In Las Vegas, experts eye declining #ColoradoRiver flows, electricity woes and federal budget impacts — @WaterEdCO #crwua2021 #COriver #aridification

as Vegas Strip, Dec. 14, 2021. Credit: Allen Best

From Water Education Colorado (Allen Best):

Las Vegas: For every month that Lake Powell’s drought-strapped hydropower system fails to produce enough electricity to sell to Colorado utilities and others across the West, millions of dollars are being lost.

That federal power revenue supports vital salinity reduction programs for farmers and efforts to recover endangered fish. But with no prospect of relief in sight — inflows into Powell this year were just 26% of average — utilities and states will see their costs rise to make up the shortfall, experts said Tuesday at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas.

“We have to explore a lot of alternative funding strategies with the hydropower sector likely to diminish in time,” said Don Barnett, executive director of the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Forum, in a session called “No Spare Change.”

Much more rain and, especially, snow in Colorado and other Upper Colorado River Basin states will be needed during the next two years to ensure continued production of electricity in Glen Canyon and other dams in the Colorado River system.

Since the creation of the dams on the Colorado and other rivers across the American Southwest, hydropower has provided a relatively inexpensive source of electricity to municipal and cooperative utilities in Colorado and other states. Portions of the revenue from hydroelectric sales go to support the salinity and endangered fish programs.

Already this year, shrinking river flows in the Colorado and several other rivers in the Southwest have reduced power sales 37% in the Colorado River Storage Project, which includes Lake Powell, Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Blue Mesa Reservoir and Navajo Reservoir.

Now there is a heightened focus on the reservoir levels at Lake Powell, where Glen Canyon Dam generates 75% to 80% of the electricity distributed by the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA).

“In case nobody was paying attention, there is a drought in the Upper Colorado River Basin,” Tom Vigil, the Montrose, Colo.-based manager of the Colorado River Storage Project for WAPA, said. “Things have gotten a little bit worse lately and there’s a cumulative effect.”

Record-low inflow into Powell in the water year ending in September triggered a first-ever shortage declaration in August, meaning that Arizona, Nevada and California will have to cut their water use. WAPA in October projected a one-in-three chance that Glen Canyon Dam might be at minimum power pool in 2023, unable to produce power at all. That level is elevation 3,525 feet. Even now power production is falling because the low reservoir levels mean less pressure on the turbines. With less pressure, power production is reduced.

But WAPA must still deliver power to its customers. This is done by buying more expensive electricity on the open market. To cover those costs, WAPA raised its rates Dec. 1 to $3 per megawatt hour, a 14% increase.

WAPA will likely increase rates even more, but there’s a limit to how much it can charge. At some point, customers will go elsewhere to buy their power. And that, of course, means less revenue from WAPA and the federal programs that depend upon WAPA revenues.

In the short term, WAPA has been delaying some maintenance and capital projects. Delay can work for only so long, however. Vigil said deferred maintenance to the transmission system — one of the major assets of the agency — can result in rising risk of disrupted power supplies. Payments to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the operator of the dams and the generator of the electricity distributed by WAPA, have also been postponed.

Shrinking federal power sales revenue has Barnett and others involved in the salinity program anxious. The program has about $15 million in delayed work.

Barnett made the case for the cost-effectiveness of salinity control in the Upper Basin states. The diminished salt in the Colorado River saved Clark County, home to Las Vegas, $45 million in just last year.

In a snapshot of the current state of affairs, Barnett explained that the federal program has a cost-share obligation with states of $10 million. The federal fund from hydropower sales has delivered only $8.5 million. That means a delay of $1.5 million of salinity control programs for next year. “We are pretty anxious about that.”

Since the late 1980’s, this waterfall formed from interactions among reservoir levels and sedimentation that redirected the San Juan River over a 20-foot high sandstone ledge. Until recently, little was known about its effect on two endangered fishes. Between 2015-2017, more than 1,000 razorback sucker and dozens of Colorado pikeminnow were detected downstream of the waterfall. Credit: Bureau of Reclamation

The endangered fish recovery programs in the upper Colorado River, San Juan and lower Colorado River offer a parallel story. Tom Chart is the recently retired former director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

The program has had successes, including the efforts to recover populations of four species in the upper Colorado River above Moab, Utah. The most recent milestone was the No. 17 down-listing of the humpback chub from endangered to threatened.

Chart said he foresaw the need to shift funding for the continuation of the fish program, currently at 50% federal and 50% states, to a larger role for state funding, as much as 70%.

Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at and

These turbines at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam are at risk of becoming inoperable should levels at Powell fall below what’s known as minimum power pool due to declining flows in the Colorado River. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Camille Touton Sworn In as Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner

Camille Calimlim Touton being sworn in as Reclamation’s Commissioner by Secretary Deb Haaland.

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:

Maria Camille Calimlim Touton has been sworn in as Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner by Secretary Deb Haaland. Camille has served as the Bureau of Reclamation’s Deputy Commissioner since January.

“As the Interior Department continues to lead the Biden-Harris administration’s all-of-government approach to addressing the worsening drought crisis, Camille’s steady leadership, collaborative spirit, and deep knowledge of America’s natural resources will help ensure that we can meet the challenges of the moment,” said Secretary Haaland. “Camille’s water management experience will be crucial to helping the Department implement the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which contains historic investments to help mitigate drought conditions and protect water resources.”

“I am honored to serve as Commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation and help lead the Department’s efforts to address the worsening drought crisis. As a Nevadan, I understand what this crisis means for people and the environment, and I look forward to working collaboratively with farmers, Tribes, local communities, and with Congress to face these challenges,” Commissioner Touton said.

In her capacity overseeing the Bureau of Reclamation, Camille will help manage the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s $8.3 billion investments in drought and water resiliency, including funding for water efficiency and recycling programs, rural water projects, WaterSMART grants, and dam safety to ensure that irrigators, Tribes, and adjoining communities receive adequate assistance and support.

Prior to joining the Biden-Harris administration, Camille served as Professional Staff for the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Camille’s congressional experience also includes serving as Professional Staff for Interior’s authorization committees: the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee. Camille also served as Interior’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science under the Obama administration. Camille holds a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering, a Bachelor of Arts in communication studies, and a Master of Public Policy.

#Drought news (December 16, 2021): The Rockies and Westward Region saw its warmest November (+5.8 deg F anomaly) on record as well as its warmest March-November period on record

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

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

This Week’s Drought Summary

This U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) week was marked by a much more active storm pattern across the West Coast and Northern Rockies with areas of heavy rain along the coast and valley locations. Further inland, the higher elevations of the Cascade Range, Klamath Mountains, Sierra Nevada Range, northern Great Basin, and the Northern Rockies have all received significant snowfall accumulations this week. The storm event, fueled by an atmospheric river, provided a much-needed boost to snow water equivalent (SWE) levels in the Far West. On December 14, the NRCS SNOTEL network was reporting normal-to-above-normal SWE in Oregon’s Willamette (100% of median) and Southern Oregon Coastal (116%) basins as well as in the Lower Sacramento (113%), San Joaquin (106%), Tulare-Buena Vista Lakes (119%), Truckee (137%), Carson (120%), Walker (122%) and Mono-Owens Lakes (122%) basins of the Sierra Nevada Range. In the Lower Mississippi, Tennessee, and Ohio Valley, an outbreak of violent thunderstorms including dozens of tornadoes, erupted along a path spanning from northeastern Arkansas to northeastern Kentucky. The tornados moved very rapidly through the region on Friday night with devastating effect, especially in the southeastern Kentucky town of Mayfield. In Kentucky, latest reports announced at least 74 people lost their lives, and the death toll is expected to increase. In the Mid-Atlantic, unseasonably warm temperatures were observed over the weekend with daily high-temperature records broken in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and North Carolina where high temperatures ranged in the mid-60’s to mid-70’s. On the map, short-term precipitation shortfalls and anomalously warm temperatures led to the degradation of drought-related conditions in portions of the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, South, and in the Midwest, while some improvements were made in the High Plains and isolated areas out West. According to NOAA’s National Center’s for Environmental Information (NCEI), November 2021 was the 7th warmest on record for the contiguous U.S. as well as the 7th warmest January-November period on record. In terms of precipitation, November marked the 8th driest for the contiguous U.S., while year-to-date precipitation ranked in the middle third (61st wettest). At a regional level, the Rockies and Westward Region saw its warmest November (+5.8 deg F anomaly) on record as well as its warmest March-November period on record…

High Plains

On this week’s map, eastern Wyoming, eastern Montana, central North Dakota, southern South Dakota, and northwestern Nebraska saw improvements based on short-term precipitation (30 to 90-day period). This included beneficial snowfall in southern portions of South Dakota where observed totals ranged from 6 to 18 inches with the highest totals in southwestern South Dakota. In these areas, soils have yet to freeze throughout the soil column and melting snows are infiltrating and helping to improve soil moisture levels. According to NOAA NOHRSC, snow coverage in the Upper Midwest Region (includes portions of Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, eastern Montana, and northwestern Wyoming) is currently at 52.5% with an average depth of 1.5 inches and a maximum depth of 28.8 inches. Despite some improvements on the map, it is noteworthy that average temperatures across the High Plains region have been well above normal since September. This includes numerous high-temperature records that were recently broken across the region during the first week of December when high temperatures soared into the 70’s…

Colorado Drought Monitor one week change map ending December 14, 2021.


Out West, a weak-to-moderate atmospheric river made landfall in the Pacific Northwest on Saturday and moved southeastward bringing coastal and valley rains as well as heavy mountain snowfall accumulations across California and the Pacific Northwest. For the week, rainfall accumulations along the coastal areas from Washington to California ranged from 3 to 13+ inches with the highest accumulations observed in the coastal ranges of northwestern Oregon and along the Central Coast of California. In terms of snowfall during the multi-day storm event, total accumulations exceeded 6 feet in areas of the Central Sierra while areas in the southern Cascades received up to 3 feet. Further inland, areas of the Northern Rockies in Idaho and northwestern Wyoming, observed snowfall totals ranging from 12 to 20 inches. Despite the beneficial nature of this week’s storm event, significant precipitation deficits (ranging from 4 to 20+ inches) still exist across California and the state’s largest reservoirs are still at critically low levels, with Lake Shasta currently at 46% of the historical average (25% of capacity) and Lake Oroville at 62% of average (31% of capacity). In other areas of the West, basin-level SWE is well below normal, especially in New Mexico where median SWE ranged from 12% to 77% of normal as of Dec 14. On the map, some improvements were made in areas of Extreme Drought (D3) and Exceptional Drought (D4) in Montana, Oregon, and Utah as well as improvements in areas of Severe Drought (D2) and Moderate Drought (D1) in Idaho and Wyoming. According to NOAA NCEI, November 2021 was the 2nd warmest on record for the West and Southwest climate regions. Moreover, California and Wyoming both recorded their warmest average minimum temperatures on record for November while Nevada, Utah, and Colorado observed their 2nd warmest on record. In terms of precipitation, the Southwest Climate Region was notably dry having its 5th driest November on record…


In the South, conditions on the map continued to degrade across areas of Texas and Oklahoma where unseasonably warm and dry conditions prevailed this week. The dry conditions showed up on a variety of drought indicators including satellite-based soil moisture and evaporative demand tools. Additionally, numerous rivers and streams in the western half of the state showed flows dipping below the 20th percentile during the past 7-day period. Rainfall deficits (ranging from 3 to 6+ inches) during the past 60-day period were greatest in southeastern Oklahoma, eastern Texas, Louisiana, and southwestern Arkansas. For the week, average temperatures were above normal (2 to 10+ deg F) across Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi…

Looking Ahead

The NWS WPC 7-Day Quantitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) calls for moderate-to-heavy liquid (liquid = rain + SWE) precipitation accumulations ranging from 2 to 5 inches in an area extending from Northern California to Washington state. Similar accumulations are forecasted In the Sierra Nevada Range, Cascade Range, and Olympic Mountains. In the Intermountain West, 1-to-2-inch (liquid) accumulations are expected across the Central and Northern Rockies. Elsewhere, 1-to-5-inch (liquid) accumulations are expected in far southeastern portions of the Southern Plains as well as in the Lower Mississippi, Tennessee, and Ohio River valleys. Along the Eastern Seaboard, light accumulations of generally <1 inch are expected in New England while most of the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast will continue to be generally dry. The CPC 6-10-day Outlooks calls for a moderate-to-high probability of above-normal temperatures across the southern half of the conterminous United States excluding California and Nevada. Below-normal temperatures are expected across the remainder of the West including the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies. In terms of precipitation, the wetter-than-normal pattern is expected to persist across the western U.S., while there is a low-to-moderate probability of below-normal precipitation across the Central and Northern Plains as well as across most of the South. In the eastern third, near-normal precipitation is expected.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending December 14, 2021.