#ColoradoRiver conference hears calls for tribal inclusion as crisis deepens — Boise Public Radio #crwua2021 #COriver #aridification

An elaborate fountain in Las Vegas. One of the biggest water meetings of the year takes place every December in Las Vegas, which has driven down water use down by paying people to remove thirsty turf and grass. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Boise Public Radio (Alex Hager, Nate Hegyi, Lexi Peery):

A big conference about the shrinking Colorado River – the main source of water for millions of people in the Southwest – began this week in Las Vegas. Discussions among dozens of scientists and government officials focused on the West’s historic drought.

The Colorado River Basin is in dire straits. Opening remarks at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting focused on the severe and prolonged drought that’s brought two of the nation’s largest reservoirs to their lowest levels on record.

The first day of the three-day conference also heard calls for more collaboration and less infighting among Western states and tribes who rely on the river. But Christopher Tabbee, a councilman for the Ute Indian Tribe, said that currently isn’t the case in his home state of Utah…

The Utes have treaty rights to a significant amount of Colorado River water. But Tabbee said Utah is ignoring those rights and using some of that water. A new report from the nonprofit environmental group Utah Rivers Council suggests the state is using about half of the tribes’ allocated water…

Shawcroft also noted that the state has created a new agency devoted to the crisis, the Colorado River Authority, and would invite tribes to join advisory councils, which have not been formed yet. Critics have pointed out that the agency doesn’t include any tribal members on its board.

From the 2018 Tribal Water Study, this graphic shows the location of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Map credit: USBR

Across the Colorado River Basin – home to 30 federally recognized Native American tribes – tribal leaders are pushing for a more significant seat at the table in water negotiations. In October, as the White House hosted a summit of tribal nations, a group of 20 tribes within the basin wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland asking for an “integral role” in the next round of river negotiations.

In the letter, tribal leaders said they were “cautiously optimistic” that they’ll be recognized as separate sovereigns on the same footing as states in the basin. Those 30 tribes hold rights to about a quarter of the river’s average annual flow, though many lack the infrastructure or funding to use their full allotments.

In Las Vegas on Tuesday, Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said her state is committed to involving tribes in future negotiations. Looming over this conference is the need to establish new guidelines for managing the river, as the current set of rules expires in 2026.

Ag interests fear water anti-speculation over-reach — The #LaJunta Tribune Democrat

The Government Highline Canal, near Grand Junction, delivers water from the Colorado River, and is managed by the Grand Valley Water Users Association. Prompted by concerns about outside investors speculating on Grand Valley water, the state convened a work group to study the issue.

From The Ag Journal (Candace Krebs) via The La Junta Tribune Democrat:

f there’s an antidote to the threat of water speculation in Colorado, state legislators have a ways to go to come up with a means to do it that will satisfy most agriculturalists, based on a panel held during the Colorado Ag Water Summit.

For now, any proposed legislation that involves the risk of intrusive government intervention or the potential to devalue a multigenerational private property asset puts many in the farming and ranching community on edge.

In a mutually respectful but sometimes tense discussion, a wide-ranging panel described the sale of water rights as existing along a spectrum ranging from an unfettered marketplace modeled on Wall Street to something more akin to a public trust.

Discussed at some length was a 160-page report compiled by a 19-member working group that led to a few early proposals that made most panelists and audience members uneasy.

Joe Bernal, a Mesa County farmer and one of only two landowners on the working group, felt the dialogue had been constructive and informative but ended without a clear path forward and with more research and input needed.

As a farmer, he felt outnumbered, he said. And he was disappointed the group failed to reach a clear consensus on what water speculation actually is…

The final paragraph of the report urged legislators not to act on any of the concepts discussed due to the drawbacks identified and a lack of consensus among the group…

An early draft bill would grant the state water engineer the ability to investigate complaints of investment water speculation and fine purchasers up to $10,000 if they determine speculation is occurring, along with capping the percentage of ag water rights a single owner can hold in a district, requiring sworn affidavits of a purchaser’s intent and potentially other fines and restrictions…

One area where most everyone agreed was on the concept of tying water rights to beneficial use as one of the state’s proudest achievements.

Beneficial use implies water is a shared asset of the state that can’t be purchased merely to hold or to hoard; it has to be deployed in a way that maximizes its value for all.

From there, however, opinions quickly splintered in different directions.

#Snowpack news (December 17, 2021): Boost from recent storminess but…

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of Colorado snowpack data from the NRCS.

From The Denver Post (Andy Stein):

After a long stretch of dry and uneventful weather, things sure have changed quickly. Snowpack across Colorado has increased significantly since the recent series of storms have blasted through.

Before Dec. 7, the statewide snowpack was sitting at about 54% of normal. The number has now risen to more than 70% of normal with several basins above that…

Here is how much change each watershed has seen from Dec. 7 to 14:

Yampa/White/Little Snake: 20 percentage points higher
Laramie and North Platte: 14 percentage points higher
South Platte: 7 percentage points higher
Colorado Headwaters: 19 percentage points higher
Gunnison: 36 percentage points higher
Arkansas: 22 percentage points higher
Upper Rio Grande: 30 percentage points higher
San Juan/Delores/Animas: 50 percentage points higher

Overall, this meant that we gained about 20 percentage points of the snowpack that we should have by this time of the year. The most notable increases that you’ll find are near Telluride, Silverton and Durango, where past storms have really dropped some moisture. The Gunnison and Upper Rio Grande watersheds have also seen a great increase in snowpack numbers.

With the statewide average still sitting well below normal, we still need some active weather and wet storms to move through to bring us back to normal but at least we are at a better point than where we were earlier this month.

While there are some stations reporting close to average conditions, there are plenty of stations that are still running very low. When looking at data from all of the substations within each watershed, you’ll notice where local deficits are most notable.

Colorado Substation Snowpack, Dec. 15, 2021 – USDA

Areas near Cuchara and Westcliffe are struggling in terms of snowpack, as well as areas near Pikes Peak and Bailey. Inversely, the Lower Gunnison and Uncompahgre are running at or above average.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map December 17, 2021 via the NRCS.

States volunteer to take more cuts in #ColoradoRiver water — The Associated Press #COriver #aridification #crwua2021

From The Associated Press (Brittany Petersen and Felicia Fonseca):

Water leaders in Arizona, Nevada and California signed an agreement Wednesday to voluntarily reduce their take from the Colorado River to help stave off mandatory cuts in the upcoming years.

The signing took place at the Colorado River Water Users Association annual meeting in Las Vegas, amid urgency to negotiate new rules for managing the dwindling river — which serves 40 million people — beyond 2026, when current guidelines and an overlapping drought plan expire.

The newest agreement, known as the “500+ Plan,” requires the states to cut 500,000 acre-feet in 2022 and 2023, or enough to serve 1 million to 1.5 million households annually, depending on water usage and conservation in the area.

It also requires financial investment from the states — $40 million from Arizona, and $20 million each from Nevada, California and the Central Arizona Project, which operates a canal system that delivers Colorado River water in Arizona. The federal government would match the funding, for a total of $200 million.

The money would fund water efficiency projects and programs to reduce usage throughout Arizona, Nevada and California, which are in the river’s lower basin.

The Interior Department joined the states and other water users in making the announcement.

The stop-gap measure upstaged what water managers had hoped to be the focus of the Las Vegas gathering — the start of negotiations for the next plan. That will have to wait, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told attendees over video conference.

Exactly how much water each state will contribute under the 500+ Plan is still being negotiated. The three states’ share of Colorado River water is delivered through the country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead. The lake fell below 1,075 feet (327 meters) above sea level this year, triggering mandatory cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico in 2022.

The states had volunteered to cut back on water before that threshold hit under a 2019 drought contingency plan.

Arizona relied heavily on compensated water contributions from the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community to fulfill its obligations under the drought plan. It’s expected to do the same for the 500+ Plan…

Looking down on the power plants from the top of Hoover Dam.

For California, which receives more than half the hydropower [from Hoover Dam], the new deal is particularly urgent, said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

New seasonal outlooks (Through March 31, 2022) are hot off the presses from the #Climate Prediction Center: La Niña-ish look with continuing #drought in the #ColoradoRiver Basin #COriver #LaNiña #ENSO #aridification

Scarcity the theme of #ColoradoRiver conference — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification #crwua2021

Lake Powell near Page, AZ on December 13, 2021. Inflow into the Colorado River’s second largest reservoir was the second-lowest ever last year and current projections from the Bureau of Reclamation suggest this year could be similar. Water scarcity was a main topic of discussion at a gathering of water managers and experts in Las Vegas this week. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Sobering. Troubling. The new abnormal. Crazy bad. These were the words used to describe conditions on the Colorado River at the largest annual gathering of water managers and experts in Las Vegas this week.

“I just want to manage everyone’s expectations,” said Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission and former Colorado River Programs Manager for the Central Arizona Project. “It is super grim.”

Water scarcity — and a sense of urgency to address it — has underscored this year’s Colorado River Water Users Association conference. In 2000, the storage system was nearly full, but over the past two decades, the river’s two largest buckets, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have fallen to just one-third of their capacity. In July, the Bureau of Reclamation began releases from three upper-basin reservoirs, including Blue Mesa in Gunnison County, to prop up levels at Lake Powell and preserve the ability to generate hydropower. In August, the federal government declared the first-ever tier-one shortage in the lower basin, which triggered mandatory cuts for Arizona farmers.

But scarcity, Cullom said, also drives innovation and collaboration. On Wednesday, lower-basin water managers signed a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, to spend up to $200 million to keep levels in Lake Mead from dropping to dangerously low levels. The agreement, known as the 500+ Plan, aims to add 500,000 acre-feet of water to the reservoir in both 2022 and 2023, which would raise the reservoir by about 16 feet.

The program will be funded by $40 million from the Arizona Department of Water Resources; $20 million each from the Central Arizona Project, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Southern Nevada Water Authority; and $100 million in matching funds from the federal government.

The lower basin is taking action as a requirement of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, which set a threshold of 1,030-feet elevation in Lake Mead. It’s currently at 1,065 feet.

“We have all seen just how quickly the conditions have continued to deteriorate,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of Metropolitan. “The lower-basin water users have recognized we don’t have a lot of time to wait. This unites Arizona, Nevada and California.”

The signing of the MOU came on the same day that the Bureau of Reclamation released its December 24-month study report, which predicts how much water will flow into Lake Powell, a critical data point for water planners. Last month, the bureau predicted the spring runoff would be about 82% of normal. But after a dry November in the upper basin, on Wednesday, the updated monthly estimate had fallen to just 64% of average. Water from Lake Powell feeds Lake Mead downstream. Modeling suggests Lake Powell could fall to below the minimum level needed to generate power by next fall.

Conditions are setting up to mirror a historically bad 2021, when a near-normal snowpack translated to only 31% of normal runoff. It was the second-worst inflow to Lake Powell ever. One of the culprits was a hot, dry previous summer and fall, underscoring the outsized impacts that continuing drought and rising temperatures from climate change are having on the flows of the Colorado River.

“The last 22 years has no 20th-century analogue,” said Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University. “If you call it anything, call it the new abnormal.”

Upper Basin Colorado River Commissioner Pat Tyrrell, who represents Wyoming, said the 500+ Plan was a quick action to respond to the quickly deteriorating conditions.

“It is not painless, that part is self-evident,” he said. “There is no effective approach to the imbalance that doesn’t impact some water user somewhere.”

It’s still unclear where exactly the 500,000 acre-feet of water would come from. One possibility is paying irrigators to voluntarily leave water in the river.

The director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Rebecca Mitchell, who also serves as Colorado River commissioner for the state, told state water managers at a breakfast Wednesday that she had not yet seen the details of the water-savings plan from the lower basin.

“We have not seen anything in writing,” she said. “But anything to address and protect the reservoirs I’m obviously going to support.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.

EPA details push to tighten rules for lead in drinking water — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette

Roman lead pipe — Photo via the Science Museum

From The Associated Press via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

The Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps to tighten rules for allowable levels of lead in drinking water, as the Biden administration looks to replace all of the nation’s lead service lines using new funds from the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

The agency on Thursday announced the first investment of $2.9 billion under the law to replace aging lead pipes, which can leach particles of the heavy metal into drinking water, potentially causing severe developmental and neurological issues.

The administration is looking to replace all lead drinking water pipes over the coming years. Vice President Kamala Harris was set to make the formal announcement Thursday during a speech to the AFL-CIO…

The new EPA requirements, which is expected to be finalized by 2024, would require the replacement of remaining lead drinking water pipes “as quickly as is feasible” and could include new testing requirements for drinking water systems.

Congress approved $15 billion for lead service line replacement in the infrastructure bill — about a third less than some estimates for replacing them nationally — but the new rule could close the gap.

The announcement comes is being made in conjunction with other administration efforts to limit lead exposure, including more childhood surveillance testing for lead exposure by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to remove lead paint in public housing. The Treasury Department is also announcing that surplus COVID-19 relief funds can be used for lead service line replacement projects.