#Drought news: Exceptional drought (D4) shrank slightly in central #Colorado, 83% of the topsoil moisture short to very short E. #CO

Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

This Week’s Drought Summary

A couple Pacific weather systems, in the form of shortwave troughs or closed lows, moved in the jet stream flow across the contiguous U.S. (CONUS) during this U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) week. The weather systems brought rain or snow to the coastal Pacific Northwest, dried out as they traversed an upper-level ridge over the West, then picked up Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic moisture as they moved across the southern Plains to East Coast. An inch or more, with locally over 3 inches, of precipitation fell over the coastal and Cascade ranges, with up to an inch over parts of the northern Rockies. Otherwise, most of the West was dry. Only a few areas in the Northwest and southern Rockies had more than a quarter inch of precipitation. East of the Rockies, bands of an inch or more of precipitation, with locally 2 inches or more, fell across Kansas to the Great Lakes and along the Ohio River to northeast Ohio. Widespread 2+ inches of rain fell from coastal Texas to the Carolinas, and from Virginia to New England. A large shield of half an inch or more of precipitation surrounded these bands and extended from the southern and central Plains to the East Coast, and from the southern Great Lakes to Gulf of Mexico Coast. Generally the 1+ inch bands of precipitation were wetter than normal, while the areas with less than that were below normal. Much of the northern Plains to Upper Mississippi Valley was dry. Improvement in drought conditions occurred where precipitation was above normal, while drought expanded or intensified in some areas where dryness continued. Temperatures were near to cooler than normal across much of the West, southern Plains, and Lower Mississippi Valley, and warmer than normal in the northern Plains, South Texas, Great Lakes, Gulf Coast, and East Coast. Maps of 7-day, 14-day, and 28-day USGS streamflow measurements are consistent in showing below-normal streamflow from northern California, Nevada, and southern Idaho to the Four Corners states; and across southwest Nebraska to western Texas. They consistently show below-normal streamflow over central Texas, central Illinois to northern Indiana, and western Pennsylvania to western New York. The satellite-based Vegetation Health Index shows stressed vegetation across the California valleys and southern California, the Southwest, parts of the central Plains and Ohio Valley, and especially in southeastern New Mexico to western Texas. Where VegDRI is still in season, it shows drought across the Southwest and west Texas and parts of the Northeast (Maine). Where QuickDRI is still in season, it shows very dry conditions from southeastern Wyoming and western Nebraska, southward across Colorado, New Mexico, and western Kansas. The KBDI shows significantly dry conditions in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and a few spots in eastern Wyoming, western Nebraska, northern Florida, southern Alabama, and southern Georgia. NIFC maps show large wildfires still burning in California, and several in Oklahoma, central Appalachians, and a few elsewhere. Evapotranspiration (EDDI) for the last week has been high in California and the Southwest to the southern Plains, in the northern Plains, and in southern Alabama and Georgia. The EDDI shows high evapotranspiration across California and the Southwest, Great Plains, and Southeast to Northeast at the 2- to 3-week time scales, and across much of the West and Plains, Midwest, and Northeast at the 1- to 9-month time scales. USGS real-time groundwater level data show low groundwater at points across the West, in northern Indiana, southern Georgia, and parts of the Northeast, and a couple gauges in southern Alaska. NASA GRACE satellite-based groundwater estimates show low groundwater across most of the West to central and southern High Plains, most of New York to New England, much of Texas, and parts of North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. Soil moisture is dry across the West from California to the southern and central Rockies, in the southern and central High Plains (especially southwest Nebraska and northwest Kansas), in North Dakota, across Nebraska and Iowa, across central Illinois to northern Indiana, parts of Pennsylvania and New York, and (for some indicators) most of New England (CPC, NLDAS, UCLA/VIC models; satellite-based AAFC/SMOS, GRACE, NASA/SPoRT analyses). SNOTEL snowpack (SWE percentiles) is above normal in Washington, Oregon, the Sierra Nevada, and parts of the other western states, but it is below normal across much of Utah and other parts of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico. But this is early in the snow season and normal amounts are low. The Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) shows dry conditions in various places at different time scales. These include North Dakota to Wyoming, northeast Texas to the Tennessee Valley, and parts of the West (at the 1-month time scale); California to the central and southern Rockies, much of the Great Plains, northern Missouri to northern Indiana, and parts of the Northeast (2 to 4 months); California to the central and southern Rockies, much of the Great Plains, Iowa, northern Indiana to Ohio and Michigan, most of Northeast (6 to 12 months); parts of Pacific Northwest (9 to 12 months); and the Southwest to southern and central High Plains, and parts of Pacific Northwest, Texas, Iowa, Indiana, and the Northeast (24 months). When the desiccating effects of hot temperatures are included, the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI) shows more intense drought conditions over the SPI dry areas than indicated by the SPI…

High Plains

Central and eastern parts of Kansas, and strips in northeast and southeast Nebraska, received half an inch or more of precipitation, with over 2 inches falling in northeast Kansas. Parts of Colorado also received above-normal precipitation. But the rest of the High Plains region was dry. Moderate to severe drought shrank in southeast Nebraska and northeast Kansas, but moderate to severe drought expanded in parts of the states from North Dakota to Kansas. Extreme drought expanded slightly in southwest Kansas and was introduced in central North Dakota. Exceptional drought shrank slightly in central Colorado. According to USDA reports, half to two-thirds of the topsoil moisture was short to very short in all of the High Plains states except Colorado, where 83% of the topsoil moisture was short to very short. USDA statistics show that 38% of the winter wheat was in poor to very poor condition in Colorado. In Nebraska and Kansas, the winter wheat statistics were 26% and 22%, respectively, poor to very poor. Nationwide, the U.S. winter wheat condition index was the lowest since 2012…

West

Even though over 2 inches of precipitation fell locally in the coastal Pacific Northwest, it was still below normal. Only small parts of Montana, Arizona, and New Mexico were wetter than normal this week. The rest of the West had little to no precipitation, or what precipitation that fell was below normal. Abnormal dryness contracted in parts of Washington and northern Idaho where the indicators reflected improving conditions in recent weeks, and drought improved in a few parts of Oregon and worsened in other parts. Severe to exceptional drought expanded in Utah, with exceptional drought expanding in parts of Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado. Extreme and exceptional drought expanded in parts of New Mexico. Parts of northeast Nevada received precipitation this USDM week, but it was still below normal. The failure of the summer monsoon resulted in record dryness to the Southwest states, and record heat over warm season increased evapotranspiration, resulting in record SPEI values over the last 3 to 6 to 9 months. The SPEI values were not only record, they exceeded previous records by huge margins. The expansion of exceptional drought reflected this prolonged dryness. According to USDA reports, topsoil moisture was short to very short across 82% of New Mexico, 81% of Utah, 75% of California, 54% of Montana, 47% of Idaho, 42% of Oregon, and 35% of Nevada. In Oregon, 20% of the winter wheat crop is in poor to very poor condition. Jiggs Reservoir, in northeast Nevada, is nearly dry…

South

Western parts of Texas remained dry this week, while half an inch or more of rain fell across the rest of the region. Two inches or more fell across parts of southern Texas to Mississippi. Abnormal dryness to exceptional drought contracted in southern Texas, abnormal dryness shrank in Louisiana and Mississippi, and moderate drought was reduced in Arkansas. But moderate to extreme drought expanded in other parts of Texas which were drier than normal for the week, and exceptional drought grew in west Texas. Abnormal dryness and moderate drought expanded in northern Mississippi and western Tennessee where this week’s rainfall was below normal. According to USDA reports, topsoil moisture was short or very short across 61% of Texas, 43% of Oklahoma, and 20% of Mississippi; 34% of the winter wheat was in poor to very poor condition across Texas…

Looking Ahead

The jet stream will continue to be active during the next couple weeks, sending a parade of Pacific weather systems into the CONUS, while an upper-level ridge continues to hold sway over the West. For December 3-7, the coastal portions of the Pacific Northwest will receive precipitation, although not as much as this past week with generally less than an inch predicted by the models. The forecast has about an inch of precipitation falling along the Kansas-Oklahoma border, over parts of east Texas, from southern Louisiana to the Mid-Atlantic coast, and across New England. Two inches or more are progged from Delaware to southern New England. An envelope of an inch or less of precipitation should surround these wetter areas, from the western Great Lakes to the Atlantic Coast, and from the Ohio Valley to Gulf Coast. Most of the West, Texas, central to northern Great Plains, and Midwest have little to no precipitation expected. Temperatures are predicted to be warmer than normal from the central and northern Plains to East Coast, and below normal over the interior West. The outlook for December 8-12 is mostly dry. Odds favor below-normal precipitation across most of the CONUS, with only a strip from the Rockies to northern and central High Plains, as well as Alaska, having odds favoring wetter-than-normal conditions. Odds favor warmer-than-normal temperatures across most of the West, Plains, Midwest, and Northeast, with below-normal temperatures likely across parts of the Southeast and central Alaska.

Just for grins here’s a gallery of early December US Drought Monitor maps for the past few years.

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#Colorado mitigation “bank” to offset #wetland damage, meet Clean Water Act rules — @WaterEdCO

Here at the confluence of the Big Thompson and South Platte rivers near Greeley, a new conservation effort is underway. It restores wetlands and creates mitigation credits that developers can buy to meet their obligations under the federal Clean Water Act to offset any damage to rivers and wetlands they have caused. Credit: Westervelt Ecological Services

From Water Education Colorado (Sarah Kuta):

Developers often dropped by unannounced at the Allely farm to ask if the family would consider selling their 70-acre property south of Greeley at the confluence of the Big Thompson and South Platte rivers. The answer was always no — the Allelys did not want their land, which had been in the family since in the early 1960s, to be developed, now or in the future.

So when staff from Westervelt Ecological Services first approached the Allelys about creating a habitat preservation program on their farm roughly three years ago, the family was skeptical. But over the course of many months and long conversations, they began to warm to the idea and eventually agreed.

Instead of selling their property to the highest bidder or leaving it to the next generation, the family established a conservation easement — a permanent agreement to never develop the land — and, for a fee, allowed Westervelt to create the new Big Thompson confluence mitigation bank. The project broke ground in late October.

Now, a developer who disrupts wetlands or streams elsewhere along the Front Range and in parts of eastern Colorado can offset that impact by buying credits generated from floodplain and ecosystem restoration work completed on the Allelys’ land. Purchasing credits from this new mitigation bank allows developers to meet their obligations under the federal Clean Water Act.

“It’s a very important piece of property to us as a family,” said Zach Allely, the fifth-oldest of the six children who grew up on the farm. “If there’s an opportunity for us to say, ‘No, this is a place where native fauna, native flora can thrive forever,’ we’ll take that.”

Mitigation banks, explained

Mitigation banks are not new in Colorado — there are some 21 pending, approved, sold-out or suspended throughout the state, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ database — but this is the first new mitigation bank approved on the Front Range in 20 years.

Across the country, mitigation banks have become more popular since 2008, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressed a preference for mitigation banks (over other types of mitigation) and offered clearer guidance, standards and timelines for these projects.

Mitigation banks like this one are a byproduct of the federal Clean Water Act, first enacted in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and then expanded and reorganized in 1972. More specifically, they relate to Section 404 of the act, which aims to protect the country’s wetlands from the discharge of dredged or fill materials during the construction of dams, levees, highways, airports and other development projects.

Under Section 404, developers must take steps to avoid and minimize damage to wetlands and streams by adjusting the scope, location, design and type of project they wish to undertake. After avoidance and minimization, they must turn to a third mitigation type: compensatory mitigation.

Under compensatory mitigation, developers can restore, establish, enhance or preserve wetlands at the project site or somewhere else nearby. But this type of work isn’t always practical or possible, which is where mitigation banks come into play. Instead of going to all that trouble, a developer can pay for someone else to do the heavy lifting at a different, nearby location.

A mitigation banker, in this case Westervelt, pays for the upfront costs of finding a suitable piece of land, gaining approval from the right regulatory agencies, and doing the actual mitigation work. Then, depending on the scope and size of the project, the banker can sell a certain number of credits to offset the impacts of future development within the bank’s general vicinity.

Restoring historical floodplain

Today, crews are hard at work on the Allely property, re-establishing the historical floodplain to help restore the ecosystem for plants and animals and improve flood resiliency for nearby communities.

This restoration work also creates 34.76 wetland credits and 460 stream credits — released in phases — that developers, public agencies, mining companies and others can buy to help mitigate the unavoidable damage their projects will cause to other Colorado wetlands and streams.

Lucy Harrington, the Rocky Mountain region director for Westervelt Ecological Services, declined to say how much the company is charging for credits from the new 72.4-acre bank, citing variable pricing and bulk discounts.

But the Colorado Department of Transportation, which regularly buys credits from mitigation banks across the state, recently paid $200,000 for a credit from the new bank to help offset the impact of its Central 70 highway improvement project, said Becky Pierce, CDOT’s wetlands program manager.

To find potential mitigation bank sites, Westervelt staffers perform geographic information system (GIS) analyses that take into account a property’s proximity to streams, hydrology, oil and gas infrastructure, and proximity to other conserved properties, among other factors, Harrington said.

The company, which opened its newest regional office in Centennial in 2016, also looks at community-identified areas for wetland restoration and conservation, as was the case with the new Big Thompson confluence bank. Westervelt staff worked with the Middle South Platte River Alliance to understand local priorities and identify possible sites for the new bank. The alliance helped introduce Westervelt to the Allely family.

“It’s really a confluence of technical work, relationship-building and a little bit of luck, to be perfectly honest,” Harrington said.

Westervelt and other mitigation bankers often buy property outright. But in this case, Westervelt paid the Allely family an undisclosed amount to use their land for the mitigation bank and, in return, the Allelys protected the property in perpetuity with a conservation easement, which comes with its own tax benefits and incentives. Westervelt and the Allelys also established a long-term endowment for the site’s management with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

After creating a detailed plan and getting approval from regulatory agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and others, Westervelt began work.

Credits going fast

The company has released its first round of credits, which includes 8.69 wetland acres and 115 functional feet of stream credits. So far, the company has sold more than half of the wetland credits, Harrington said.

“Any project, whether it’s a highway widening that may cross a river, home development that may affect ephemeral or perennial drainage, a Walmart parking lot that’s expanding, a pipeline going in, any of those development items that could impact wetlands and streams, instead of having to provide a wetland offset themselves can just come to us, write a check and just walk away,” Harrington said. “We take on all the liability of the site in perpetuity.”

Meanwhile, the Allely family knows that their property will never be developed and is instead being restored to its historical conditions. They can also still access the land under the conservation easement, which is held by the nonprofit land trust Colorado Open Lands.

Staff at Colorado Open Lands say they hope the success of the Big Thompson mitigation bank will inspire other landowners to conserve their land.

“It’s just another tool, another way for us to look at getting creative about protecting open space in Colorado,” said Carmen Farmer, conservation project manager with Colorado Open Lands. “Traditionally, we protect land throughout the state using state tax credits and federal tax deductions and incentives. Sometimes the traditional model doesn’t necessarily pencil out for landowners. This is another way for us to go about incentivizing landowners to help protect their properties and make sure they’re compensated for doing so.”

Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at sarahkuta@gmail.com.

Setting the @EPA Back on Track — The Natural Resources Defense Council

Coyote Gulch’s Leaf charging in the Town of Kremmling Town Park August 21, 2017.

Here’s the release from the Natural Resources Defense Council (Gina McCarthy):

After 50 years, what does the future of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hold?

By a margin of more than 6.2 million votes, Americans elected Joe Biden president, largely on his promise to help unite the country and restore the public’s faith in our democracy.

It’s a tall order, but he can make a good start on both by setting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) back on track. Few arms of the government touch all of us more directly or have suffered more harm under Donald Trump.

It was 50 years ago, on December 2, 1970, when Richard Nixon, a Republican president, established the EPA to protect the public from runaway pollution that damaged our health and put our communities at risk.

Since then, the agency has become the worldwide gold standard for environmental protection, dramatically reducing the air pollution, water contamination, and toxic chemicals that make us sick, even as our economy has nearly quadrupled.

The public benefits have been huge. Reductions in air pollution alone saved Americans up to $3.8 trillion just this year, preventing up to 370,000 premature deaths and more than 30 million lost days of work or school. Those benefits accrue to all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike.

The Trump administration, though, has turned the EPA mission on its ear—protecting polluters, not people.

The administration has tied the agency’s hands, crippled or eliminated commonsense safeguards, curbed enforcement of environmental laws, and turned its back on climate change, the central environmental crisis of our time.

Biden has made it clear that polluters have had their day—every day that Team Trump has been in office. Their time’s up. Biden’s EPA will get back to protecting people and restoring the agency to the mission it was founded on 50 years ago.

That begins with naming what I like to call an “Anthony Fauci of the environment” to head the EPA; someone who, whether they’re a scientist or not, has unassailable credibility among scientists, advocates, and the public.

Much as the Trump administration has put our health at heightened and needless risk by ignoring the science behind the coronavirus pandemic and dismissing experts like Dr. Fauci, it has also recklessly disregarded the truth about environmental hazard and harm.

The next EPA administrator must make it clear from the start that sound science, public health, and the rule of law will guide agency actions and decisions. We need an environmental champion who makes equity a core agency value, listens and learns from public comments and concerns, and puts protecting our people’s health, communities, and future first.

That means taking action on climate change now since the last administration squandered four years we couldn’t afford to lose.

The Biden administration is going to hit the ground running. Biden has named former secretary of state John Kerry to oversee international climate policy; former deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken as Secretary of State; and senior foreign service officer Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

This marks a clear return to U.S. climate leadership, at home and abroad. It puts effective climate action at the top of the agenda. And it sends the message to our friends and allies around the world that they can once again take us at our word and depend on our partnership in the vital effort to confront a global crisis that demands global solutions.

That’s 180 degrees from where we’ve spent the past four years.

The Trump administration rolled back vital standards and rules the EPA had put in place to clean up the cars, trucks, and dirty power plants that generate nearly two-thirds of the U.S. carbon pollution that’s driving climate change. We need a new generation of even more ambitious standards now to cut our carbon footprint in half by 2030, as the science tells us we must.

That’s how EPA actions can support the $2 trillion Biden has pledged to invest in energy efficiency, electric vehicles, wind and solar power, modern electricity distribution and storage, and other clean energy infrastructure. Congress should work with Biden from day one to make a substantial down payment on this investment as part of a broader economic recovery package.

When the pandemic hit, there were 3.4 million Americans working in the clean energy sector, making 25 percent more, on average, than the national median wage. Clean energy investment can help to ensure the strong, durable recovery we need, creating millions more good jobs in every community in the country.

Biden has pledged to structure public investment in clean energy in a way that protects low-income communities, people of color, tribal nations, and other vulnerable groups from climate impacts that fall disproportionately on those least able to cope with them. Under his plan, these groups will also receive the benefits of clean energy—better health, improved quality of life, and good jobs—by receiving at least 40 percent of clean energy investment.

Hand in glove with clean energy is the need to conserve more of our public lands and oceans, and to reinstate clean water protections the Trump administration dismantled. By strengthening wetlands, forests, and croplands, we can enhance their natural capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and lock it away in healthy soils.

Fifty years after the EPA was born, we are positioned to restore the agency to being the gold standard for public health and environmental protection, as it was created to be. We have elected a new president with the strongest plan we’ve ever seen to fight the climate crisis in a way that helps to build a healthier, more prosperous, more equitable future for everyone.

This plan shouldn’t divide us into red state or blue. It should unite us, as American people, confident in the road ahead and sure of our ability to travel it together.

Milestone #ColoradoRiver management plan mostly worked amid epic drought, review finds — @WaterEdFdn #COriver #aridification

From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):

Western Water Spotlight: draft assessment of 2007 interim guidelines expected to provide a guide as talks begin on new river operating rules for the iconic southwestern river

At full pool, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States by volume, but two decades of drought have dramatically dropped the water level behind Hoover Dam as can be seen in this photo. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

Twenty years ago, the Colorado River Basin’s hydrology began tumbling into a historically bad stretch. The weather turned persistently dry. Water levels in the system’s anchor reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead plummeted. A river system relied upon by nearly 40 million people, farms and ecosystems across the West was in trouble. And there was no guide on how to respond.

So key players across the Basin’s seven states, including California, came together in 2005 to attack the problem. The result was a set of Interim Guidelines adopted in 2007 that, according to a just-released assessment from the Bureau of Reclamation, mostly worked. Stressing flexibility instead of rigidity, the guidelines stabilized water deliveries in a drought-stressed system and prevented a dreaded shortage declaration by the federal government that would have forced water supply cuts.

Carly Jerla, one of the review’s authors. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

Those guidelines, formally called “Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” are set to expire in 2026 As stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin — including water agencies, states, Native American tribes and nongovernmental organizations — prepare to renegotiate a new set of river operating guidelines, Reclamation’s assessment is expected to provide a guide for future negotiations.

“We find that the guidelines were largely effective,” said Carly Jerla, modeling and research group manager with the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado River region and one of the report’s authors. However, the Interim Guidelines could not solve all of the challenges brought by what has become a two-decade-long drought in the Basin. Said Jerla: “We saw risk getting too high and needed additional assets.”

Preserving Lake Mead

With the guidelines as a foundation, those assets arrived in 2019 through drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basin – voluntary reduction commitments that built a firewall against the likelihood of Lake Mead dropping to critically low levels.

Chris Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, said the guidelines achieved their objective, considering that the drought has essentially persisted since 2000. Even with the severity and longevity of the drought, the guidelines kept the two reservoirs at about 50 percent of capacity since 2007.

“To my mind that’s a pretty good marker that we were generally successful,” Harris said.

Matt Rice, who directs American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program, argues that future river operating guidelines should factor in environmental considerations. (Source: American Rivers)

Reclamation’s review of the Interim Guidelines was released for public comment in October. It is expected to be finalized in December. After that, discussions are expected to begin to hammer out a new set of operating rules that would be ready to take effect when the existing guidelines expire in 2026.

Reclamation’s review, which was required under the guidelines, focused solely on how effectively the Interim Guidelines managed water shortages and storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. It did not include existing environmental management programs such as the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program that are independent of the guidelines. The 2026 guidelines should take a broader view, said Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Program.

“Not just looking at the two big buckets [reservoirs], but how do we ensure the river is healthy and has water for its environmental needs,” he said.

“How do we ensure that communities are considered, certainly the tribes, and how do we evaluate additional future demands, projects like the Lake Powell pipeline (a proposed project to deliver Lake Powell water to Southern Utah).”

Ensuring Tribal Participation

Tribal water rights are a key consideration to future Colorado River water use. Ten federally recognized tribes in the Upper and Lower Basins have reserved water rights, including unresolved claims, to divert about 2.8 million acre-feet of water per year from the river and its tributaries, according to Reclamation’s 2018 Tribal Water Study. These tribes anticipate diverting their full water rights by 2040.

Reclamation’s review emphasizes the need for listening to all voices, most notably tribes. Tribal representatives were largely overlooked in the development of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and tribes want to make sure their voices are heard when the next set of operating rules are drawn up.

“We hope that the review will remind Reclamation of the importance that Indian tribes have played in the stewardship of the Colorado River and underscore the importance of meaningful and sustained participation of the Lower Basin tribes in any future guidelines development regarding management of the Colorado River,” Jon Huey, chair of the Yavapai-Apache Nation in Arizona, wrote in a letter to Reclamation.

Jerla said Reclamation recognizes how important it will be to include the tribes in future discussions.

“We definitely heard that loud and clear,” she said. “I think the critical role that tribes have played in the activities since the Guidelines … their desire to be more involved and more included, they will absolutely be a key part of efforts going forward, no question.”

Balancing Water Uses

There is inherent tension in balancing Colorado River water uses between the two basins. Part of the problem is users in the Lower Basin can use Lake Mead as a bank account, having water released downstream to them as they need it. Lake Powell, on the other hand, sits at the bottom of the Upper Basin’s drainage and water that flows into Powell is largely beyond reach of Upper Basin users.

Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, shows the effects of persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

“The guidelines have been partially successful in that they have achieved their principal objective of preventing Lower Basin shortage, as well as establishing a Lower Basin conservation mechanism and avoiding litigation in the Basin,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “However, from the standpoint of the coordinated operations of Lakes Powell and Mead, a secondary objective of the Guidelines, they have come up short.”

Haas pointed out that between 2015 and 2019, Lake Powell was required to release 9 million acre-feet of water annually under the Guidelines, even with poor inflows into Powell and below-average hydrology in the Upper Basin watershed. That’s more than has historically been required.

“Meanwhile, Lake Mead elevations have not substantially increased under the Guidelines due in large part to overuse in the Lower Basin, also known as the structural deficit,” she said. “These issues must be addressed in the post-2026 operational criteria.”

Protecting the Colorado River

Drought wreaked havoc on the Colorado River Basin between 2000 and 2004, with record dryness that depleted the combined storage of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Conditions worsened quickly. At the beginning of the 2000 water year, the review said, the combined storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead was 55.7 million acre-feet. After the worst five-year period of inflow on record ended in 2005, that storage fell to 29.7 million acre-feet – a striking loss of nearly half of the water in the two anchor reservoirs.

Something new had to be done. The business-as-usual approach of determining drought conditions for the Basin on a yearly basis was not going to provide long-term stability or prevent conflict under such historic dryness.

“Failing to develop additional operational guidelines would make sustainable Colorado River management extremely difficult,” Reclamation’s review said.

The Interim Guidelines in 2007 opened the door for Lower Basin water users and Mexico to get creative about how water is managed and used. One example that grew out of the guidelines is Intentionally Created Surplus, allowing downstream parties to bank water in Lake Mead that they could draw upon later.

“One result of this new flexibility was that critical Lake Mead elevations could be protected through the conservation of this water in the lake,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “The Basin states, meanwhile, continued to seek ways to protect reservoir levels and the health of the Colorado River system.”

The Colorado River Compact divided the basin into an upper and lower half, with each having the right to develop and use 7.5 million acre-feet of river water annually. (Source: U.S. Geological Survey via The Water Education Foundation)

Saving Intentionally Created Surplus water in Lake Mead turned out to be a critical drought response tool, said Reclamation’s Jerla, ensuring that the lake’s water level did not drop to where water users would be required to take cuts.

Reclamation’s review of the Interim Guidelines notes that there are other areas of interest beyond its scope that should be considered in future discussions, such as impacts of river operations to environmental, recreational and hydropower resources, and more meaningful engagement of Basin partners, stakeholders, tribes and states.

The review notes that since the Interim Guidelines were adopted, Reclamation has expanded its long-term modeling assumptions and worked to identify appropriate methods for analyzing uncertainty.

“Even though the true probability of any combination of conditions … cannot be assessed, a wider range of hydrology and demand assumptions and attention to those ranges … are useful for supporting a common understanding of system vulnerability,” the review says.

The Next Set of Guidelines

The 2007 Interim Guidelines have set the table for the next version of a Colorado River operations agreement. In retrospect, things have generally occurred as expected, Jerla said.

“In terms of where the reservoirs landed, what types of releases Powell made and how successful the Intentionally Created Surplus mechanism became, that is all within the range of what we were projecting,” Jerla said. “It’s informative to know that now and use that thinking about how risk influenced our decisions and how that translates into the next set of action levels.”

Sustaining Lake Mead for the benefit of downstream water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin has been a key objective of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. (Source: Lighthawk via The Water Desk)

The Interim Guidelines instilled a degree of greater cooperation and innovation on the river and that has fostered partnerships, initiatives and actions that demonstrate what can be done in a Basin that is steadily getting drier.

“Those things have to continue,” Jerla said, adding that Reclamation’s review is one of many sources officials will consult as they draft the next set of guidelines.

Rice, with American Rivers, said he’s optimistic about the prospects of a broad group of stakeholders building the next set of Interim Guidelines.

“I am not suggesting that it’s going to be easy or straightforward by any means,” he said. “We certainly hope there will be greater participation from more stakeholders. The tribes are at the top of the list, but also nongovernmental organizations, which traditionally have not been part of these interbasin negotiations.”

The talks are likely to be frank and will explore thorny issues related to equitable water management.

Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, says the Lower Basin’s structural deficit must be addressed. (Source: UCRC)

Arriving at a satisfactory operational plan beyond 2026 means the Lower Basin’s structural deficit has to be addressed and balancing releases between Lake Powell and Lake Mead should be revisited to reflect actual hydrology, said Haas, with the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Also, the new guidelines should contain a mechanism whereby operations can be adapted and adjusted to meet changing conditions, something the current guidelines are not equipped to do.”

How the next set of river operating guidelines will take shape remains to be seen, but Reclamation’s review suggests the 2007 Interim Guidelines proved their worth in showing how water users can work together and think creatively, lessons that will be invaluable for the future.

The 2007 Interim Guidelines, the review said, “created the operational stability that became the platform for the collaborative decision-making that protected the Colorado River system from crisis.”