#Wyoming girds for a fight over #GreenRiver, #LittleSnakeRiver #water — @WyoFile #ColoradoRiver #YampaRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Agricultural lands in the Little Snake River valley on the border of Wyoming and Colorado. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Angus M. Thuermer Jr. and Dustin Bleizeffer):

A water fight is brewing in the West, and Wyoming water officials want to prepare for it with a study aimed at parsing and defining the state’s consumption from its Colorado River tributaries.

Anticipating a drier future and either voluntary or imposed restrictions, Wyoming should undertake a “conveyance-loss study,” Jason Mead, interim director of the Wyoming Water Development Office, told the state Water Development Commission on Oct. 6. The goal, State Engineer Brandon Gebhart told the WWDC, is to have a “defensible consumptive-use number to take to the other states,” when and if push comes to shove and Colorado River Basin water users face cuts to irrigation, industrial or municipal uses.

When Colorado River Basin water rights were divvied up starting in 1922, officials overestimated the amount of water the system would produce each year and ultimately promised more water to stakeholders than actually existed. Climate change, drought, shifting weather patterns and a population explosion in the region have exacerbated that initial over-subscription.

Further complicating the picture, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — the government’s Western water agency — admits there’s “an inability to exactly quantify these uses.” This “has led to various differences of opinion” regarding who gets to use how much water, the BOR states in a 2022 accounting of the river’s flows and uses.

Coyote Gulch near the confluence of the Little Snake and Yampa Rivers July 2021.

As a result, the Colorado River and its tributaries — including Wyoming’s Green and Little Snake Rivers — do not have as much water as originally thought and apportioned. On top of that, the water that does flow can’t be precisely measured, and the 40 million people in the seven states and Mexico who rely on it haven’t agreed on how to resolve conflicting views on their rights to use what water there is.

The goal of the conveyance-loss study is to pin down Wyoming’s consumptive use in case it needs to engage in those types of water rights’ conversations with other states.  

As a foundation to that study, Wyoming has “a pretty good handle on consumptive use of the crop,” Mead told the water commission. But the state is less certain about another key measurement — the loss from canals and ditches that carry the water diverted from rivers and streams to crops, and how those losses should be accounted for. Only some of those losses may be a debit to Wyoming’s share of the basin’s flows.

With the proposed study, Wyoming would be able to more precisely measure the differences between diverted flows and consumptive use.

That would allow the state to say “when we shut off a ditch … we’re actually saving this amount of consumptive use just along the ditch,” Gebhart told the WWDC. With such information at hand, “I think we could make a sensible argument that we would have to shut off less users.”

Ticking clock

Wyoming doesn’t expect potential curtailments any earlier than 2028, Gebhart told the Water Development Commission. Not all stakeholders agree with that timeline assessment, however, and say a “pinch point” in 2025 could prompt debate and conflict among states.

“The first pinch point [in 2025] raises the issue of the Upper Basin’s obligation to Mexico, if any, under the 1922 [Colorado River] Compact,” Chris Brown, a senior assistant attorney general in the Wyoming Attorney General’s office Water and Natural Resources Division wrote WyoFile.

Upper Colorado River basins. (The border of Wyoming and Colorado is mislabeled.) (U.S. BOR)

Mexico was not part of the 1922 compact, but the Mexican Water Treaty Act of 1944 granted that country 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water annually. The compact and treaty are part of a suite of decrees, agreements and court decisions that make up what’s known as the Law of the River.

Regarding Mexico’s share, “the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin have different opinions about that obligation,” Brown wrote. That difference should be addressed before 2025 to “avoid a dispute” he stated.

“That does not mean we will curtail our water uses and, under current circumstances, we will not curtail when we reach that [2025] pinch point…” he wrote. “The difference of opinion itself will not result in a curtailment.”

Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), an influential water developer in the Little Snake River Basin, recommended the study, Mead and Gebhart said. It’s an “officially proposed project” Gebhard said, and will be discussed by the WWDC further in November with an eye toward securing funding, either from over-subscribed state water accounts, through a different appropriation from the Legislature or some other source.

The study’s first phase could be completed in 2025, after two irrigating seasons of research, officials said.

Pinning down losses

After water is diverted from a river or stream into conveyance systems of canals, ditches and pipes, some of it feeds crops. But leaks and seepage in those canals and ditches also results in loss. Water managers agree that some ditch losses return to “the system” that sustains a river’s flow.

Like “return flow” water that runs back into a river after flooding an irrigated field, conveyance losses that then return to the system shouldn’t count as a debit or depletion against Wyoming’s share of Colorado River Basin water, state officials say, and a study could help determine how much that is.

“Ditch losses that do return to the system (seepage), at some point, are not considered depletions because the water re-enters the stream,” Gebhart wrote in an email.

Some diverted water, however, doesn’t benefit a crop or return to the river and must be counted as a debit. “Losses from ditches that do not return to the system, at some point, are depletions, also known as consumptive use,” Gebhart stated.

These types of losses could be from evaporation, consumption by non-crop plants like willows, consumption by trees on the ditch bank, recharge to deep groundwater aquifers that don’t flow to the Colorado River and other, similar things, Gebhart wrote.

The loss from canals and ditches is only estimated today, and only by some irrigation districts. In a 2021 accounting by the WWDC, only half of the 157 irrigation districts, ditch and canal companies and other irrigation entities contacted by the agency responded.

An irrigation headgate on a canal in the Upper Green River Basin has a lock that can be used to regulate flows. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./Wyofile)

Statewide, the survey estimates an average of 24% of the water that runs through the conveyance systems is lost. In the Green River and Little Snake drainages, estimates include as little as 0.5% for the Austin Wall Irrigation District on the Blacks Fork and 25% at the New Fork Irrigation District.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Many entities in the Green and Little Snake basins did not respond to the latest survey, including districts where water developers and irrigators want to spend millions of state dollars building or enlarging impoundments to aid irrigation and other uses.

Depletions, losses and consumptive uses 

Experts agree that more water is promised to Colorado River Basin water users than the system can actually deliver — essentially 7.5 million acre-feet annually each to the four Upper Division states and three Lower Division states, plus 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico for a total of 16.5 million acre-feet. The calculation of available water on which the U.S. allocations were based in 1922 was flat-out wrong, many agree, and 23 recent years of drought coupled with climate change have left Lakes Powell and Mead at 28% of capacity, an historic low.

Now some experts say managers should anticipate only 9 million acre-feet annually system wide, according to proceedings at a September water seminar covered by Colorado Public Radio. That’s about three-quarters of what was used by all states, tribes and Mexico in 2021, CPR reported, and far short of the original 15 million acre-feet estimated in 1922.

If Wyoming faces curtailment or some other regulation in the Colorado River Basin, Gebhart said his office would need more staffers to monitor headgates and diversions. Today, a crew of six oversees more than 2,500 headgates in the basin, he said, and that might need to be increased to 36 or so.

Scrutiny by the state engineer is necessary because the 1922 compact prohibits Upper Division states from diminishing Colorado River flows at Lee Ferry, a gauge just below Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam, below 7.5 million acre-feet annually on a running 10-year average. Wyoming is promised 14% of what’s left over to the Upper Division states.

From 2016-2020, the latest data available, a provisional U.S. Bureau of Reclamation report lists Wyoming’s average annual use at 421,000 acre-feet. Ranchers irrigated 305,800 acres in the Green and Little Snake River Basins in 2020, the report states. The population of those basins was 83,800, the BOR said.

At full supply — 7.5 million acre-feet available to the Upper Division states annually — Wyoming’s yearly portion amounts to a little over 1 million acre-feet, experts say. Should the Upper Division supply dwindle to 4 million acre-feet, under the Law of the River and 1944 Mexico treaty obligation, Wyoming would have rights to use only 553,000 acre-feet, according to a presentation by Gebhart’s office in Pinedale in September. In addition to Wyoming’s conveyance-loss study, Upper Division states want to use an up-to-date model to determine river flows and uses.

Green River Basin

Does the weekend snowstorm kick #Utah off to a good water year? Will it help the #drought, and is more on the way? — The Deseret News

Utah Drought Monitor map October 18, 2022.

Click the link to read the article on the Deseret News website (Amy Joi O’Donoghue). Here’s an excerpt:

The storm that hit Utah this weekend spread its tendrils statewide, but was particularly generous with the Wasatch Mountains, delivering 25 inches of snow to Alta at last measurement. That amount of precipitation eclipses the monthly average for that area, 24.4 inches, and more snow is on the way Tuesday and Wednesday, with the potential to add close to a foot to the overall total at Alta. Hayden Mayhan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, worked over the weekend monitoring the conditions across the state, which also included lake effect snow that dumped 7 inches on the Tooele and Erda areas and blanketed the bench areas of places like West Jordan. Mayhan said snow means the water year is off to a good start, but Utah needs to see storms like this every week or two to make a dent in the state’s shriveling water supply in light of the horrific 23-year drought…

“All watersheds are above normal for precipitation at the start of the water year,” Mayhan said, cautioning that could change quickly if the weather hits a dry spell.

“If we get flatlined, the health of those watersheds could start to go below average fairly quickly.”

Romancing the River: Onward and – well, onward with the #ColoradoRiver Compact — Sibley’s Rivers #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Lake Mead filling behind Hoover Dam 1935. Photo via Sibley’s Rivers

George walks us through the motivations and hydrology behind the Colorado River Compact. Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

Quote via Sibley’s Rivers

Before getting into the Colorado River again, I want to put out a plea: Please recognize the importance of the coming ‘midterm elections.’ Especially if you live in one of 15 percent of our congressional districts that has not been gerrymandered to a foregone outcome. This is a ‘tipping point’ election, not between two political parties trying to work things out, but between two political concepts with no middle room for compromise: if both houses of Congress tip toward the Republicans this election, rather than remaining barely tipped toward the Democrats, then we are going to be taking a big bumbling step toward authoritarian governance, and away from our evolving American experiment in government by, for and of the people. I think I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but please do what you can to encourage friends to register (especially women, students with debt, seniors on Social Security), and help at the polls – be a poll watcher to counter the armed army of watchers the Trumpistas talk about having out there to make sure only the right kind of people get to vote.

Meanwhile back on (or near) the Colorado River, in 1922, commissioners from the seven basin states were attempting to develop an interstate compact for sharing the river’s waters rather than trying to outrun each other in appropriating it. Not an easy assignment – last post, we looked at the failed efforts of the Compact Commissioners to effect a seven-way division for the consumptive use of the river among themselves on the basis of anticipated development (mainly agriculture). Frustrated and disappointed, they were on the verge of abandoning the effort, but Nevada Commissioner James Scrugham and Chairman Hoover refocused them, reminding them that their charge was not to get stuck in a technical analysis of unknowable details about their futures, but just to ‘to formulate a broad constructive policy for development’ of the river.

In March and early April of 1922 they held hearings throughout the Southwest – mostly, as usual, outside the river’s natural basin – and during that time they passed around an idea that had originated with Commissioner Delph Carpenter of Colorado. This was a bold-stroke division of the river basin and its surface waters into two subbasins: an Upper Basin above the river’s Colorado Plateau canyons consisting of the four states (mostly) above the canyons, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah; and a Lower Basin below the canyons consisting of the other three states, California, Arizona and Nevada. 

Each basin would get to develop half of the river’s waters in their own good time, with further divisions by states in each basin being determined whenever it seemed appropriate as the directions of development evolved. This was indeed a broad constructive policy for development.

This two-basin division was the idea they began discussing almost immediately when they retreated to Bishop’s Lodge near Santa Fe in November 1922, determined to work until they had a workable compact to present to their states. Even though it was a disarmingly simple idea, it took them 17 meetings over 11 days to work it out to – well, to most participants’ satisfaction. 

How do we today consider, evaluate something like the Colorado River Compact? They were working in the beginning era of the Anthropocene epoch, enthusiastically employing new technologies and organizational systems to harness and rationalize nature – what we might call the Naive Anthropocene. We are living in a much less naive era of the Anthropocene, where much of our attention has to be directed to dealing with the consequences of the Naive Anthropocene, and we no longer seem to have a unified national will for the work of rationalizing nature – even within our individual hearts and minds. 

A place to start a consideration of the Compact might be to consider its authors’ own goals, as set forth in the first article of the Compact, and how well they have been followed and adhered to through the century for which the Compact has been a guidestar. (The Compact text is easily obtained by just putting ‘Colorado River Compact’ in your browser.)

Article I of the Compact recites five main purposes: ‘to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System; to establish the relative importance of different beneficial uses of water; to promote interstate comity; to remove causes of present and future controversies; and to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin, the storage of its waters, and the protection of life and property from floods.’

I want to look here at the Compact Commissioners first and last purposes. Of the five, only the last purpose – ‘to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin’ – can be considered fully realized; this was, after all, the purpose of the Compact, the ‘broad constructive policy for development.’ 

And it worked: the Compact ratification process was neither easy nor simple, and Arizona refused to ratify it until 1944. But Congress was accommodating, and within a decade of the Compact drafting, a great dam in the Black Canyon on the Arizona-Nevada border was under construction to control and store the river’s water; the Imperial Weir Dam and All-American Canal to carry water to the Imperial Valley were underway downstream; and the many towns and cities making up the Los Angeles-San Diego corridor were pooling resources as the Metropolitan Water District to build a 250-mile aqueduct from the river – regional development on a unprecedented scale, and all operational by the World War II boom. This was that ‘broad constructive policy for development’ the Compact Commissioners had sought to create.

Construction to control and rationalize the natural river continued in both Basins for the first half of the ‘Compact century’; but after 1970 new construction began to be balanced and then supplanted by efforts to deal with the environmental and socioeconomic consequences of ‘expeditious agricultural and industrial development.’ That is where we are today: the development of the river’s water for human purposes is essentially done; now we are dealing with the consequences of rapid development in order to keep the system operational. Less fun, to be sure, and probably better when taken into consideration before the rapid development. But we seem often to make ‘the naked facts’ and ‘the radiant color of romance’ an either-or choice.

The first purpose stated – ‘to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters’ –  is the content of Article III of the Compact, and the Commissioners can only be said to have succeeded in this in a messy way. 

Their obvious intent, expressed in the meetings, was to give each Basin half of the river’s water to develop, with a responsibility for each to supply half of whatever was eventually apportioned to Mexico if surplus flows were insufficient to cover that.

September 21, 1923, 9:00 a.m. — Colorado River at Lees Ferry. From right bank on line with Klohr’s house and gage house. Old “Dugway” or inclined gage shows to left of gage house. Gage height 11.05′, discharge 27,000 cfs. Lens 16, time =1/25, camera supported. Photo by G.C. Stevens of the USGS. Source: 1921-1937 Surface Water Records File, Colorado R. @ Lees Ferry, Laguna Niguel Federal Records Center, Accession No. 57-78-0006, Box 2 of 2 , Location No. MB053635.

From the perspective of most of the Commissioners, that would have been a sufficient ‘division and apportionment’ for the Compact’s purpose. Lees Ferry had been selected as the division point in the canyon region – being one of the few places accessible without a strenuous hike – but there was no measuring station there yet; the only measure of the river’s flow was a 20-year record from a gauge near Yuma. Better, they thought, to avoid specific apportionments between Basins until they had a better sense of the river’s flow.

California, however, insisted that ‘half the river’s water’ be given a specific number; they assumed they were close to whatever their specific apportionment would be, and did not want to go over that. So the Commissioners set about trying to determine a reasonable ‘maximum’ for division and apportionment. They have been most criticized for their decision in this part of the Compact creation, maybe a little unfairly.

The Grand Canyon survey party at Lees Ferry. Left to right: Leigh Lint, boatman; H.E. Blake, boatman; Frank Word, cook; C.H. Birdseye, expedition leader; R.C. Moore, geologist; R.W. Burchard, topographer; E.C. LaRue, hydraulic engineer; Lewis Freeman, boatman, and Emery Kolb, head boatman. Boatman Leigh Lint, “a beefy athlete who could tear the rowlocks off a boat…absolutely fearless,” later went to college and became an engineer for the USGS. The Grand Canyon survey party at Lees Ferry in 1923. (Public domain.)

They had advice from the Bureau of Reclamation engineers, specifically Reclamation Commissioner Arthur Powell Davis, a nephew of John Wesley Powell and a regular attendee at the Compact meetings, and from Geological Survey scientists, specifically E.C. LaRue – like Major Powell, possessed of an engineering mind that grounded itself in science. Bureau estimates of the river’s average flow, calculated mostly from Yuma data, was around 16.5 million acre-feet (maf). LaRue and his colleagues worked with some of the same data but included both more awareness of evaporation in the desert and more cultural memory back into the 19th century in their estimates, and came up with an average annual usable flow closer to 13.5 maf.

Because it was the 1920s, the beginning of the Anthropocene with the Industrial Revolution producing the equipage for previously unimaginable feats, the Commissioners wanted to go with the ever-optimistic Bureau’s numbers. But calculations using the ten worst years in the Yuma record showed that the 16.5 number would not work dependably. They finally settled on 15 million acre-feet as the compromise between the engineers’ can-do optimism and the geo-scientists pessimism about the river in the desert. At the time, there was a sincere belief (tinged with the colors of romance) that by the time all the water in the river was developed, the Bureau would have the technology and resources to bring in water from some larger river with water to spare.

Within a couple decades of the Compact’s signing – near the end of an unusually wet spell in the Colorado Basin – it was obvious that giving each Basin half of 15 maf, or 7.5 maf each, was more than the river could be depended on to deliver – a situation complicated by the State Department’s apportionment in a wartime treaty of 1.5 maf to Mexico, twice what the Compact Commissioners had anticipated. 

So they had screwed up. But possibly more is made of this than the error warrants. Their error did not cause the current over-appropriation of the river, or the potential crash of the reservoir system. What caused that has been a general blithe disregard for the flow numbers for most of the past century by nearly everyone. Are we to believe that, if the Compact had given each Basin 6.5 maf rather than 7.5 maf per year to develop, there would have been fewer subdivisions sprawling out across the desert from ‘Sunbelt’ cities whose economies are predicated on growth, and less irrigated acreage to feed the people (not to mention the horses of Saudi Arabia)? Recently several states have mandated – with varying success ratios – that all new developments be able to demonstrate rights to a hundred-year water supply. But some desert states (hello Arizona) have no state control like that on development. This overuse of the river’s water would probably have happened, whatever number had been in the Compact; no one had been given a big stick to enforce good sense.

Map credit: AGU

The matter of ‘equitable division and apportionment’ deserves a moment’s attention. By the end of World War II, when the Upper Basin states sat down to create their own Compact to divvy up their share of the river, it was obvious that there would almost certainly not be a dependable 7.5 maf of water for them; yet, as they interpreted it, the whole-river Compact directed them to send 7.5 maf a year past Lees Ferry to the Lower Basin. So they assigned to each state a percentage of the water ‘left over’ for them, after that obligation was met, rather than a firm amount – an unusual acknowledgement of the ‘naked facts’ of the matter. 

Today, the Lower Basin has been regularly using considerably more water than their 7.5 maf, and the Upper Basin considerably less. The Lower Basin’s overuse was predicated, for most of the century, on ‘unused Upper Basin water.’ Since roughly the turn of the century, however, that slack has been taken up by Upper Basin use, but the Lower Basin has kind of pretended to not notice that. Or the fact that there is no more ‘surplus water’ to cover their half of the Mexican obligation – or for that matter the million acre-feet of evaporation from their reservoirs. The supply cuts the Bureau is imposing on Arizona, and will soon be imposing on California, are just to get them down to their Compact apportionment.

When or if that is actually achieved, the use of the river will be about two-thirds to the ‘desert river’ – the Lower Basin plus Mexico – and one third to the ‘mountain rivers’ of the Upper Basin. That will not be ‘equal,’ but it might be ‘equitable’ – fair, reasonable and just. The irrigated lands of the desert river can produce two or three times what the mountain lands can produce, and the towns and cities of the Upper Basin are more humanly scaled.

The classic image of the Doughnut; the extent to which boundaries are transgressed and social foundations are met are not visible on this diagram. Graphic via Wikipedia.com

Now everyone everywhere – not just in the Colorado Basin – needs to stop growing. We’ve possibly reached the tipping point where, if you’re growing, you’re dying and taking the planet with you. 

I expect to catch hell for saying that. But next time – still considering the Compact: what happens when you divide a river in two?

Navajo Dam operations update (October 26, 2022): Bumping releases down to 400 cfs #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Navajo Lake

From email from Relamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to sufficient flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 550 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs for tomorrow, October 26th, at 4:00 AM.

Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).  The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area.  The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.