It should be obvious to anyone; trying to fill a bathtub with the drain wide open is foolish. This is precisely what the operators of the Colorado River System (Lake Powell and Lake Mead) have been attempting to do for the past 20 years. They have disregarded the increased withdrawals to the Lower Basin states (California, Arizona, and Nevada) and the ubiquitous arid nature of the Southwest.
The Colorado River system and the Colorado Compact Administration were set up with a series of reservoirs recognizing the aridity of the region and the unpredictable amount of annual precipitation. With reservoirs, when water is more abundant the excess can be stored for later use when the inevitably drier periods arrive. In recent years, instead of reserving excess flows in the reservoirs, this excess was released to the lower basin states with the resultant excess draw-down of the vital storage system.
Most of the water supply for the Colorado River System is supplied by the Upper Basin States, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico. As planned, these states have continuously supplied the required 75-million-acre feet in 10 years, or an average of 7.5 million per year.
The amount of water that each of these states uses each year is completely dependent upon precipitation and in Colorado is allocated strictly by the prior appropriation system without the benefit of a storage system to draw upon for leaner years except for water saved under the prior appropriation system. As such Colorado’s prior appropriation system automatically operates as a forced reduction in water use—a built-in “conservation brake”.
In contrast, the Lower Basin States, California, Arizona, and Nevada receive their Colorado River supply from reservoirs and have the luxury of taking any excess deliveries in wetter years or drawing previously saved water from storage in drier years.
The prudent regime would be to reserve the excess amounts in storage for use during drier periods. Instead of this exercise of prudence, the Lower Basin states have continuously gambled those wetter periods would arrive and replenish the reservoirs.
In the chart below, we clearly see how Colorado and the Upper Basin states have reduced their use during drought while the Lower Basin states have increased their use during the same period.
The primary purpose of Lake Powell and Lake Mead is for hydro-power production and secondarily for drinking and irrigation. The falling levels of these reservoirs spell disaster for power production and now the Bureau of Reclamation is sounding the alarm.
Unfortunately, unless drastic measures are taken that significantly reduce the annual draw by the Lower Basin States for the foreseeable future, all Colorado River reservoirs will be jeopardized. Blue Mesa and Flaming Gorge have already been lowered to rescue the Lower Basin reservoirs. The present crisis is more about having allowed the Lower Basin to over appropriate water from the system than the impact of the drier period of the past 20 years.
In Colorado, the Arkansas Basin and the entire Eastern portion of Colorado depend on a significant portion of its water from Colorado River system imports. In the Arkansas, about 15 percent of all river flows are derived from this system.
In drier periods these flows have always been reduced since they are regulated by the prior appropriation system. However, further reductions could come if the Lower Basin is not forced to comply with the Compact. It is possible that political forces could reduce the amount of water exported to the Eastern portion of Colorado — and that includes the Arkansas Basin.
By: Ralph “Terry” Scanga, General Manager. Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District
We are working with the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) to investigate the usability of the drought.gov website. The usability study consists of a short virtual interview to learn about a participant’s affiliation and professional experience, followed by an exercise using scenarios on the website. We are hoping to hear from a diverse set of backgrounds, including farmers, master gardeners, agriculture extension groups, environmental reporters, drought management plan authors, and other water supply professionals…
UNC Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC) is working with the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) to investigate the usability of the http://drought.gov website.
A usability study consists of a short virtual interview followed by an exercise using scenarios on the drought.gov website. The session is virtual and typically lasts about 30 minutes. If you are interested in participating, please enter your name and email address in this form.
Your feedback is invaluable and we appreciate your consideration. Usability only works when people like you participate!
I wish everyone on Earth knew how genuinely "off the charts" key planetary trends are right now, and how abnormal and critical it is. Things like atmospheric CO2 fraction, heat extremes on land and ocean, biodiversity loss and extinction rates. All alarms should be going off
Over the last year and a half, I’ve dissected every remark I could find in the press from Senator Joe Manchin on climate change. With the fate of our planet hanging in the balance, his every utterance was of global significance. But his statements have been like a weather vane, blowing in every direction. It’s now clear that Mr. Manchin has wasted what little time this Congress had left to make real progress on the climate crisis.
Since early 2021, congressional Democrats and President Biden have worked relentlessly to negotiate a climate policy package. When Build Back Better passed the House last fall, it included $555 billion in clean energy and climate investments. After four decades of gridlock in Congress, the Democrats were poised to finally pass a major climate bill, with agreement from 49 senators. But yesterday, one man torched the deal, and with it the climate: Mr. Manchin.
By stringing his colleagues along, Mr. Manchin didn’t just waste legislators’ time. He also delayed crucial regulations that would cut carbon pollution. Wary of upsetting the delicate negotiations, the Biden administration has held back on using the full force of its executive authority on climate over the past 18 months, likely in hopes of securing legislation first.
The stakes of delay could not be higher. Last summer, while the climate negotiations dragged on, record-breaking heat waves killed hundreds of Americans. Hurricanes, wildfires and floods pummeled the country from coast to coast. Over the last 10 years, the largest climate and weather disasters have cost Americans more than a trillion dollars — far more than the Democrats had hoped to spend to stop the climate crisis. With each year we delay, the climate impacts keep growing. We do not have another month, let alone another year or decade, to wait for Mr. Manchin to negotiate in good faith.
The climate investments in the bill ranged from incentives for clean power like wind and solar, to support for electric vehicles. They were essential to meeting President Biden’s goal of cutting carbon pollution in half from its 2005 levels by 2030 — the United States’ contribution to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Congress’s failure to act means that, under the best case scenario with the policies we already have in place, we will only get 70 percent of the way there.
After months of stop-and-start discussions, with Mr. Manchin repeatedly walking away from the negotiations, Congress has largely run out of time. Democrats need to pass their reconciliation package this summer, and despite weeks of round-the-clock effort from Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, and his team, Mr. Manchin has now refused to agree to vote for spending on climate. While he claimed on a West Virginia talk show on Friday that it wasn’t over, that “we’ve had good conversations, we’ve had good negotiations,” this is doublespeak; he simply doesn’t want to be held accountable for his actions. He has consistently said one thing and done another.
Mr. Manchin’s refusal to agree to climate investments will hurt the economy he claims he wants to protect. The package would have built domestic manufacturing, supporting more than 750,000 climate jobs annually. It would have also fought inflation, helping to make energy bills more affordable for everyday Americans. This is particularly ironic since Mr. Manchin said inflation was the chief reason he was uncomfortable with supporting tax incentives for clean energy right now.
Over the past year, Mr. Manchin has taken more money from the oil and gas industry than any other member of Congress — including every Republican — according to federal filings. A Times investigation found that he also personally profited from coal, making roughly $5 million between 2010 and 2020 — about three times his Senate salary. Coal has made Mr. Manchin a millionaire, even as it has poisoned the air his own constituents in West Virginia breathe.
As Upton Sinclair put it: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
But one thing I have never understood about Mr. Manchin is how he looks his grandchildren in the eye. While he may leave his descendants plenty of money, they will also inherit a broken planet. Like other young people, Mr. Manchin’s grandchildren will grow up knowing that his legacy is climate destruction.
The dry conditions blanketing much of the American West are setting records nearly every week. Lakes Mead and Powell, the country’s largest reservoirs by capacity, dropped to new lows this year. The Great Salt Lake did, too. This spring, New Mexico endured its largest ever wildfire. Even with those distinctions, more are likely on the way. The hottest months of the year are still to come.
Shortened time frames are now the norm. Water cuts that were once nearly unthinkable even in the long term in the Colorado River basin are now being implemented in a matter of months, not years or decades. Still, some see opportunity in calamity, a chance to reposition the region for trials to come.
“While the situation is objectively bleak, it is not in my view unsolvable,” John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told a Senate panel on June 14. Basin officials are steeling themselves for short, intense negotiations.
It amounts to a season of potentially long-lasting change for some of the country’s fastest-growing states and biggest economies.
Here are five things to know about how the drought is re-writing the story of America’s drylands.
1) It’s a Hot Drought
The drought is not just a failure of precipitation. Rising temperatures due to global warming are also depleting the region’s rivers.
The mechanisms are easy to understand. Extreme heat bakes the land surface. Warmer, drier air holds more water. Parched soils then gobble rain and melting snow before the water reaches rivers and reservoirs. A thirsty atmosphere evaporates or sublimates its share. Together, they are a powerful one-two punch.
With increasing temperatures, “we’re seeing places that do have drought, the intensification is more rapid,” says Roger Pulwarty, a senior scientist in the physical sciences laboratory at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Colorado River basin illustrates the impacts of a hot drought. According to the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, precipitation in the watershed above Lake Powell since October was 94 percent of the 30-year average. In other words, just a tick below normal. Snowpack peaked at 83 percent of average. Yet only a fraction of that water made it into Lake Powell. Runoff into the lake this summer is just 56 percent of average. A hot drought is a stealthy thief.
2) Drought Has a Long Reach
When water stops flowing, difficult days are ahead.
Forests become tinder boxes, a spark removed from calamity. Already there have been massive disruptions. U.S. Forest Service staff lost control of a prescribed burn in Santa Fe National Forest in April, resulting in the 341,000-acre Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire, the largest wildfire on record in New Mexico.
“Drought, extreme weather, wind conditions and unpredictable weather changes are challenging our ability to use prescribed fire as a tool to combat destructive fires,” wrote Randy Moore, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, in an incident assessment.
Hydropower is weakened. With less water in reservoirs, generators crank out fewer megawatt-hours, raising the cost of electricity and increasing the risk of summer blackouts. In California last year, hydropower generation was nearly half the 10-year average. This year, Glen Canyon Dam is operating at just 60 percent of its maximum electrical generating capacity due to the drying of Lake Powell.
There are human health consequences when lakes are depleted. Earlier this month, the Great Salt Lake dropped to its lowest point since record-keeping began in 1847. Receding shores expose more lakebed salts and dust, which become a respiratory hazard during windstorms — and can hasten snowmelt in the mountains.
Ecosystems — and the birds and fish that depend on them — are also under stress. Utah regulators have identified high numbers of toxin-producing algae in the southern reaches of Utah Lake, a water body notorious for summer algae outbreaks. In California, sampling carried out in June by the Environmental Protection Department of the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians revealed algal toxins in Clear Lake that were higher than state advisory levels. These hazardous outbreaks typically worsen deeper in the summer.
3) Cutbacks Are Inevitable
When supply ebbs and reservoirs are near record lows, authorities have one durable tactic: reduce demand.
In fits and starts, that is happening. California regulators passed an emergency order in June that took small steps to address the supply-demand imbalance. The order prohibits businesses, industries, schools, churches, and other institutions from watering “non-functional” grass with potable water. What’s non-functional? Grass that covers median strips and office parks.
Cities and farms that are customers of the two major canals in California — one state and one federal — already had their allocations substantially reduced as a result of below-average reservoirs. With less water, irrigators will fallow more land.
The largest cuts, however, will be in the Colorado River basin. Camille Touton, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, said in June that the states would have to reduce their draw on the river by two million to four million acre-feet in the next year.
Entsminger of the Southern Nevada Water Authority called the proposed cuts “a degree of demand management previously considered unattainable.”
Their plan is due next month.
4) Drought Is Political
The right to use water in the western states is subject to arcane laws, court decrees, and precedents, some of which date to the era of colonial settlement.
Persistently dry conditions and a reckoning with historical inequities are forcing residents and lawmakers to reassess the established way of doing business.
In June, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld a groundwater management plan for Diamond Valley irrigators that abandons long-held principles of state water law, such as the priority system that privileges senior water rights and “use it or lose it” requirements.
Activists in Arizona are gathering signatures to put groundwater regulation on the ballot. Their citizen’s initiative would ask voters to approve two Active Management Areas in Cochise and Graham counties, places where big farming operations have dried up shallow wells and caused the ground to fracture, damaging highways.
“Dams Not Trains” billboards dot the highways of California’s Central Valley, a plea by the region’s biggest farmers for legislators to redirect their spending preferences. At the same time, a budget proposal in the California Legislature would direct $1.5 billion to buy senior water rights from farmers in order to keep more water in rivers.
A relatively recent development is the political muscle of the region’s Indian tribes. Acting as dealmakers, tribes have emerged as key players in water supply negotiations, particularly in Arizona, where the Gila River Indian Community has leased water to cities and pledged to conserve 129,000 acre-feet this year to boost water levels in Lake Mead.
5) Drought Is Probably the Wrong Word
To some researchers and advocates, we shouldn’t even be calling this a drought.
Drought, they say, implies a temporary condition, a deviation from normal.
But what is happening in the Colorado River basin and other western regions is a shift toward a drier climate.
Even though precipitation in this two-decade period is anomalously and historically low, climate modeling suggests that the region is not going to snap back to the wetter periods of a generation ago.
To describe this new era, they prefer a different term: aridification. Clunky, perhaps. But more accurate.
A collective of respected Colorado River scholars argued in a 2018 paper that language change was necessary and could possibly induce behavioral change on the scale required to meet the challenge.
“A very modest starting point,” they wrote, “is to admit words such as drought and normal no longer serve us well, as we are no longer in a waiting game; we are now in a period that demands continued, decisive action on many fronts.”
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news.