The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a dispute between the Navajo Nation, the Biden administration and three states over the increasingly important question of whether the tribe has the right to draw water from the Colorado River. The justices will hear two appeals — one brought by the federal government and another by the states of Arizona, Nevada and Colorado in addition to several California water districts — that arise from the Navajo Nation’s efforts to assert rights to the river that flows alongside the reservation’s northwestern border. The tribe’s land, the largest Native American reservation, is mostly in Arizona but also crosses into New Mexico and Utah.
The Biden administration and the three states appealed after the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Navajo Nation in February, saying it could sue the government for an alleged failure to carry out its duties on behalf of the tribe. The dispute is over whether the government had a legal duty that the tribe can enforce in court. The tribe, which first signed a treaty with the United States in 1849, argues that under its agreements with the federal government that assured it would have access to land, it was assumed that the government also has a duty to provide necessary water.
The crisis on the Colorado River System is capturing the attention of the world. News accounts filled with mouth-drying terms such as “dead pool” and “system crash” have reached readers in Berlin, Mumbai, Tokyo and elsewhere. The image of a speedboat sitting upright in what used to be Lake Mead with its stern buried in the mud has illustrated literally hundreds of news accounts. And, then, there are the countless reports of the discovery of human remains revealed in the receding waters of Lake Mead. The eyes of the world literally are upon Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
It is a story rife with complexity. Few subjects are as complex as that of water and the means by which it is divided up among its users.
On Friday, November 4, 2022, members of the Arizona Reconsultation Committee – a panel of water users from across the state – will gather for a briefing on the current status of the Colorado River System. Information about that 10 am meeting can be found here.
The briefing presentation will be hosted by ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke.
They will use terminology that many people not conversant in “water-speak” will find foreign. It is a language that in many respects is unique to a subject that demands precision in its terminology.
To assist the rapidly growing audience of people around the world who are following the Colorado River story, ADWR has prepared the following primer on many of the terms that inevitably populate the discussions about water in the Southwest, and, especially, discussions about the fragile state of the Colorado River:
Beneficial use: Essentially a determination by the Bureau of Reclamation that concludes the person using the water is employing reasonable and appropriate conservation measures. It isnormally construed to mean the consumption of water brought about by human endeavors. This includes use of water for municipal, industrial, agricultural, power generation, export, recreation, fish and wildlife, and other purposes, along with the associated losses incidental to these uses. Pursuant to 43 CFR 417.2, Reclamation’s regional director for the Lower Colorado River region will make annual recommendations regarding water conservation and operating practices to ensure that “deliveries of Colorado River water to each Contractor will not exceed those reasonably required for beneficial use.”
Bureau of Reclamation/Reclamation: The federal agency responsible for the wholesale management and distribution of water in the 17 western United States. Reclamation is a bureau within the Department of the Interior and the Secretary of the Interior acts as the “water master” for the Lower Colorado River by law.
Consumptive use: The U.S. Supreme Court has defined this term to mean “diversions from the stream less such return flow thereto as is available for consumptive use in the United States or in satisfaction of the Mexican Treaty obligation.” Arizona v. California, 547 U.S. 150, 153 (1963).
Dead Pool: The water elevation in a reservoir at which water can no longer be released downstream because the water does not reach any constructed outlet works. At Lake Mead, dead pool is estimated to be 895’ above sea level, and at Lake Powell dead pool is estimated to be 3,370’ above sea level.
Evaporation & Losses: Evaporation from reservoirs, evapotranspiration from riparian vegetation along the river corridor, and the evaporation from the stream’s water surface and wetted materials.
Health & Public Safety: In 2018, California enacted AB1668 and SB606, which require urban retail water suppliers to reduce water use and plan for drought. The baseline per capita water use for indoor water use was set, by statute, at 55 gallons per capita, per day (gpcd). In 2021, when critical drought was declared on the California State Water Project, the California Department of Water Resources issued a notice to Contractors of the minimum allocation of “not more than 55” gpcd “to meet domestic supply, fire protection, and sanitation needs during the year,” consistent with emergency regulations promulgated by the California State Water Resources Control Board. No such “standard” exists across the Colorado River Basin. However, as municipal water suppliers across the Basin are facing larger mandatory reductions, conversations have begun about what a minimum delivery requirement may be for junior priority users whose deliveries would otherwise be eliminated.
Mandatory cuts: Uncompensated reductions in water use required by law resulting in verifiable water remaining in Lake Mead. Reductions required by the 2007 Interim Guidelines relating to shortages and the Lower Basin DCP are mandatory. Additional mandatory cuts may be required by the Bureau of Reclamation in the near future to protect the Colorado River system.
Minimum Power Pool: The water elevation in a reservoir below which water can no longer produce power because the water does not reach the intakes for hydropower generation. At Lake Mead minimum power pool is estimated to be 950’ above sea level, and at Lake Powell minimum power pool is estimated to be 3,490’ above sea level.
Operational neutrality: This term stems from the May 3, 2022 decision issued by the Department of the Interior’s Assistant Secretary of Water and Science to hold back 480,000 acre-feet in Lake Powell in 2022. Although the water remained in Powell to help bolster surface levels there, for accounting purposes it was treated on Reclamation’s books as water that had been delivered to Lake Mead. “Operational Neutrality” refers to the Shortage Tier determination for the following Calendar Year by the Bureau of Reclamation. For 2023, Reclamation made its operational determination by accounting for the 480,000 acre-feet as if it had been delivered to Lake Mead, rather than using the projected actual reservoir elevation.
Paper water: Literally speaking, a water right that exists “on paper.” It is water that exists or is traded in terms of accounting, credits, or other transactions that does not involve the transfer of a physical volume of water. Also commonly referred to in the West as flow rates and volumes that are claimed on legal documents, but not yet adjudicated or without documented historic use.
Protection volume – the amount of water conservation necessary to protect the Colorado River system from crashing. That amount first was defined in May by Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton as “between 2 – 4 million acre-feet” of water in the River System that was assumed to be used in 2023-2026 in Reclamation’s model .
River Outlet Works (Glen Canyon Dam): Glen Canyon Dam infrastructure allowing for the delivery of water downstream when the reservoir falls below the penstock intake elevation for hydropower generation. The river outlet works (also called bypass tubes) do not generate hydropower. The elevation for the bypass tubes at Glen Canyon Dam is 3,374’ above sea level.
Runoff efficiency: The ratio of water-year runoff to water-year precipitation. Runoff efficiency has become a major consideration in recent years for the Colorado River system as dry soils, early and windy springs and other factors on the watershed have caused near-normal snowpack to produce very poor water-volume results.
Tier 2a: The Shortage Tier the Lower Basin will operate under in 2023. The Shortage Tiers were defined and agreed to in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan and authorized by both Congress and the Arizona Legislature. A Tier 2a Shortage requires Arizona to reduce its delivery of Colorado River water by 592,000 acre-feet.
Voluntary conservation: Voluntary reductions in water use created by individual water users, usually compensated, resulting in verifiable water remaining in Lake Mead.
Wet Water: A physical volume of water that physically can be (or is physically) transferred from one location to another. “Wet water” is used as a distinction from “paper water.”
At first glance, the connections between the world’s growing population and climate change seem obvious. The more people we have on this planet, the larger their collective impact on the climate.
However, a closer look with a longer time horizon reveals relationships between population size and climate change that can help us better understand both humanity’s predicament as the global population nears 8 billion people – a milestone the United Nations expects the world to hit on about Nov. 15, 2022.
Looking back to the Stone Age
For much of human evolution, our ancestors were exposed to large climatic fluctuations between ice ages and intermittent warmer periods. The last of these ice ages ended about 10,000 years ago.
Before the ice sheets melted, sea levels were about 400 feet (120 meters) lower than today. That allowed humans to migrate around the world. Everywhere they went, our ancestors reshaped landscapes, first by clearing forests and then through early agricultural practices that emerged in a number of regions starting just as the last ice age ended.
Paleoclimatologist William Ruddiman has suggested that these early actions – cutting down trees and expanding farming – caused a small initial rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That contributed to a stable climate over the past 10,000 years by counteracting trends of declining carbon dioxide levels that might have triggered another glaciation event.
By reshaping landscapes, our ancestors actively constructed the niches they inhabited. This process is an important aspect of evolutionary change, creating important feedback dynamics between evolving species and their environment.
As humans evolved, the demands of the growing population, associated knowledge creation and energy use created a feedback cycle my colleagues and I call the Anthropocene engine. That engine has transformed the planet.
Revving up the Anthropocene engine
The Anthropocene engine has been running for at least 8,000 years. It led to the rise of modern civilizations and ultimately to the environmental challenges we face today, including climate change.
How does the Anthropocene engine work?
First, populations had to reach a critical number of people to successfully create enough knowledge about their environments that they could begin to actively and purposefully transform the niches they lived in.
Successful agriculture was the product of such knowledge. In turn, agriculture increased the amount of energy available to these early societies.
More energy supports more people. More people led to early settlements and, later, to cities. This allowed for task specialization and division of labor, which, in turn, accelerated the creation of more knowledge, which increased available energy and allowed population size to grow as well. And so on, and so on.
While the details of this process differ around the world, they are all driven by the same Anthropocene engine.
One consequence of positive feedback cycles in dynamical systems is that they lead to exponential growth.
Exponential growth can start very slowly and be barely noticeable for quite some time. But eventually it will have dramatic consequences wherever resources are limited.
Driven by the Anthropocene engine, human population has grown exponentially, and individual societies have approached collapse multiple times over the past 8,000 years. The disappearance of the Easter Island civilization and the collapse of the Mayan empire, for example, have been linked to the depletion of environmental resources as populations rose. The dramatic decline of the European population during the Black Death in the 1300s was a direct consequence of crowded and unsanitary living conditions that facilitated the spread of Yersenia pestis, or plague.
Biologist Paul Ehrlich warned about unchecked growth in his 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” predicting growing global demand for limited resources would lead to societal collapse without changes in human consumption.
But globally, humanity has always found a way to avoid doom. Knowledge-based innovations, such as the Green Revolution – the broad-scale effects of which Ehrlich did not foresee – have enabled people to reset the clock, leading to more cycles of innovation and (almost) collapse.
One example is the sequence of energy regimes. It started with wood and animal power. Then came coal, oil and gas.
Fossil fuels powered the Industrial Revolution, and with it, greater wealth and advances in health care. But the age of fossil fuels has had dramatic consequences. It almost doubled the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in less than 300 years, causing the unprecedented speed of global warming that humanity is experiencing today.
The next energy transition to avoid collapse is underway now with the rise of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. But studies – including a report released ahead of the 2022 U.N. Climate Change Conference in November – show humans aren’t evolving their energy use fast enough to keep climate change in check.
Using knowledge to reset the cycle again
Every species, if left unchecked, would grow exponentially. But species are subject to constraints – or negative feedback mechanisms – such as predators and limited food supplies.
The Anthropocene engine has allowed humans to emancipate ourselves from many of the negative feedback mechanisms that otherwise would have kept the population’s growth in check. We intensified food production, developed trade among regions and discovered medications to survive diseases.
Where does this leave humanity now? Are we approaching inevitable collapse from climate change of our own making, or can we transition again and discover innovations that reset the cycle?
Introducing negative feedback into our socioeconomic-technical systems – not as radical population control or war, but in the form of norms, values and regulations on excess greenhouse gas emissions – can help keep climate change in check.
Humanity can use knowledge to keep itself within its environmental boundaries.
The general manager of the West Slope’s Colorado River District is calling out California for its meager water conservation plan, and he is right on. Andy Mueller made his comments in a memo to his district’s board of directors and during the board’s meeting earlier this month, according to reporting by The Daily Sentinel’s Dennis Webb. This was in response to an Oct. 5 letter by officials with California water entities using Colorado River water, which proposed conserving up to an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead annually.
Mueller said in his memo, “California continues to take the position that it will do so only on a voluntary, temporary, compensated basis and that their participation is contingent upon the federal government paying their water users an acceptable level of compensation and the implementation of additional conservation measures from the other Basin States (including Colorado).”
Frankly, every state is going to have to do more to solve this problem, but California should be stepping up the most. It’s the largest consumer of river water and the most distant from the headwaters, so it can have the biggest impact.
One area where we have a small disagreement with Mueller is around the idea of compensation for water users who make voluntary cuts…The idea of compensating Colorado River water users who cut their usage isn’t inherently bad.
Thanks to an active monsoon season water supply has exceeded expectations. Without adequate supplemental storage, MRGCD water users were dependent on the natural flow of the river during the 2022 irrigation season. River flow varied significantly during the season.
The season start-up was staggered from south to north due to limited water availability and considering differences in the length of growing season. By early April, diversions were being made to all divisions of the MRGCD. Due to limited supply, deliveries were made on a rotational basis.
Water was in short supply prior to spring runoff. As preseason predictions indicated, spring runoff only lasted for a short period (from the end of April to the end of May). Adequate water supply during spring runoff allowed for more predictability in scheduling , more flexibility in rotations, and more reliability in irrigation deliveries.
On May 31, 2022, the MRGCD held a special board meeting to notify water users of potentially poor water conditions as spring runoff tapered down. Water supply in June was extremely limited until the rains arrived near the end of the month. Rain in late June/ early July provided temporary relief from water shortages.
Hot and dry conditions returned for most of July resulting in historically low river flows until rains returned at the end of the month. Rain continued through August until dry conditions returned for most of September. Additional rounds of rain in late September and October eased irrigation demand and enabled sufficient water availability for the remainder of the season.
The irrigation season will end on October 31, 2022 except for Pueblos who have requested an extension. It is far too early to predict water availability for the 2023 irrigation season. Early snowstorms are encouraging, but conditions can change. One thing is certain, MRGCD water users will be dependent on natural river flows again next season because of Compact restrictions and ongoing construction of El Vado dam.
As of Friday, November 4, four days out from the midterm election, a total of 1,099,847 ballots have been returned and unaffiliated voters are more than 4 points ahead of each of the partisan camps.
Unaffiliated voter registration began surging the last ten years during Colorado decade of rapid growth. It now is more than 700,000 votes ahead of each of the partisan parties. Registration is 46 percent of voters, a jump from 38 percent in 2018. Democrats are 28 percent, Republicans 25 percent.
Dispute between Thornton, Larimer County has gone on for nearly four years
In a letter sent to Larimer County officials on Oct. 31, the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver and the Colorado Association of Home Builders wrote that the county’s February 2019 denial of a permit for a portion of a 72-mile pipeline Thornton needs to move its Poudre River shares continues to reverberate.
“The ongoing delays associated with Larimer County’s denial and refusal to work something out with Thornton are only increasing these costs and adding needless delays — carelessly pricing thousands of aspiring homeowners in Colorado out of the market in the process,” the letter reads.
According to the National Association of Home Builders, the letter said, a $1,000 increase in the cost of a median-cost new home bumps more than 2,300 Colorado households out of the market…Thornton says without its Poudre water shares, its growth will grind to a halt before 2030 at a population of 160,000. It has long-term plans for 240,000 residents but available water for only another 5,000 housing permits…
So far, Thornton has been unable to get the relief it wants in the courts. A Larimer County judge upheld the county’s decision to deny the pipeline permit and that ruling was affirmed by the Colorado Court of Appeals in September.