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A week doesn’t go by without someone saying there are water wars underway or about to kick off in California. How we manage and govern water is critically important to people, the environment, and the economy. But, are we really at war? Really? Do we believe there are always victors and vanquished? What is the impact of telling ourselves and others this is warfare, when in reality it is simply the messiness of working together in community?
So, we’ve gathered a panel to answer the question: Water wars, what are they good for?
Tim Quinn, former Executive Director of ACWA
John Fleck, author of ‘Water is for Fighting Over: and other Myths About Water in the West’
Tracy Quinn, Director, California Urban Water Policy, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program at the NRDC
Moderator: Lisa Beutler, Executive Facilitator with Stantec
Mar 15, 2021 12:00 PM in Pacific Time (US and Canada)
Property owners affected by changes in the federal flood plain maps will have a 90-day period to appeal map changes once preliminary maps reach the comment stage, which is expected to occur soon.
Communities throughout Colorado are undergoing changes to maps as a result of new surveys. Those maps, when final, will control flood-insurance rates and local building codes.
Rigel Rucker, project manager with engineering firm AECOM, reviewed during a city of Loveland meeting Tuesday where property owners can find information and how to navigate the process.
The remapping process is part of the National Flood Insurance Program. Cities and counties participate in order to be eligible for federal disaster assistance should a flood occur and to permit property owners to buy flood insurance at federal rates…
On a granular level, property owners can input their addresses to see whether the map changes are affecting them. In most cases, they won’t see changes.
Changes have moved some properties in and others out of the flood zones. Rucker said 183 fewer properties are included in Larimer County but 12 more properties are listed in Loveland.
People who choose to appeal the mapping decisions were advised to work through city or county officials, who will forward those appeals to FEMA for consideration. Kevin Gingery, senior civil engineer with the city of the Loveland, is the person to contact with questions or appeals.
Rucker cautioned those who might appeal a decision that they must challenge errors based upon mathematical or measurement mistakes or changed physical conditions. Impacts of the 2013 flood were not the basis for the new maps, Rucker said, but rather assessments based upon aerial surveys coupled with on-ground review. A typical appeal might involve a building that was lifted out of the flood plain and is physically higher than the elevation shown on the maps.
Once FEMA rules on appeals, a letter of final determination will be issued — which is expected by the end of 2021 — followed by a six-month period in which communities will adopt the data.
“If climate change is the shark, then water is the teeth.” This catchy saying has gained traction over the past several years, which is problematic. The saying appears to have originated from James P. Bruce, a Canadian hydrogeologist and is repeated often in climate and water discussions.
Increasing greenhouse gas emissions and a resulting changing climate does impact water through increased scarcity (aridification), loss of stationarity, and extreme weather events. However, the intersection of climate change and water is complicated and not as simple as the shark and teeth analogy.
If we solve climate change via mitigation and adaptation, we will still not fix our water problems. Poor water policies and governance, overallocation, lack of access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and inadequate investment in water infrastructure are not resolved by fixing the so-called climate crisis. These wicked water problems have root causes that are independent of our failure to address climate change.
The Colorado River Basin is an example.
The American West, including the cities of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Arizona, and Denver (among others) are within the greater Colorado River Basin (CRB), which is now among the world’s most water-stressed regions.
In addition to its environmental value, the economic importance of the CRB cannot be overstated. The Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming, which is equivalent to about 1/12 of the total gross domestic product in the U.S1. It is estimated that if 10 percent of the river’s water were unavailable (a decline quite possible under projected climate change scenarios of 10 to 30 percent flow reductions by 2050) there would be a loss of $143 billion in economic activity and 1.6 million jobs, in just one year.
The CRB supplies more than 1 in 10 Americans with some, if not all, of their water for municipal water use, including drinking water2. The CRB provides irrigation to more than 5.5 million acres of land and is essential as a physical, economic, and cultural resource to at least 22 federally recognized tribes. In addition, dams across the Colorado River Basin support 4,200 megawatts of electrical generating capacity, providing power to millions of people and some of the largest cities in the U.S.
It has become clear that under current and projected conditions, the Colorado River is no longer able to meet the demands of its many users. The question is, why?
Western water law is part of the problem. Most western states in the US maintain that all water is owned by the state and allow water rights to be allocated in association with a given property and beneficial use. For the most part, western states follow the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation (the “first in time, first in right” principle), wherein those who first established a claim to, and beneficial use of, water had a right to use such water. Any entity or individual obtaining a permit thereafter is then only able to utilize their water right after senior water rights holders’ allocations are fulfilled.
In addition to each state’s management of water resources, a collection of statutes, court decisions and decrees, interstate agreements, and international treaties emerged from disputes over the allocation of the Colorado River’s water3. This collection of the primary basin-wide agreements governing the CRB is known as “Law of the River”.
How well has the “Law of the River” worked, and how is it adjusting to the impacts of climate change?
The “Law of the River” has not played out well. The CRB has faced increasing water demand from agriculture, urbanization, and industry making competition for water fierce, thus leaving many without access to safe drinking water. Demand was increasing compared to supply before the impacts of climate change were understood.
A recent article provides the history of overallocation and poor public policy along with the triggering of the CRB Drought Contingency Plan. During compact negotiations in the 1920s, records showed the river’s annual flows were lower than the total 17.5 million acre-feet allocated to the seven states and Mexico. In fact, three different studies during the 1920s estimated natural river flows at Lee Ferry at between 14.3 million acre-feet and 16.1 million acre-feet. Planners chose to ignore that information and evidence showing that the basin regularly experienced long periods of drought. In the lower basin, California, Nevada and Arizona have long overused their share of the river (approximately 7.5 million acre-feet annually, averaged over 10-year rolling cycles), whereas the upper basin states have yet to use more than around 4 million acre-feet (of the “remaining” 7.5 million acre-feet originally intended, but not necessarily guaranteed, for them).
The Northern Colorado Fireshed Collaborative is officially launching to make forests more resilient to protect communities and keep water supplies reliable.
The group is forced to address wildfire risk through strategic and coordinated cross-boundary forest and fire management on the state’s northern Front Range. The Northern Colorado Fireshed Collaborative’s (NCFC) vision is that landscapes throughout Northern Colorado can support wildfires without causing long-term damage to watersheds and the communities they serve.
“We live in a fire-dependent landscape, but years of suppressing fires have left us with unhealthy forests that can fuel large, high-intensity wildfires as we saw in 2020,” said Ch’aska Huayhuaca, NCFC’s Coordinator and a Research Associate at the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute. “Prescribed fire is an important forest restoration tool that leverages a natural process to help foster ecosystem health and decrease fire risk to communities,” Ch’aska said.
The NCFC’s mission involves increasing the pace and scale of fuel reduction treatments (mechanical/hand trimming and pile burning and prescribed fire and strategically managed wildland fires across jurisdictional boundaries). NCFC will increase the effectiveness of wildfire mitigation treatments and improve watershed protection outcomes through planning and implementation collaboratively across federal, state, county, and private lands.
NCFC plans to treat 20 percent of the strategic priority areas within the first five years that they have identified using a combination of mechanical, manual, and managed fire methods. The location and size of treatments will be sufficient to reduce the risk of large contiguous areas of severe fire.
“A Fireshed is an area where social and ecological concerns regarding wildfire overlap and are intertwined,” said Jen Kovecses, Executive Director of the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed and a member of the NCFC. “We need to think and act at the scale of a wildfire – at a ‘fireshed’-scale – if we are going to successfully bring fire back into our watershed management toolbox,” Jen said.
The NCFC consists of representatives from federal, state, and local natural resource agencies, non-profits, community groups, and researchers. Partners of NCFC include the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, The Nature Conservancy, City of Fort Collins, City of Greeley, Fort Collins and Big Thompson Conservation Districts, Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed, Big Thompson Watershed Coalition, Boulder Watershed Collective, Estes Valley Watershed Coalition, Lefthand Watershed Center, The Ember Alliance, Forest Stewards Guild, Larimer County, Colorado State Forest Service, Natural Resource Conservation Services, Peaks to People Water Fund and Rocky Mountain Research Station.
The council re-submitted a Tier 1 Grant application to fund half, or $71,818 of funding need to complete an update to the sewer and water master plan for the city. The total cost is estimated at $143,636. This will cover costs for a comprehensive evaluation of Lamar’s current water and wastewater treatment facilities, assessment of distribution and collection systems, capital improvements needed for future wastewater treatment and a rate study for both water and sewer systems.
A loan for $1,089,200 has been secured with the Drinking Water Revolving Fund, allowing the city to move forward on a new water main stretching from Cedar Street to Savage Avenue. The city will coordinate with the current CDOT 287 reconstruction project to minimize any interference with their project running from Savage Avenue south as well as the train track crossing on Main Street. Community Development Director, Morgan Becker, secured a grant for $4,500 which will help defer the cost of flowers for the Main Street planters for the summer. Preliminary construction is expected to start in mid-March.
As the Biden administration begins the daunting job of rebuilding U.S. climate policy, it has gotten help from an unexpected, and perhaps unlikely, source—the federal courts.
In Biden’s first few weeks in office, federal judges scrapped the Trump administration’s weak power plant pollution regulation, its rule limiting science in environmental decision-making and a decision opening vast areas of the West to new mining.
The rulings show that although President Donald Trump left his mark on the federal courts with his record-breaking pace of judicial appointments, his influence has not been great enough to prevent federal judges from playing a part in dismantling his deregulatory legacy. And the series of decisions also allows the Biden administration to move forward with some confidence about its own ambitious regulatory agenda, as White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy explained at a major energy industry conference last week.
“As time goes on, we realize how unsuccessful the prior administration was in actually rolling back good regulations,” McCarthy said in a virtual discussion session at CERAWeek by IHS Markit, an annual conclave of top oil, gas and utility executives. “In the courts, even with the new appointees under the Trump administration as judges, we still won over and over and over again, because there is a law in our country. And when you put on that black robe, you tend to want to do your job.”
Regan, Haaland and the rest of the Biden climate team may get less help from the federal courts as time goes on. Legal scholars expect that Trump-appointed judges will be skeptical of aggressive government action on climate without explicit authority from Congress, and Trump appointees now occupy one-third of the seats on the appellate bench, including three on the Supreme Court.
But for now, a confluence of factors have given the Biden administration some early legal wins—including the savvy of environmental group litigators, the desire of industry to strike a cooperative stance with the new administration and the legal missteps of the Trump administration…
The biggest break for the Biden team thus far came at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where a three-judge panel issued a decision to vacate the Trump administration’s rollback of President Barack Obama’s signature climate policy, its Clean Power Plan. The day before Inauguration Day, the judges excoriated the Trump administration for designing a toothless regulation on power plant greenhouse gas pollution based on what it said were “a tortured series of misreadings” of the Clean Air Act.
Trump’s EPA argued it had no authority to set standards that encourage steps like switching from coal to natural gas or renewable energy to cut carbon emissions. Instead, the Trump EPA said it could only mandate tweaks like efficiency improvements at individual coal plants (while not addressing natural gas plants at all.) But in reality, such improvements do little to slash carbon; the only commercial technology for achieving large cuts in power plant carbon emissions is to switch to cleaner fuels. As a result, the Trump “Affordable Clean Energy” rule would have curbed greenhouse gas emissions from power plants less than 1 percent.
The three-judge panel ruled that the Trump power plant rule “hinged on a fundamental misconstruction of … the Clean Air Act.” Judge Justin Walker, a Trump appointee on the panel, dissented on the legal reasoning but joined in the judgement with two Obama appointees, Judges Patricia Millett and Cornelia Pillard.
At his Feb. 3 confirmation hearing, Regan deflected a question on the legal issue in that case from a supporter of the Trump rollback—Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Instead, Regan indicated that under his leadership the EPA would not be returning to the Obama approach in the wake of the Trump rule being struck down by the court.