Report: Estimates of future Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin water use confound planning: “In other words, if the water physically is not there anymore, it doesn’t really matter what the compact says the upper basin is entitled to” — Heather Sackett, @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

#LakePowell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question. CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT via Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Paper’s authors say unrealistic projections make it harder to plan for a future under climate change

Some water experts fear that a long-held aspiration to develop more water in the Upper Colorado River Basin is creating another chance to let politics and not science lead the way on river management.

“Alternative Management Paradigms for the Future of the Colorado and Green Rivers,” a white paper released this month by the Center for Colorado River Studies, says that in order to sustainably manage the river in the face of climate change, we need alternative management paradigms and a different way of thinking compared with the status quo.

Estimates about how much water the upper basin will use in the future are a problem that needs rethinking, according to the paper.

The paper says unrealistic future water-use projections for the upper basin — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — confound planning because they predict the region will use more water than it actually will. The Upper Colorado River Commission’s estimates for future growth are unlikely to be realized and are perhaps implausible, unreasonable and unjustified, the paper says.

“The projection of demand is always higher than what is actually used,” said Jack Schmidt, one of the paper’s authors and the Lawson Chair in Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. “We said you can’t plan the future of the river based on these aspirational use projections when there’s a clear demonstration that we never end up using as much as we aspire to use.”

The Center for Colorado River Studies is affiliated with Utah State but draws on expertise from throughout the basin. The paper is the sixth in a series of white papers that is part of The Future of the Colorado River Project. The project is being funded by multiple donors, including the Walton Family Foundation, the USGS Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, the Utah Water Research Laboratory and two private donors, as well as by grants from the Catena Foundation, which is a major donor to Aspen Journalism’s water desk.

According to the paper, between 1988 and 2018 consumptive water use in the upper basin has remained flat at an average of 4.4 million acre-feet a year. This figure is based on the Bureau of Reclamation’s Consumptive Uses and Losses reports. The UCRC’s most recent numbers from 2016 show future water use in the upper basin — known as a “depletion demand schedule” — at 5.27 million acre-feet by 2020 and 5.94 million acre-feet by 2060.

“In percentage terms, these UCRC projections for 2020 are already 23% higher than actual use and would be more than 40% higher than present use in 2060,” the paper reads.

And future water use is unlikely to increase because of three main reasons: thirsty coal-fired power plants are on their way to being decommissioned; land that was formerly used for irrigated agriculture is transitioning to residential developments, which use less water; and there are regulatory and political barriers to more large transmountain diversions from the headwaters of the river to the Front Range.

The white paper’s authors say these unrealistic future projections of water use make it harder to plan for a water-short future under climate change.

“Unreasonable and unjustified estimations create the impression that compact delivery violations, very low Lake Powell and Lake Mead storage content and greater Lower Basin shortages are inevitable,” the paper reads. “Such distortions mislead the public about the magnitude of the impending water supply crisis and make identifying solutions to an already difficult problem even harder.”

The issue is twofold: With climate change, there is not enough water for the upper basin to develop new projects without the risk of a compact call; and if the past three decades are any indication, the upper basin is not on track to use more water in the future anyway.

So why might the UCRC be overestimating future water use? To understand that, one must take a closer look at the Colorado River Compact.

Urban development along Colorado’s Front Range is seen in an aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. A commission representing states comprising the upper basin of the Colorado River estimates as much as 40% higher water use compared to current levels by 2060, but a recent white paper calls those assumptions into question as says they hamper efforts to realistically deal with climate change.
CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT via Aspen Journalism

The law of the river

In 1922, the framers of the Colorado River Compact divided the waters of the river, giving the upper basin and the lower basin — California, Nevada and Arizona — 7.5 million acre-feet each. This amount, known as an apportionment or “entitlement,” was thought to be fair at the time because it gave the slow-growing upper basin time to develop their share of the water without the faster-growing lower basin claiming it first.

The mission of the UCRC is to protect the upper basin’s ability to use its share of the river. And this entitlement is symbolic of the upper basin’s dreams and aspirations: growing cities and towns and thriving agricultural communities.

The problem is that the century-old agreement didn’t account for dwindling flows caused by climate change. Studies have found — under what Brad Udall, one of the paper’s authors and a climate and water researcher at Colorado State University, calls “the new abnormal” — that runoff decreases as temperatures rise.

Compounding the issue is that under the compact, the upper basin is still required to deliver the same amount of water to the lower basin regardless of declining flows.

“The reason we entered into a compact was because we knew we couldn’t develop as quickly as the lower basin, so the whole idea is that we could develop later,” said Jennifer Gimbel, former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and interim director at the CSU Water Center. “But as we know, streamflow is not as strong and climate change is cutting into it even more and more, and that puts you into a conundrum.”

The result is that there are 15 million acre-feet of entitlements on paper, not including Mexico’s share, but just 12 million to 13 million acre-feet of water. And that number is likely to decline even further as temperatures rise. Soon, there may not be enough water for the upper basin to meet its compact obligations to the lower basin and to develop new water projects.

“You cannot have a situation where climate change is reducing the yield of the basin and everyone is sticking to what they think their entitlements are under the compact,” said Eric Kuhn, one of the study’s authors. “Something has to give.”

In other words, if the water physically is not there anymore, it doesn’t really matter what the compact says the upper basin is entitled to.

Kuhn is the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and also co-author of the 2019 book “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.” One of the book’s main points is that past Colorado River decision-makers let politics and competition for a limited supply of water — not science — be the main drivers of river management. Because of that, the river was over-allocated from the beginning. Kuhn worries that this trend may be continuing.

“The fear is that this is another opportunity to ignore the science,” he said. “Forget about these projections that show how much water we might have been able to develop 40 years ago and focus on the river that nature has given us with climate change and not the one we wish we had from decades ago.”

Members of the Colorado River Commission, in Santa Fe in 1922, after signing the Colorado River Compact. From left, W. S. Norviel (Arizona), Delph E. Carpenter (Colorado), Herbert Hoover (Secretary of Commerce and Chairman of Commission), R. E. Caldwell (Utah), Clarence C. Stetson (Executive Secretary of Commission), Stephen B. Davis, Jr. (New Mexico), Frank C. Emerson (Wyoming), W. F. McClure (California), and James G. Scrugham (Nevada)
CREDIT: COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY WATER RESOURCES ARCHIVE via Aspen Journalism

Interstate poker game

The upper basin, including Colorado, is currently exploring the concept of a demand-management program, which could reduce water use by paying irrigators to not irrigate. The goal of the program, which would be temporary and voluntary for participants, would be to send as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water to Lake Powell to prop up levels and avoid a compact call.

A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower-basin states as required by the compact. This could trigger an interstate legal quagmire, a scenario that water managers desperately want to avoid.

If it appears contradictory that the upper basin is looking at how to reduce water use while at the same time clinging to a plan for more future water use, that’s because it is.

Water attorney Peter Fleming said some are asking why the upper basin is planning to reduce existing depletions while also planning an additional million acre-feet of depletions. Fleming is general counsel for the River District. He also is on the legal committee for the UCRC, but is not speaking on behalf of that organization here. “It seems the upper basin as a whole needs to reconcile that seeming contradiction,” he said.

Some water experts compared the UCRC’s depletion schedule to an interstate chess or poker game, complete with bluffing. The upper basin must insist it will one day put to beneficial use all of its unused share — or else the lower basin, which already uses all of its own share, could somehow claim the unused portion.

“There’s still this fear that if we don’t use our water, the lower basin will establish an economic use and economic reliance on that water, and it will be very difficult to get it back in the future, even though we are entitled to it,” Kuhn said. “The downside to that right now is the water is just not there.”

Lake Powell is seen in a November 2019 aerial photo from the nonprofit EcoFlight. Keeping enough water in the reservoir to support downstream users in Arizona, Nevada and California is complicated by climate change, as well as projections that the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will use as much as 40% more water than current demand. A recent white paper from a lineup of river experts calls those use projections into question.
CREDIT: ECOFLIGHT via Aspen Journalism

UCRC Director Amy Haas said in an email that although the paper is thought-provoking, the authors base their analysis on an obsolete projection of future Upper Basin water use demands from 2007 instead of relying on the current 2016 projections, which show a decrease in future demand as well as a slower rate of projected future demand. She said the authors did not consult the commission on the paper before its release.

Study authors have said that current data from the Bureau of Reclamation wasn’t released in time for the 2016 numbers to be used in the paper, and that they used the most up-to-date information available to them. They also say the differences between the two sets of numbers are minor and don’t change their findings.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Colorado Water Plan Update — @WaterEdCO

What we are working to protect. Culebra-Gallegos maíz de concho grown at Acequia Institute farm in Viejo San Acacio. Photograph by Devon G. Peña

From Water Education Colorado (Willow Cozzens, Samantha Grant, Amelia Nill, and Andrew Primo):

Effective agricultural water planning is critical for a sustainable and resilient future in Colorado. Not only does the agricultural sector account for 86.7% of the state’s consumed water, but agriculture is also the crucial economic and cultural foundation for many communities. The 2015 Colorado Water Plan (CWP), a statewide roadmap for water management, is currently undergoing a multi-year update that includes new information, critical action items, and revised water planning schemes for all sectors. This update will be published in 2022. In order to foster lasting resilience, the CWP update must be more inclusive of all Coloradoans and provide comprehensive planning for historically underserved communities across the state.

True sustainability can not be divorced from empowering all communities. Studies show that systems with many sources of knowledge are generally more resilient. Just as farmers often plant several different crops to prepare for potential vulnerabilities, water planning must strive to be as diverse as possible to create a water resilient future.

Who has been excluded from agricultural water planning?

Colorado has an exciting opportunity to be more inclusive in water planning and subsequently create a truly sustainable CWP. But first, underserved groups must be identified throughout all sectors. This will necessitate nuanced outreach and calls to action. Three groups who have been historically excluded from Colorado water planning in agriculture are:

In southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, Judy Lopez with Colorado Open Lands and landowner Dave Marquez discuss upcoming restoration work on the Culebra River, which
traverses his property. Marquez irrigates from the Francisco Sanchez Acequia to grow alfalfa-grass hay. The acequia worked with Colorado Open Lands and the bylaws project to develop bylaws that preserve their oral traditions. Photo by Christi Bode
  • People who operate under acequia management systems. For communities in Colorado and northern New Mexico, an acequia is a physical system, an irrigation ditch, but it is also a deeply embedded philosophy of community and governance. These producers are primarily Hispanic or Latinx and reside in the San Luis Valley within the Rio Grande River Basin or in the Arkansas River Basin. The term “acequia” is mentioned only once in the entire 2015 CWP — in a footnote of a farmer profile.
  • Many Indian reservations are located in or near contentious river basins where demand for water outstrips supply. Map courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.
  • Tribal water users. Two federally recognized tribes have designated land reservations within the borders of Colorado: the Southern Ute Indian Tribe (SUIT) and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe (UMUT). While it must be acknowledged that 48 contemporary tribal nations are historically tied to the lands that make up Colorado, the Ute tribes are holders of federal reserved water rights in the state. Both the SUIT and UMUT tribal reservations are located within the Southwest Basin (e.g. San Juan/Dolores), though the UMUT reservation also includes land in New Mexico and Utah. While the tribes have become more frequent partners in broader interstate negotiations, inclusion at the intrastate level is still limited to the Southwest Basin Roundtable. Given the Ute tribes’ status as the state’s original water users and the unique nature of their federally reserved rights, more efforts should be made to explicitly include tribal representatives in deliberative processes.
  • Hanging Oyster mushroom columns growing on waste coffeegrounds via Gro Cycle
  • Urban agricultural producers. Urban agriculture in Colorado may include a variety of production methods and water uses, such as community gardens, hydroponic growing facilities, small-scale market farms, and more. It is important to note that there is not necessarily the same rich history or record of exclusion for urban agriculture as the above two groups. Rather, planning for water in urban agriculture could present an exciting opportunity to foster resilience in the food system and land use planning for the future of Colorado. Before defining demographics and practices within urban agriculture, a standard definition of urban agriculture in Colorado must be implemented.
  • Tribes are acknowledged in the Southwest Basin Implementation Plan, and acequias are acknowledged in the Rio Grande Basin Implementation Plan. Urban agriculture is not mentioned in the 2015 CWP or in any of the Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs). The BIPs could serve as an opportunity to elevate underserved voices, given their regional focus, and create a space for them at the state level. An equitable and just water planning process at all levels, from local to basin to state, is critical for Colorado’s present and future water needs.

    Paving the way toward more inclusivity in Colorado water planning

    The Department of Natural Resources has recently announced the formation of a water equity committee, which is set to include representatives from each river basin and each tribal nation. Within this engagement process, Colorado water planners must make the effort to explicitly solicit input and feedback from underserved individuals and groups in agriculture and all other water sectors. Outreach efforts must be nuanced for each community, each conversation, and each stage in inclusive planning. Overall, CWCB should focus on elevating voices of change makers within historically underserved communities and solicit consistent feedback for a more inclusive, equitable, and holistic Colorado Water Plan.

    This strategy should aim to advance diverse representation in natural resource planning and provide opportunities for more equitable funding. Explicit inclusion via community outreach may also encourage diversity in water planning schemes, which can in turn create a more sustainable future. The equity committee and the CWCB should reach out to representatives of underserved communities and facilitate dynamic and interactive working sessions where stakeholders can discuss water challenges and opportunities with the CWCB.

    In partnership with CWCB and the University of Colorado – Boulder, we conducted an initial working session with a goal of establishing a more inclusive dialogue for producers. This work session, which focused on water issues among urban agriculture producers, will be discussed in a later blog post.

    Ideally, such facilitated dialogues will lead to additional working sessions, inclusion in water planning procedures at the state level, participation in Basin Roundtables, submission of public comments, and general advocacy pointed toward agricultural water planning. This approach may foster a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive 2022 Colorado Water Plan, and a better water planning process into the future.

    “The figures offer a reality check on the many promises coming from world capitals and company boardrooms that leaders are taking climate change seriously” — Somini Sengupta, The New York Times

    Cars pass the Shanghai Waigaoqiao Power Generator Company coal power plant in Shanghai on March 22, 2016. – Environmental watchdog Greenpeace warned on March 22, 2019 the world’s coal plants are “deepening” the global water crisis as the water consumed by them can meet the basic needs of one billion people. China, the world’s largest emitter, has promised to reach zero net carbon emissions by 2060. (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE / AFP) via Voice of America

    From The New York Times (Somini Sengupta):

    New climate pledges submitted to the United Nations would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by less than 1 percent, the world body announced.

    The global scientific consensus is clear: Emissions of planet-warming gases must be cut by nearly half by 2030 if the world is to have a good shot at averting the worst climate catastrophes.

    The global political response has been underwhelming so far.

    New climate targets submitted by countries to the United Nations would reduce emissions by less than 1 percent, according to the latest tally, made public Friday by the world body.

    The head of the United Nations climate agency, Patricia Espinosa, said the figures compiled by her office showed that “current levels of climate ambition are very far from putting us on a pathway that will meet our Paris Agreement goals.”

    The figures offer a reality check on the many promises coming from world capitals and company boardrooms that leaders are taking climate change seriously…

    Some of the biggest emitter countries — including Australia, Brazil and Russia — submitted new plans for 2030 without increasing their ambitions. Mexico lowered its climate targets, which the Natural Resources Defense Council described as a signal that “Mexico is effectively retreating from its previous leadership on climate and clean energy.”

    In contrast, 36 countries — among them Britain, Chile, Kenya, Nepal and the 27 countries of the European Union — raised their climate targets.

    The Paris Agreement is designed in such a way that the United Nations can neither dictate nor enforce any country’s climate targets, or what are called nationally determined contributions. Each country is expected to set its own, make regular reports to the world on its progress and set new targets every five years. Diplomatic peer pressure is meant to persuade each country to be more ambitious.

    The end goal is to limit global temperature increase to within 1.5 degrees Celsius of 1990 levels. Any warming beyond that, scientists have said in exhaustive studies, would risk widening wildfires and droughts, growing food and water insecurity, and the inundation of coastal cities and small islands.

    #Colorado Water Plan Update Is Underway — @AudubonRockies

    > Great Blue Herons. Photo: Pamela Underhill Karaz/Audubon Photography Awards

    From Audubon Rockies (Abby Burk):

    Help define this moment for birds, rivers, and people.

    What memories can you recall from five years ago? Well, you may remember that Colorado’s inaugural Water Plan had just been finalized in November of 2015. The Audubon network, our partners, and Coloradans were key in defining the plan. Five years of plan implementation have flown by. As the plan moves forward in its first update, what have we learned to set the course for necessary immediate and long-term steps to ensure water security for people and the environment? We need your statewide engagement, again.

    The Water Plan in Short

    Colorado’s Water Plan 2015 is a framework pointing the way toward safeguarding Colorado’s water values as population, water variability, and drought increase. Colorado’s water values are supporting healthy watersheds and the environment, robust recreation and tourism economies, vibrant and sustainable cities, and viable and productive agriculture.

    The plan’s foundation stands on work by Colorado’s nine basin roundtables and their basin implementation plans, the Interbasin Compact Committee, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), partners, and stakeholders statewide. The collaboration that fueled the Colorado Water Plan sparked the state’s largest civic engagement and the CWCB received more than 30,000 public comments on priorities and direction for the plan. Audubon’s network provided nearly 20 percent of general comments received, and Audubon staff provided consented technical environmental resilience and stream ecology language. The top-two categories of all public comments received were support for healthy rivers and better use of water in cities and towns. The unprecedented public engagement truly produced Colorado’s Water Plan.

    Without a strong plan and funding for implementation, Colorado’s birds, rivers, and people will face a problematic future with unacceptable consequences.

    Why Update Now?

    Colorado is changing and the Colorado Water Plan must be responsive. Our population is over 5.7 million today and could nearly double by 2060. With climate change increasing temperatures and making water supply less predictable, rivers are already stretched thin. Within the next few decades, even assuming aggressive water conservation and the completion of dozens of water projects currently being considered, the state could face a shortfall that exceeds 500,000 acre-feet annually.

    The plan update will complete in 2022 and map Colorado water resource management for the next seven years. As a headwaters state, the value of Colorado’s rivers flows far beyond its boundaries. Healthy, flowing rivers support all water uses and users—both wildlife and people. Protecting rivers protects our economy, our birds, and our way of life, but their future is uncertain. Audubon was closely involved in the creation of the plan and currently is involved in its implementation. Now, five years later, we’re helping to update the plan.

    (Abby Burk and other experts explain how Colorado can best update the Colorado Water Plan.)

    How to Engage

    Audubon is committed to protecting the health of Colorado’s rivers, ecosystems, and sustainable water supplies—values that benefit everyone. We are working across water interests to show that water connects rather than separates us. Together, we can protect Colorado’s incredible rivers and the birds that depend upon them. Public input on the Colorado Water Plan update will be critical. Here’s how you can participate:

    Engage in Your Local Basin

    Each of Colorado’s nine basin roundtables has been updating their local water supply and management plans called basin implementation plans (BIPs). Updated BIPs will soon be ready for public review. Click on your basin here to find your basin roundtable website, then click through to the BIP update status. Updated BIPs are getting ready to roll out soon. Also, due to COVID-19 concerns, basin roundtables have been meeting virtually. If you have not already, you can attend a virtual basin roundtable meeting to get to know your basin’s scope of work and your basin’s hardworking volunteers leading local water management efforts.

    Engage on the State Plan

    Everyone needs healthy rivers. Our hope is that this plan update will represent not only the human needs, but also a healthy ecosystem on which we and our wildlife depend. Currently, the Colorado Water Conservation Board is collecting survey feedback on the direction for the Colorado Water Plan update. Staff and stakeholder input has informed the current thinking, which is summarized in five informational sheets: Water Plan Update Vision, Vibrant Communities, Robust Agriculture, Thriving Watersheds, and Resilient Planning. Please review the information sheets and fill out the survey here.

    Audubon Rockies will be asking for local involvement through comments on the basin implementation plans and the statewide plan, so be on the lookout for more timely ways you can engage!