that is fed primarily by agricultural irrigation runoff. Dusty hot winds blowing across exposed former shorelines are blamed for asthma by area residents who also complain of sometimes brackish smells…
“Everyone thinks their own water use is justified and no one else’s is,” observed Kathryn Sorensen, Phoenix city water services director.
Keith Moses, vice chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribal Council in Arizona, offered what he saw as a key to complex water questions.
“To me, the best way of conserving water is not to use it,” he said before adding that he knew that would mean limiting growth so as not to continue to drain the Colorado River.
“Realistically,” he added, “looking at it, that’s not going to happen.”
Take some time to review the #CRWUA2018 Twitter stream. Folks have been very active.