Interior Department Initiates Significant Action to Protect #ColoradoRiver System: Proposal to revise operating guidelines one of several decisive steps underway to protect the System #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

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 @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

Click the link to read the release on the Reclamation website:

As collaborative work continues across the Colorado River Basin to address the ongoing drought crisis, the Department of the Interior today announced expedited steps to prepare new measures that, based on current and projected hydrologic conditions, are needed to improve and protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. To address the serious operational realities facing the System, the Bureau of Reclamation is initiating an expedited, supplemental process to revise the current interim operating guidelines for the operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams in 2023 and 2024 in order to provide additional alternatives and measures needed to address the likelihood of continued low-runoff conditions across the Basin.

“The Interior Department continues to pursue a collaborative and consensus-based approach to addressing the drought crisis afflicting the West. At the same time, we are committed to taking prompt and decisive action necessary to protect the Colorado River System and all those who depend on it,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “Revising the current interim operating guidelines for Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams represents one of many critical Departmental efforts underway to better protect the System in light of rapidly changing conditions in the Basin.”

Reclamation will publish a Notice of Intent (NOI) to prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), which will include proposed alternatives to revise the December 2007 Record of Decision associated with the Colorado River Interim Guidelines. The 2007 Interim Guidelines provide operating criteria for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, including provisions designed to provide a greater degree of certainty to water users about timing and volumes of potential water delivery reductions for the Lower Basin States, and additional operating flexibility to conserve and store water in the system.

A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam — Photo USBR

The NOI outlines that, in order to ensure that Glen Canyon Dam continues to operate under its intended design, Reclamation may need to modify current operations and reduce Glen Canyon Dam downstream releases, thereby impacting downstream riparian areas and reservoir elevations at Lake Mead. Additionally, in order to protect Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety, Reclamation may need to also modify current operations and reduce Hoover Dam downstream releases.

“We are taking immediate steps now to revise the operating guidelines to protect the Colorado River System and stabilize rapidly declining reservoir storage elevations,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “Today’s action brings new ideas and necessary measures to the table as we consider alternatives to revise operations to better protect Colorado River System in the near term while we also continue to develop long-term, sustainable plans that reflect the climate-driven realities facing the Colorado River Basin.”

As described in the NOI, this SEIS will analyze alternatives including:

  • Framework Agreement Alternative: This alternative would be developed as an additional consensus-based set of actions that would build on the existing framework for Colorado River Operations. This alternative would build on commitments and obligations developed by the Basin States, Tribes and non-governmental organizations as part of the 2019 Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) Authorization Act.
  • Reservoir Operations Modification Alternative: This alternative would be developed by Reclamation as a set of actions and measures adopted pursuant to Secretarial authority under applicable federal law. This alternative would also consider how the Secretary’s authority could complement a consensus-based alternative that may not sufficiently mitigate current and projected risks to the Colorado River System reservoirs. [ed. emphasis mine]
  • No Action: The No Action Alternative will describe the continued implementation of existing agreements that control operations of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams. These include the 2007 Interim Guidelines and agreements adopted pursuant to the 2019 DCP. Intensive ongoing efforts to achieve water conservation actions in the Basin are underway through a number of programs, including the recent Inflation Reduction Act. Implementation and effectiveness of these efforts will inform the assessment of existing operations and agreements.

The action announced today builds on steps announced in August 2022 as part of Reclamation’s release of the Colorado River Basin August 2022 24-Month Study, as well as additional actions announced in September 2022 to reduce water consumption across the Basin in light of critically low water supplies and dire hydrological projections.

The Department also recently announced new drought mitigation funding opportunities to provide reliable, sustainable and equitable water and power supplies across the Basin. A newly created Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program, funded with an initial allocation through the Inflation Reduction Act, will help increase water conservation, improve water efficiency, and prevent the System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. The Inflation Reduction Act includes $4 billion in funding specifically for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas experiencing similar levels of drought.

The NOI announced today to address immediate challenges does not interfere with Reclamation’s separate process for determining post-2026 Colorado River Operations.

Members of the public interested in providing input on the SEIS can do so through December 20, 2022, per instructions in the Federal Register that will be published in the coming days.

Map credit: AGU

Click the link to read “Feds want the ability to cut back on Colorado River reservoir releases over the next two years” on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:

On Friday, the Interior Department began the process of revising existing guidelines for water management in the Colorado River basin. The river, which supplies 40 million people across the Southwest, is strained by a supply-demand imbalance and will likely shrink further due to climate change. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages dams at those reservoirs, filed a Notice of Intent Friday to propose changes to water releases. An upcoming Environmental Impact Statement will contain the details of those changes. The Bureau’s plans will tweak river management rules drawn up in 2007 in response to declining reservoir levels at that time. Those rules, known as the “Interim Guidelines” were meant to last until 2025. These potential changes to water released from the dams will join a patchwork of temporary reductions and conservation agreements that have been deployed to pull the basin back from the brink of catastrophe. Ongoing dry conditions brought on by warming temperatures have worsened beyond the expectations of many water managers, and steady demand is sapping the shrinking supply. States that use water from the Colorado River are due to rewrite management guidelines by 2026, when the current set expires…

These tweaks are pitched as a means of making sure water can pass through Glen Canyon Dam normally. Dropping water levels in Lake Powell have threatened hydropower production at the dam, which supplies electricity to roughly 5 million people across seven nearby states. Lower levels mean lower power output, and if levels drop so low that air enters the hydroelectric turbines, they could be damaged.

Beyond hydropower worries, some have raised concern that water from Lake Powell may soon be unable to pass through rarely-used pipes in its dam at a sufficient rate, jeopardizing the flow of water to millions of people who depend on it downstream. The lowest set of pipes — which would serve as the only exit route for water once levels fall past 3,430 feet in elevation — are not big enough to carry sufficient water for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico to satisfy their legal obligation. Lake Powell was at 3,529 feet at the end of September.

Lake Mead, which stores water for the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada, is filled with water released from Lake Powell. Because of that, any changes at Lake Powell would be felt at Lake Mead and the section of Colorado River between the two, which primarily flows through Grand Canyon National Park. Reclamation says it may modify releases at the Hoover Dam, which holds back Lake Mead, “in order to protect Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety.”

The back of Glen Canyon Dam circa 1964, not long after the reservoir had begun filling up. Here the water level is above dead pool, meaning water can be released via the river outlets, but it is below minimum power pool, so water cannot yet enter the penstocks to generate electricity. Bureau of Reclamation photo.

Click the link to read “New push to shore up shrinking Colorado River could reduce water flow to California” on The Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:

With water levels dropping at Lake Powell, the Interior Department said operators of Glen Canyon Dam may need to release less water, which would affect flows in the Grand Canyon and accelerate the decline of Lake Mead. In order to protect public health and safety and the integrity of the system, the department said releases from Hoover Dam may also need to be reduced — which would shrink the amounts of water flowing to California, Arizona and Mexico…

The Interior Department has the authority to step in and unilaterally impose larger cuts. But federal officials appear to be pushing for a consensus on shrinking the water take from the river rather than dictating reductions in ways that could further inflame tensions or lead to legal fights. This approach increases the pressure on the states to come up with a deal in the coming months or face federal intervention.

“The Interior Department continues to pursue a collaborative and consensus-based approach to addressing the drought crisis afflicting the West,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a news release. “At the same time, we are committed to taking prompt and decisive action necessary to protect the Colorado River System and all those who depend on it.”

Click the link to read “Feds start the clock on a plan that could deepen cuts on drought-stricken Colorado River” on the AZCentral.com website (Brandon Loomis). Here’s an excerpt:

The Interior Department and its dam managers at the Bureau of Reclamation said Friday they will complete an environmental review of options for keeping water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, both of which in recent years have sped toward the point of losing hydropower production or even failing to flow through their respective dams. Reclamation already has reduced supplies to Arizona and Nevada based on operating guidelines approved in 2007. Those rules for shortage management have proved insufficient to halt plunging storage levels. They expire in 2026 and must be replaced by then, but the government’s announcement makes clear that emergency action is needed even sooner…

What happens to the reservoirs now also depends on how much snowpack the Rocky Mountains can pile up this winter to melt next spring. If the weather is especially poor, with flows less than half their long-term average over the next couple of years, the government’s projections now find worst-case scenarios that could dry up the river below Lake Mead before 2026, cutting off those who use the river in Arizona, California and Mexico. The Grand Canyon’s stretch of river is also at risk if Lake Powell continues to sink toward Glen Canyon Dam’s outlets.

“Reclamation is not going to let the states call its bluff any longer and realizes that the existing 2026 deadline is too far in the distance,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a conservation group.

Doling out cuts from the river is complicated by 100 years of law and regulation meant to set how much water each of seven states can take. Arizona typically gets about a third of its total supply from the river, but has had to reduce its 2.8 million-acre share by 512,000 acre-feet, and will lose 80,000 more next year under terms of the 2007 guidelines.

Members of the Colorado River Commission, in Santa Fe in 1922, after signing the Colorado River Compact. From left, W. S. Norviel (Arizona), Delph E. Carpenter (Colorado), Herbert Hoover (Secretary of Commerce and Chairman of Commission), R. E. Caldwell (Utah), Clarence C. Stetson (Executive Secretary of Commission), Stephen B. Davis, Jr. (New Mexico), Frank C. Emerson (Wyoming), W. F. McClure (California), and James G. Scrugham (Nevada) CREDIT: COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY WATER RESOURCES ARCHIVE via Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read “New US plan could lead to federal action on Colorado River” on the Associated Press website (Felicia Fonseca and Kathleen Ronayne). Here’s an excerpt:

The public has until Dec. 20 to weigh in on three options that seek to keep Lake Mead and Lake Powell from dropping so low they couldn’t produce power or provide the water that seven Western states, Mexico and tribes have relied on for decades. One of the options would allow the Interior Department’s U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to take unilateral action, as it threatened this summer when it asked states to come up with ways to significantly reduce their use beyond what they have already volunteered and were mandated to cut…

The announcement comes more than four months after Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told Congress that water use must be cut dramatically as drought and overuse tax the river — an essential supply of water for farmers, cities and tribes in the U.S. West, as well as Mexico. The seven states that tap the river failed to reach Touton’s August deadline and have been working ever since to reach a compromise. It now appears unlikely a grand deal will be reached. In the meantime, the bureau has offered up billions in federal money to pay farmers and cities to cut back. But Interior’s new action marks the first time it’s taking a clear step toward imposing its own, mandatory cuts. The agency anticipates changes to the conditions at which water shortages are declared in the river’s lower basin. Lake Mead and Lake Powell were about half full when the 2007 guidelines were approved and are now about one-quarter full.

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