As #ColoradoRiver reservoirs shrink, feds ask for work-arounds for 2022 — @WaterEdCO #CRWUA2021

Glen Canyon Dam, December 2021. Credit: Allen Best

From Water Education Colorado (Allen Best):

Barring epic snowstorms during the next four months, reservoirs on the drought-strapped Colorado River will enter new territory in 2022, likely unable to fill such basic missions as generating hydropower.

In response, the reservoirs’ owner, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is moving quickly to create work-arounds.

The Colorado River Basin serves seven states and Mexico. It is divided between the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Lower Basin consists of Arizona, California and Nevada.

“We simply must focus on short- and near-term operational challenges in both the Lower Basin and Upper Basins,” said Camille C. Touton, the recently sworn in commissioner of Reclamation.

Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin

But it is the Upper Basin’s Lake Powell that is causing the most concern right now. “We face unprecedented operational challenges at Glen Canyon Dam in a matter of mere months, even weeks,” she said. “Depending on the hydrology, Powell could decline to fall below minimum power pool for long durations.”

The U.S. Department of Interior has made clear its intention to protect lake levels, to ensure protection of the “structural integrity of the infrastructure,” said Tanya Trujillo, the undersecretary for water and science at the agency.

Tanya Trujillo panel with U.S. Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner & Commissioner Adriana Resendez discussing Mexico and U.S. management of the Colorado River at the 2021 Colorado River Water Users Association Annual Conference. Photo credit: IBWC

“We at Interior have a federal responsibility to protect the populations we serve,” she said in the final session of the Colorado River Water Users Association Conference in Las Vegas on Dec. 16. “That includes protecting the infrastructure. I have asked (the Bureau of) Reclamation to develop options for consideration in case we see these dry trends continuing.”

What those options might be isn’t clear yet.

Bart Miller, water program manager at Western Resource Advocates, said the water crisis is an opportunity to accelerate water conservations. “We have a real need to act in the next couple of years,” he said.

John Entsminger at the Colorado River Water Users Association Annual Conference December 15, 2021.

Comments in Las Vegas alluded to the sobering realities. “All hands on deck,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Colorado and other basin states have tightened water use since 2002. As documented at Powell, however, the belt-tightening lags what is needed. The pace must be hastened. Exactly how is the question facing Colorado and other states.

Projections show a high risk of continued drying. The two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell, in January 2000 were at 95% of capacity with a combined storage of 47 million acre-feet. By April 2022, they are projected to be less than 30% full with a combined storage of 15 million acre-feet.

Both reservoirs reached historically low levels last summer, holding the least amount of water since they began filling in the 1930s and 1960s respectively. The inflow into Powell last spring and summer was the second lowest on record.

Elevation 3,525 feet is the line in the sandstone established by water managers at Glen Canyon. That will provide a 35-foot buffer above the level below which hydropower cannot be produced. Modeling by the Bureau of Reclamation in December showed a 47% chance that Powell could drop below the target level for ensuring continued safe hydropower generation as soon as 2023.

“Everything associated with Lake Powell is critical to operation of the whole basin,” said Patrick Tyrrell, Wyoming’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

“We’re not quite sure how the lake will operate if that water elevation approaches the top of the penstocks,” he said. It’s also not clear how water can be released from the reservoir at that lower level, sometimes called dead pool, he added.

Water levels at Powell had declined to within inches of 3,525 this year before the Bureau of Reclamation released water from upstream reservoirs in Colorado and Utah beginning last July.

Looking ahead, officials said aggressive conservation will be key and Las Vegas’ efforts are among those being watched closely. Still rapidly growing, now with 2.3 million residents, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves the city and its suburbs, relies upon the Colorado River to provide 90% of its supplies in a valley that gets less than 4 inches of rainfall a year. Yet even as the population has grown 52% in this century, river consumption has declined 23%.

Las Vegas has achieved this feat by using both carrots and sticks. It may not be noticeable on the Strip because the Bellagio fountains still put on a show and the toilets still flush. In the new suburbs, though, you see almost no grass in front yards, and it’s limited in backyards.

Tightening in Vegas continues. Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager for resources at Southern Nevada, reported at the conference proposals to trim water use at existing golf courses and ban water for new courses. Swimming pools will shrink in size. And a new Nevada law prohibits Colorado River water use on non-functional turf by 2027.

Water deliveries to Arizona, California and Nevada have declined 22% from 2002 and 2020. More cuts are coming. During the conference in Las Vegas, representatives of the three states signed an agreement known as the 500+ Plan, that requires them to cut 500,000 acre-feet in 2022 and 2023. The plan also requires the three states to pool a collective $100 million, to be matched by a grant from the federal government, for implementation of water efficiency and conservation.

Lake Powell Pipeline map via the Washington County Water Conservancy District, October 25, 2020.

What about the upper-basin states? They have never used their full legal entitlement to river water, and Utah, in particular, wants to build a pipeline from Powell to the rapidly growing St. George-Hurricane area.

In Colorado, agreement about the need for tempering demand has been coalescing. Miller, of Western Resource Advocates, points out that operational adjustments, such as the Upper Basin reservoir releases this year, rely upon existing water, and cloud-seeding to generate more snow cannot solve the problem.

That leaves conservation as the area for more fruitful work to match the rapidly changing climate in the Colorado River Basin.

Past agreements in the Colorado River Basin show a long gestation time that can then emerge into policy given certain political climates. The current situation on the Colorado River provides that opportunity, say John Fleck, of the University of New Mexico’s Department of Economics and Water Resources Program, and Anne Castle, of the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

“State and federal water officials should seize this opening, cognizant of its likely limited duration, and cement new agreements that steer river operations in a more sustainable direction,” Fleck and Castle say in a recent article. “Well-timed and explicit federal direction may be necessary to catalyze the already ongoing discussions.”

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

#Snowpack news (January 8, 2022)

It’s still a “Sweet Baby James” snowpack map — deep greens and blues.

Colorado snowpack basin-filled map January 7, 2022 via the NRCS.

Here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filed map.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 7., 2022 via the NRCS.

Snowtography Handbook Snowtography: #Snowpack & Soil Moisture Monitoring Handbook — Western Water Assessment

Western Water Assessment/Nature Conservancy/USDA Snowtography guide cover January 2022.

Click here to access the handbook. If you’re not a water provide it will be a primer into the business of water supply:

Western Water Assessment, in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, has produced a snowtography handbook to support resource managers, researchers, and practitioners working in forested headwater settings where the arrangement and density of trees, or the size and severity of disturbances, affect snowpack persistence and soil moisture availability.

The snowtography handbook guides readers through the process of establishing their own snowtography and soil moisture monitoring stations. It offers guidance on site selection, snowtography options, equipment requirements, and installation. The instructions are based on snow-forest research and hands-on experience at multiple sites in Arizona, and in the San Juan National Forest in southwestern Colorado.

Download the handbook pdf here.

The Nature Conservancy hosts a companion webpage with additional information and examples of supplies and equipment at its website.

This project was supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation to The Nature Conservancy.

A headgate on an irrigation ditch on Maroon Creek, a tributary of the Roaring Fork River. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

The Western #megadrought is revealing America’s ‘lost national park’ — National Public Radio #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

Boat ramp at Page, Arizona, December 17, 2021. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click here to read the article from National Public Radio (Nathan Rott) and for the photos and video. Here’s an excerpt:

Despite recent rain and record snowfall in California’s Sierra Nevada, the Western U.S. is experiencing one of its driest periods in a thousand years — a two-decade megadrought that scientists say is being amplified by human-caused climate change. The drought — or longer-term aridification, some researchers fear — is forcing water cutbacks in at least three states and is reviving old debates about how water should be distributed and used in the arid West.

At Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest reservoir, record-low water levels are transforming the landscape, renewing a long-standing dispute over the land the reservoir drowned — a canyon labyrinth that novelist Edward Abbey once described as “a portion of earth’s original paradise.” For half a century, environmental groups and Colorado River enthusiasts have implored water managers to restore Glen Canyon by draining the reservoir….

The goal has always been viewed as a bit far-fetched. Lake Powell is one of the busiest tourist destinations in the country. A half-billion-dollar tourism industry has blossomed on its stored waters along the Utah-Arizona border.

But with water levels at record lows and dropping, hindering tourism and revealing long-hidden rock formations like the one behind Dombrowski’s boat, advocates for Glen Canyon see a unique opportunity to catalog what was lost and to correct, perhaps, what environmentalist David Brower called “America’s most regrettable environmental mistake.”

Human actions built the reservoir. Now human actions are causing it to shrink…

A critical “bank account” that’s overdrawn

Seldom Seen’s prayer at about Glen Canyon Dam from The Monkey Wrench Gang — Edward Abbey

It would be hard to overstate the anger sparked by the creation of Lake Powell and the flooding of Glen Canyon. The plot of Abbey’s most famous fiction, The Monkey Wrench Gang, centered on a band of environmental extremists hellbent on destroying the concrete behemoth that pinched off the Colorado River near the Utah-Arizona border in 1963.

The Glen Canyon Dam, named for the canyon it drowned, was celebrated as one of the “engineering wonders of the world” by the Bureau of Reclamation. To Abbey, it was “an insult to God’s creation.”

Rock spires, arches, amphitheaters and ecosystems were gradually submerged. Stalled water crawled up slot canyons. Petroglyphs and pull-tab beer cans were covered over.

Ken Sleight the original Monkey Wrencher photo via Salon

“They ruined it all when they put the water in there,” says Ken Sleight, a river-runner friend of Abbey’s and an environmental preservationist.

The purpose of the dam was to generate electricity for a growing Southwest and to manage flows on the famously up-again, down-again Colorado River [in line with the “Law of the River“. Ranchers, farmers and a fast-growing Western U.S. needed a stable water supply. Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, together with their downstream neighbors, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, would provide that stability…

“In addition to its significant recreation value, Lake Powell functions as a vast ‘bank account’ of water that can be drawn on during dry years,” states the Bureau of Reclamation

Hotter temperatures and milder winters have reduced flows on the Colorado River, shrinking nature’s annual deposit. Water demands, meanwhile, have remained steady or increased. “To sustain our water use, we have drained the bank account,” says Jack Schmidt, a watershed scientist at Utah State University.

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

Today, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at about one-third of their total capacity. A chalky bathtub ring stains the canyon walls of both, more than 100 feet overhead…

Recent snowstorms have improved the short-term picture, boosting snowpack levels across much of the West, but they haven’t solved the larger imbalance in the region’s water portfolio, which is forcing stakeholders up and down the Colorado River to adapt and think in innovative ways. California, Nevada and Arizona recently reached an agreement to take less water from the river in an effort to prop up Lake Mead…

A push to revive a storied canyon

In parts of Glen Canyon, the new normal is starting to look a lot like the old.

Slot canyons, grottoes, cliffs and spires — the kinds of natural features that draw millions to Grand Canyon and Arches National Park — are reemerging from the waters. Willows and cottonwoods are sprouting on muddy banks. Pottery shards dot shorelines.

“The last time this span was out, Neil Armstrong hadn’t walked on the moon yet,” the Glen Canyon Institute’s Balken says, steering a boat under one of the largest natural bridges in the world. Water reflects on its red belly like a kaleidoscope as Balken putters up the narrowing canyon ahead.

For the last 25 years, Balken’s nonprofit, the Glen Canyon Institute, has been one of the loudest advocates for America’s “lost national park.” It calls for restoring the canyon by lowering Lake Powell and for a broader rethinking of the values assigned to this stretch of desert.

“This place is so much more than a storage tank,” Balken says, walking up a sediment-laden slot canyon. “That’s what this [drought] is showing us. These places can recover.”

An hour’s walk up the canyon, the bathtub ring still stains the wall high overhead, and the floor is covered in shoulder-high vegetation. A narrow stream trickles down, beaver tracks pressed in the mud along its edge.

Biologists and other researchers have joined Balken on similar hikes to document the recovery and see how the canyon is recuperating. Invasive species like Egyptian saltcedar are flourishing alongside native plants. Sediment, deposited by the reservoir’s slack water, clogs canyon floors. But life is flourishing the farther away you get from the lake’s edge.

The Glen Canyon Institute wants that to continue. It’s pushing a policy called Fill Mead First, arguing that when the Western U.S. gets another big snow year, water managers should fill the bank account at Lake Mead before adding water to its upstream backup, Lake Powell…

“I just want to bring, like, every water manager and everybody that’s negotiating the future management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and I want them to come in and experience this,” Balken says. “And just know that when you’re talking about refilling Lake Powell reservoir, potentially, you’re talking about redrowning this place.”

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with

Schmidt, the watershed scientist at Utah State University, did a technical assessment of the Fill Mead First proposal in 2016. He found that its effects on water savings along the Colorado River would be negligible and that it would restore more natural fluidity in the Grand Canyon. But, he says, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem of the region’s water shortages.

“It doesn’t matter whether water is stored in Powell, in Mead, 50-50. It doesn’t matter for solving the problem of the imbalance of the checking account,” he says. “That problem can only be solved by reducing consumptive use.”


“It’s happening”

While water managers debate that change at increasingly urgent conferences, the conversation about Lake Powell’s future is already happening on its shrinking shores.

Lake Powell Marinas, a boat rental company on the reservoir, is advertising for people to come see the natural features revealed by the lower water levels. The mayor of Page, Ariz., a town built for and by Lake Powell, is talking publicly about a reenvisioned future. Houseboaters like Dombrowski are debating whether to sell or hold.

Lake Powell, upstream from Glen Canyon Dam. At the time of this photo in May, 2021, Lake Powell was 34% full. (Ted Wood/Water Desk)

USBR modifies monthly #water releases from #LakePowell to protect reservoir’s critical elevations #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:

The Bureau of Reclamation began monthly operational adjustments at Glen Canyon Dam on Jan. 1, taking initial steps to protect the reservoir’s target elevation of 3,525 feet. As of Jan. 5, Lake Powell’s water surface elevation measured 3,536 feet, just 11 feet above the target elevation. Without the changes to monthly water releases, the reservoir’s elevation was projected to steadily decline below the target elevation through the winter months. The adjusted releases are designed to help protect critical elevations at Lake Powell until spring runoff materializes.

The monthly volume of water released from Glen Canyon Dam is being adjusted to hold back 350 thousand acre-feet (kaf) of water in Lake Powell from January to April when inflow to the reservoir is low. The same amount of water (350 kaf) will then be released to Lake Mead between June and September after the spring runoff occurs. The annual volume of water released from Glen Canyon Dam is unchanged by these operational adjustments.

“Under the Drought Response Operations Agreement, making these monthly operational adjustments at Glen Canyon Dam is essential to protect Lake Powell from dropping to critically low elevation levels in the weeks and months ahead,” said Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Regional Director Wayne Pullan. “Although the basin had substantial snowstorms in December, we don’t know what lies ahead and must do all we can now to protect Lake Powell’s elevation.”

The modified release pattern was put into action after Reclamation met with basin partners including the basin states, Tribes, federal agencies, non-governmental organizations and water managers to discuss the purpose and need to shift the delivery schedule of water.

Water year 2022 got off to a promising start in the Colorado River Basin with a wetter-than-normal October, but it was followed by the second-driest November on record and resulted in a loss of 1.5 million acre-feet of inflow for Lake Powell compared to the previous month’s projections. December projections showed the reservoir dropping below the target elevation of 3,525 feet as early as February 2022. As defined in the Drought Response Operations Agreement, the target elevation provides a sufficient buffer to allow for response actions to prevent Lake Powell from dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, the lowest elevation that Glen Canyon Dam can generate hydropower.

While the basin recently experienced substantial snowpack, critically low reservoir levels coupled with uncertainty about future snowpack and observed spring inflow necessitate action. The modified release pattern for Glen Canyon Dam is as follows:

Reclamation is closely monitoring the basin’s hydrology and will release updated projections later this month. The modified release pattern may be further adjusted, if needed, in response to changing hydrologic conditions. The operational adjustments are consistent with the dam’s Long-term Experimental and Management Plan Record of Decision (LTEMP ROD) and will not impact operating tiers or annual release volumes at Lake Powell or Lake Mead. Only the monthly volumes are being adjusted; the annual release volume of 7.48 million acre-feet for water year 2022 (October 1, 2021 – September 30, 2022) will remain the same.

If future projections indicate the monthly adjustments are insufficient to protect Lake Powell’s elevation, Reclamation will again consider additional water releases from the Colorado River Storage Project initial units of Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs. Meanwhile, Reclamation and the Upper Basin states continue to work on a Drought Response Operations Plan and expect to have it completed in April 2022.

“The plans adopted in previous years, including the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the Drought Contingency and Binational Water Scarcity Contingency plans, along with voluntary actions, have helped sustain the Colorado River System through the current 22-year-long drought,” said Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin Regional Director Jaci Gould. “We’ll continue to work with our basin partners in the future in the same collaborative spirit we have demonstrated in the past.”

The recently enacted Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides the resources to back up Reclamation’s commitment to collaboration, with historic investments in water and drought resilience. Reclamation is working with its partners in the West in the transparent implementation of this law to meet the need for long-term adaptation for drought and a changing climate. For more information on the Infrastructure Law and Reclamation’s implementation, please visit our website at

December 24-Month Study Projections

Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Investments

Snow worries how will #Colorado’s ski and tourism industries deal with the growing #ClimateCrisis? — Metropolitan State University of #Denver

From Metropolitan State University of Denver (Mark Cox):

Snow came really late to Colorado this year.

As December rolled around, skiers were left scratching their helmets at the dearth of available white stuff. And while many are hopeful that significant mountain snowfall forecast for this week will turn things around, it’s been a tough start to the season for Colorado’s ski resorts.

Four had to postpone their scheduled openings this season, and only a fraction of the state’s ski trails are ready for action. Compounding the problem, record-high temperatures seriously hobbled the resorts’ usual early season snowmaking operations (where water and pressurized air are used to create artificial snow).

“Snowmaking requires just the right cool temperatures,” explained Tom Bellinger, an Environmental Science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “But it has been borderline warm in the mountains so far, and that has significantly hampered their efforts. All the ski companies can do now is hope for some big storms as winter progresses.”

Skiers wait to get on a lift at Winter Park Resort. Photo by Amanda Schwengel

Warming weather

However, the real worry is not just this season’s late snow but the larger trend it likely indicates. Decade over decade, Colorado is getting warmer. Denver, for example, shattered the modern record for its longest-ever snow-free stretch – 232 days – and saw its latest-ever first snowfall of the season Dec. 10 – all of three-tenths of an inch.

When viewed through the lens of the state’s growing climate crisis – Colorado has been hit hard by disappearing glaciers and rapidly diminishing water supplies in recent years – there’s a sense that this current spell could be just a prelude. And that’s bad news for everybody, not just skiers, Bellinger said.

“People should certainly be concerned about the prospect of compressed winters, which start later and end sooner, because the cold season provides the bulk of our annual water supply,” he said.

Shorter winters, he said, will mean a decline in the annual reserves of mountain snow that get us through the summer deficit season. “At this point,” he said, “it’s imperative that we all become much smarter about water use, both in terms of managing reservoir supplies and our own personal consumption.”

Photo credit: Colorado State University

Positive action

The Colorado ski industry is a curious thing: a mighty $4.8 billion enterprise that’s dependent on the weather, a random phenomenon that is growing increasingly unpredictable.

“Ski and mountain tourism enterprises are often based at higher elevations, where the impact of warming is occurring at a more rapid rate,” said Lincoln Davie, assistant professor of Outdoor Recreation in MSU Denver’s School of Hospitality. “They are like canaries, collectively sounding a dire warning to the rest of us.”

But key industry players do seem to be taking the crisis seriously. Aspen Snowmass, for example, has built a plant that converts captured methane to electricity and constructed a huge solar array, while also moving to an exclusively electric auto fleet.

Going even further, Vail Resorts generates 85% of its electricity from renewable sources and has committed to having a zero net operating footprint by the end of the decade. All across the industry, in fact, companies are taking major steps to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Lobbying for change

Perhaps just as important, the Colorado ski industry is also wielding its significant influence and financial muscle to take the climate fight to legislators.

Recognizing that no individual organization can solve a systemic crisis alone, ski companies and other tourism-industry players have joined powerful coalitions such as Protect Our Winters and the Outdoor Industry Association to lobby for decisive action.

“The outdoor industry has become a powerful force in addressing climate change,” said Davie. By working together, he said, they have depoliticized environmental issues and learned to speak with a common voice, which significantly broadens their reach.

“Notably, the Outdoor Industry Association was part of a group of major trade and union players that met this summer with the president and vice president to discuss the infrastructure bill,” Davie said. “It was a massive moment for the outdoor industry, representing decades of work – and that kind of access really counts.”

A snowboarder prepares to ride into Montezuma Bowl at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. Photo by John Arnold

Ultimately, though, this barrage of positive action won’t count for much without broader societal change. Impressive as they are, the ski industry’s measures can feel like using a small cup to bail water from a fast-sinking boat.

“If the current trajectory continues,” Bellinger said, “Coloradans will have to get used to seeing fewer ski runs at major resorts in the future because snowmaking alone can’t hope to fill all the trails in the state.”

And that, he said, would inevitably lead to a negative spiral: fewer skiers allowed on the mountains, increased prices (snowmaking is labor-intensive and costly) and lower profits.

It’s a grim outlook. But in the absence of sweeping environmental legislation and wholesale changes in social behavior, basic logic and science indicate that this is where we are heading.

“Put simply, we are not moving far or fast enough to head off a climate crisis,” Davie warned. “The future of the ski industry needs to be one of collectivism, built around an authentic commitment to seriously addressing these issues. Without that, there isn’t much hope.”