A new dimension in the #ColoradoRiver debate — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification

Nook on Lake Powell. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

So I’m off to Glen Canyon, to prowl in the innards of that concrete beast, which looks ever more like the hydraulic equivalent of a mastodon since the waters of Lake Powell keep dipping, dipping, dipping – now sitting at 3,527.7 feet above elevation.

Powell is a tad over 25% full.

My mission has to do with the loss of hydroelectric generation. I began thinking about this six or seven years ago, and now it seems we’re on the cusp, although as many have lately noted, the hydro generation has already dropped off significantly. Powell is 37 feet above that minimum power pool level. The Bureau of Reclamation earlier in May announced it will release less water to the lower basin states from Powell, to keep water levels up. It’s getting harder and harder to make the hydraulic empire of the American Southwest work as designed.

Now comes what one Colorado River expert describes as a “huge” declaration. Bruce Babbitt, the governor of Arizona from 1978 to 1987 and secretary of Interior during the Clinton presidency, says it’s time for a more substantial rethinking of the Colorado River Compact, single most important agreement governing the Colorado River.

“While I once thought that these aridification scenarios were kind of abstract and way out in the future, I don’t think that anymore,” Babbitt said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Ian James.

“It’s absolutely urgent that we start thinking now, while there’s time, about how we adjust the compact, the regulations, the necessary reductions, in the most careful way so that we limit the damage, which can really be extreme.”

Climate change models had predicted a warming Southwest. The resulting aridification – as opposed to the more ephemeral drought – has been well documented in the 21st century. This winter provides yet another example of at least modestly good snows followed by a runoff substantially below average. As the dry winds blow and the temperatures warm, the moisture gets sucked up, instead of going downstream.

I mused about this after a Thanksgiving trip to Santa Fe that included a side trip to the Bishop’s Lodge, site of the 1922 crafting of the Colorado River Compact among the seven basin states. Their assumptions were badly misaligned with hydrologic reality, as became increasingly evident in the 20th century.

See: Visiting Bishop’s Lodge and the Colorado River Compact

Still, the conventional wisdom has been that the compact was difficult to achieve during a time of assumed plenty. Why would anybody want to open it up now? There was just too much risk, too much potential for inviting paralyzing acrimony.

Instead, in a new era of cooperative, water managers in the 21st century has created end-around agreements. The most recent iteration of end-around is the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. It is being followed by another such plan, to be ready by 2026, requiring harder decisions, more compromises, greater recognition of the water supplies that are little more than half of that were assumed 100 years ago.

More will be needed, said Babbitt.

“We can no longer just kind of muddle along. We really have to think big, because we’re going to have to create a new regulatory framework. And it doesn’t mean that we have to start over from scratch,” Babbitt told the LA Times.

“The Colorado River Compact has worked for 100 years. But there is now a future scenario in which the fixed delivery obligation — from the Upper Basin states at Lees Ferry to California, Arizona and Nevada — simply doesn’t work.”

In this, Babbitt alludes to a clause in the compact, Article III(d), which requires Colorado and other upper-basin states to not cause the river to flow less than 75 million acre-feet over the course of every 10 years. But what if the river is only producing 9 million acre-feet?
Does that mean Denver can’t divert water? Or the Colorado Big-Thompson? Even in Fort Morgan, people drink Colorado River water.

We’re in for a rude reckoning still in Colorado, regardless of how this shakes out on the Colorado River Compact. New landscaping I see in Arvada, where 72% of water comes from the Colorado River Basin, fails to recognize this future. Hurrah for the mayor of Aurora, Mike Coffman, who said it’s time to ban new turf golf courses – just as Las Vegas has decided.

But the language of the compact might be interpreted to say that the Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico will absorb nearly all the reality of climate change. Babbitt is saying no, it shouldn’t be.

This interview reverses what Babbitt said in an op-ed published in the Arizona Republic in July 2021. “We have not reached that point,” he said of reconsidering the compact.

Babbitt may have been responding to a paper written by Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, and several others, including Jack Fleck, a New Mexico-based writer and co-author with Kuhn of a book called “Science be Dammed.”

See my March 2020 review here.

“Our basic argument is that climate change has undermined the basic purpose of the compact – an ‘equitable division’ of the use of the waters of the river between the two (upper and lower) basins,” Kuhn explained to me by e-mail.

“I’m surprised (and pleased) how quickly a revered figure like Governor/Secretary Babbitt has come to the conclusion as well. My optimistic view remains that we’re looking at a collective interpretation of the compact that if climate change, not Upper Basin depletions, is the reason that the upper basins can’t meet the 75 million acre-feet every 10 years, there is no compact violation. The chance of a formal amendment to the compact ratified by seven state legislatures and Congress is still very remote.”

I’ll be closely watching where this conversation goes. It would be a huge pivot for the Southwest.

Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS via Environment360

Douglas County says no to developers’ San Luis Valley #water export proposal — @WaterEdCO #RioGrande

Construction workers build a single family home in Castle Rock. The community needs new surface water supplies to reduce its reliance on non-renewable groundwater. Credit: Jerd Smith

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Douglas County officials said Tuesday they would not use their COVID-relief funding to help finance a controversial $400 million-plus proposal to export farm water from the San Luis Valley to their fast-growing, water-short region.

In a statement the commissioners said the federal rules would not allow the funds to be spent to help finance early work on the proposed project, and that it faced too many legal hurdles to justify the time and money the county would need to devote to it.

The county made public Tuesday two extensive legal memos, based on its outside attorneys’ review of engineering, and legal and regulatory requirements the project would have to adhere to in order to proceed. The memos formed the basis for the county’s rejection of the funding request.

“The Board of Douglas County Commissioners has made the decision, based on objective legal recommendations from outside counsel, that American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds are inapplicable to the RWR proposal and that RWR has significant additional hurdles to overcome in order to demonstrate not only a ‘do no harm’ approach, but also a ‘win-win’ for Douglas County and the San Luis Valley,” the board said.

The proposal comes from Renewable Water Resources (RWR), a well-connected Denver development firm that includes former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens.

Among other things, the memos said that RWR’s claim that there was enough water in the valley’s aquifers to support the export plan, was incorrect, based on hydrologic models presented over the course of several public work sessions.

The county’s attorneys also said the proposal did not comply with the Colorado Water Plan, which outlines how the state will meet future water needs. That lack of compliance means that Douglas County would likely not win any potential state funding for the export proposal.

County Commissioner Lora Thomas came out against the idea early, with Commissioner Abe Layden joining her this week in voting against the proposal. Commissioner George Teal voted for the proposal.

“I am ecstatic that I got a second vote to stop it,” Thomas said. “The hurdles are too steep for us to get over. I don’t see a future for it.”

RWR declined an interview request regarding the decision, but in a statement it said it planned to continue working with the county to see if the legal concerns raised could be resolved.

“Our team is eager to address the county’s remaining questions as raised in the legal analysis. We are confident in our ability to mitigate any areas of concern,” it said.

Opposition to the proposal sprang up quickly last December after RWR submitted its $10 million funding request to the commissioners.

Critics, including the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa, argued that no water should be taken from the San Luis Valley because it is already facing major water shortages due to the ongoing drought and over-pumping of its aquifers by growers. The valley faces a looming well-shutdown if it can’t reduce its water use enough to bring its fragile water system back into balance.

RWR said its plan to shut down agricultural wells could help the valley, but many disagreed.

State Sen. Cleave Simpson, who also manages the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said in a statement that he was pleased with Douglas County’s decision. “This is good news for the San Luis Valley and it speaks to the hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who spoke out against this unviable proposal.”

Environmental groups also came out in opposition, as have numerous elected leaders including Democrats Gov. Jared Polis, Attorney General Phil Weiser, U.S. Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, as well as Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who represents the valley.

Douglas County does not deliver water to its residents, but relies on more than a dozen individual communities and water districts to provide that service. And they are all facing the need to develop new water supplies.

But two of the largest providers, Parker Water & Sanitation District and Castle Rock Water, have said they would not support the RWR proposal because they had already spent millions of dollars developing new, more sustainable, politically acceptable projects. Those projects include a South Platte River pipeline that is being developed in partnership with farmers in the northeastern corner of the state.

What comes next for RWR’s proposal isn’t clear yet. RWR spokeswoman Monica McCafferty said the firm’s attorneys were still reviewing the legal memos the county released Tuesday.

RWR has said previously that it might ask lawmakers to change state water laws to remove some of the legal barriers to its proposal.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

A powerful sprinkler capable of pumping more than 2,500 gallons of water per minute irrigates a farm field in the San Luis Valley June 6, 2019. Credit: Jerd Smith via Water Education Colorado

Click the link to read “Douglas County commissioners reject using federal money for water project, will continue talks” on the Colorado Politics website (Marianne Goodland). Here’s an excerpt:

At the heart of Tuesday’s decision: Two memos from water attorneys regarding the project that has been kept under wraps since mid-March. Commissioners authorized their release to the public Tuesday.

The first memo, dated March 23, is from attorneys Stephen Leonhardt and April Hendricks of the firm Burns, Figa & Will. Its executive summary said there is “no unappropriated water” available in the confined aquifer, the source for the RWR project. In addition, RWR has not come up with an augmentation plan in sufficient detail to demonstrate that its plan will meet the requirements of the state water rules and avoid injury to other water rights, the memo added. The RWR project “is not consistent” with the state’s water plan, so no state dollars would likely be available for it; and that Douglas County will face numerous hurdles to obtain federal, state and county permits for the project after a decree from state water court is entered. “RWR does not intend to obtain permits before going to Water Court, and RWR’s current proposal calls for Douglas County to bear all responsibility for obtaining the required permits for this project. Obtaining the required federal, state, and county permits likely will take several years, at a substantial financial cost to Douglas County, with a risk that one or more permits will be denied.”

The May 2 memo notes that Leonhardt and Douglas County attorney Lance Ingalls attended a meeting with RWR’s attorneys at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck as well as RWR principal John Kim on April 1…

The May 2 memo is divided into several sections, including water availability, sale of water rights, water supply impacts, sustainability of the closed aquifer, and dry-up of irrigated agricultural lands. Among the findings:

  • Questions on whether ARPA money could be used for the project
  • Recognition that an RWR-supported community fund would not mitigate economic losses from the dry-up of irrigated lands and impacts on related businesses
  • Opposition from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which is managed by state Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, a major opponent of the projects
  • Difficulty in rehabilitating the land once the water is removed
  • The closed aquifer cannot sustain any new pumping, and that a buyer of water rights could only use those rights for their originally decreed purposes, meaning RWR would have to go to water court to change those uses from agricultural to municipal, which could mean a lengthy court battle
  • Both Laydon and Teal directed the commission’s staff to continue working on a deal with RWR that does not use ARPA money.

    Denver Basin Aquifer System graphic credit USGS.

    #Drought news (May 26, 2022): In #Colorado, moderate to extreme drought contracted where it was wet

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

    Click the link to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

    This Week’s Drought Summary

    A strong upper-level trough moved across the contiguous U.S. (CONUS) during this U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) week (May 18-24). Surface low pressure systems and cold fronts were associated with this complex trough. They tapped Gulf of Mexico moisture to spread above-normal precipitation across parts of the Plains, Midwest, Southeast, and Mid-Atlantic Coast, and locally heavy snow across parts of Colorado. One of the fronts moved very slowly across the southern Plains near the end of the week, dumping locally heavy rain on parts of Oklahoma and Texas. Precipitation also fell across parts of the Pacific Northwest, North Dakota, and western Great Lakes. Most of the West was drier than normal, with much of the area from Oregon to California and southern Idaho to New Mexico receiving little to no precipitation. Weekly temperatures averaged below normal behind the fronts from the Pacific Northwest to Great Lakes and from the northern Rockies to Mid-Mississippi Valley. Temperatures averaged warmer than normal across the eastern third of the CONUS and from California to Texas. The continued lack of precipitation in the dry areas further dried soils, lowered stream levels, and stressed crops and other vegetation, while the warmer-than-normal temperatures increased evapotranspiration that added to the stress caused by lack of precipitation. But widespread heavy rain fell across several drought areas, contracting drought and abnormal dryness, especially in the central to southern Plains, Lower Mississippi Valley, Southeast, and Mid-Atlantic states. Drought and abnormal dryness also shrank in the Pacific Northwest where drought indicators showed improving conditions. Drought or abnormal dryness expanded or intensified where it continued dry, especially in southern parts of the West, in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, and parts of southern New England…

    High Plains

    Two inches or more of precipitation fell across southern and eastern parts of Kansas, central Colorado, and northeast Nebraska, while half an inch or more was widespread across North Dakota. Parts of Nebraska, northeast Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, and eastern Montana received less than half an inch of precipitation. In Colorado, moderate to extreme drought contracted where it was wet, while severe and extreme drought expanded where it was dry. Abnormal dryness and moderate to extreme drought shrank in parts of Kansas. The rain ate a hole into severe drought in northeast Nebraska. Abnormal dryness and moderate drought were trimmed in western North Dakota. On the other hand, it was a dry week in western Wyoming with D3 expanding in Teton County…

    Colorado Drought Monitor one week change map ending May 24, 2022.

    West

    Half of an inch or more of precipitation fell in the Coastal and Cascade ranges of the Pacific Northwest, and northern to central Rockies. But more southerly parts of the West, from southern Oregon to New Mexico, received no precipitation. Abnormal dryness to severe drought were trimmed in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Extreme drought shrank in southwest Montana, while exceptional drought was trimmed in Oregon. Some of the drought contraction was due to drought indicators showing slightly less severe conditions. In the drier areas of the West, D3-D4 expanded in New Mexico, D2-D3 expanded in Arizona, D3 spread in Utah and adjoining parts of Idaho and Wyoming, and D2 expanded in southern California with slight expansion of D4 from adjoining southern Nevada. Arms of exceptional drought were added to the San Joaquin Valley in California where the National Weather Service noted that dry conditions continue throughout the area; snow cover is virtually non-existent below 8,000 feet; peak flow through area rivers and inflow into the reservoirs has already occurred or will occur soon, weeks ahead of normal; and applications for grants for well drilling, purchasing tanks, and bottled water recipients are increasing. In southern California, the Coastal Fire broke out on May 11th in Orange County near Laguna Niguel. Windy conditions spread it rapidly upcanyon where it burned 200 acres, destroyed 20 homes, and damaged 12 others. Near-record dry fuels around the May 11th time frame set the stage for this fire…

    South

    A large part of Oklahoma and parts of Texas and Louisiana were inundated with several inches of rain, over 6 inches in places. Zapata County in southern Texas received about half a year of normal rainfall this week. Heavy rain in central and northern Oklahoma, and in the Texas panhandle, southern Texas, and southeast Texas, resulted in the contraction of abnormal dryness and moderate to exceptional drought. Abnormal dryness contracted in Arkansas, D0 and D1 contracted in Mississippi, and D0-D3 shrank in Louisiana. Other parts of the South region were dry. D2-D4 expanded in parts of central to northeast Texas, D0 expanded in Mississippi and Tennessee, and a spot of moderate drought was added in eastern Tennessee…

    Looking Ahead

    A strong upper-level low pressure system slowly moved across the Plains during May 24 and 25, spreading heavy rain over the southern and central Plains to Lower and Mid-Mississippi Valley. This weather system, with its surface low and fronts, will move slowly eastward during the next several days. Another upper-level low pressure system will move from the Pacific Ocean into the western CONUS by Sunday. In addition to the 1+ inches of rain that has already fallen across the Plains to Mississippi Valley May 24-25, another 1 to 2 inches is expected from the Mississippi Valley to Appalachians and northward to the Great Lakes through May 31. An inch or more of precipitation is forecast for the Pacific Northwest to northern Plains and parts of the Interior Basin in association with the western weather system. Little to no precipitation is expected through May 31 for southern states in the West, and no additional precipitation is forecast for Texas and western portions of the southern High Plains. Warmer-than-normal temperatures are forecast for May 26-31 for the central to southern Plains ahead of the western weather system, while clouds and rain will keep high temperatures near to cooler than normal in the West and East. For May 31-June 4, odds favor above-normal precipitation in the Pacific Northwest, Great Plains, Southeast, and most of Alaska, but below-normal precipitation for the Midwest to Northeast and California to southern Nevada. Warmer-than-normal temperatures are likely for May 31-June 4 across most of Alaska and the eastern half of the CONUS, while odds favor cooler-than-normal temperatures from the Great Basin to northern Plains.

    US Drought Monitor one week change map ending May 24, 2022.