Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June tasked the seven Colorado River basin states to develop a plan to cut water use from the river by as much as 4 million acre-feet starting next year, or about 30 percent of the river’s recent annual flows, in order to prevent that future. One deadline came and went in August with no deal in place. States have continued to work toward finding some form of consensus in recent months, but nothing concrete has emerged…
In an interview Friday, Touton admitted that it is “very much an expedited timeline,” but said she has full confidence that something will be developed between the seven states over the next five to six weeks.
“It is what the river and the communities need and demand for this moment,” she said…
In October, the bureau kicked off the process of modifying the current drought guidelines for the Colorado, and will look at any proposals submitted by the states while also working to develop a plan that would allow the federal government to take unilateral action and mandate cuts if need be. Another deadline of sorts comes Tuesday, the last day for states to submit proposals for how to modify those drought guidelines, but states would have until the end of January to continue working toward coming to an agreement.
First off here’s the link to the Colorado River Water Users Association Twitter Fest.
Click the link to read the article on Nevada’s only statewide nonprofit newsroom The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):
“Everything all at once, yesterday.” That’s how a federal water manager described dealing with the Colorado River at a conference of water users in Las Vegas this week. The river faces a crisis fueled by overuse and amplified by climate change — and as Wayne Pullan, the upper Colorado River regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation stated, officials are taking an all-hands approach.
“We joke within the region that we’re going to change our slogan” to the Latin phrase for “everything all at once, yesterday,” Pullan said during a meeting Wednesday.
The conference comes on the precipice of action as federal water managers with the bureau continue to push Colorado River users to cut back and put forward a set of consensus-based policies to start stabilizing the river’s quickly declining storage reservoirs in a matter of months.
At stake is water used by about 40 million Americans in seven Western states, from Wyoming to California, 30 Native American tribes and Mexico. Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, is 28 percent full. Lake Powell, upstream, is 24 percent full. The low reservoirs give states that tap into the river little room to negotiate, and there are few options left other than significant cuts.
Earlier this year, the federal government, which operates infrastructure across the watershed, called on the seven states to cut massive amounts of water to stabilize Lake Mead and Lake Powell. In addition, the federal government is seeking comments from the states, tribal nations and the public about new operational policies for managing the reservoirs in the coming years.
Those comments are due Dec. 20. But the states will have another month — until the end of January — to negotiate a consensus-based solution that federal officials said they will weigh before taking unilateral action. In the absence of a consensus set of policies, David Palumbo, the bureau’s deputy commissioner, said the agency is also preparing a federal alternative.
He emphasized the effects of climate change reducing the amount of water running off into the river from snowpack, urging water users to think of new tools to address long-term aridification.
“We can’t rely on what we’ve done in the past to be adequate for the future,” he said.
In an interview, John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the state’s negotiator, said Colorado River states, which have had side meetings this week, are “still fairly far away from coming to consensus, but we’re closer than we were on Monday.”
The Las Vegas metro area, which gets about 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, has prepared for low-water levels at Lake Mead for decades, implementing aggressive urban conservation measures, recycling and an intake to get water from the bottom of Lake Mead.
When asked if Nevada could be facing further cutbacks, Entsminger said past efforts should be considered but he added that the state is “certainly willing to be part of the solution.” What such a solution looks like, even if a framework for cuts is agreed upon, remains an open question.
The monumental task of what comes next: Governance of the Colorado River is diffuse, with power and water distributed differently among states, Native American tribes, irrigation districts and cities. For nearly two decades, the states have worked to cut back on their water use. Over that time, in a series of incremental deals, water users agreed to cut about 1.3 million acre-feet (one acre-foot of water is about enough water to fill a football field to a depth of one foot).
Now the states need to cut about two to four million acre-feet — and they are being asked to do so in a matter of months, not decades. Much of those cuts will fall on water users downstream of Lake Mead. Of the states drawing on Lake Mead, Arizona and California account for the bulk of that use. The two states are wrestling with how to divide cuts among each other and among water users in each state, given a century of legal agreements about how to share shortages.
Still, they are starting to make some progress toward cuts. The three states that draw on Lake Mead submitted 32 proposals to receive federal compensation for conserving water, according to Rebecca Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But it’s likely that more painful cuts are going to be made, and some users will have to make hard choices. And states above Lake Mead, including Colorado, are also looking at compensated conservation.
“We have to accept the situation that we are in and we need to reduce demands,” she said. “All of us — every sector, every state, every water user… We have to accept that we cannot cling to our entitlements or allocations. If they are not there, none of that matters. It does not matter.”
Hydrology is dictating the agenda: For years, a motivator for the states to cut water use was the threat and uncertainty of federal intervention. That is still on the table. But in many ways, the physical hydrology of Lake Mead and Lake Powell are also dictating the timeline for action. With another winter of low runoff — the amount of water moving from snowpack into the river — both reservoirs soon risk falling to trigger elevations that would threaten water and power supplies.
In other words, if the reservoirs continue to drop, the cuts will be physical realities.
“Hydrology will dictate more than policy,” said Chuck Cullom, director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, urging water users to take real action that results in lowering demands.
“And the alternative to inaction is brutal and entirely obvious,” he added.
But after years of discussing the issue, the time to act is running out.
“It took us five years to negotiate a five-year [drought plan],” Entsminger said during a panel Thursday. “And we don’t have five months to come up with an operation plan for 2023 and 2024. So it’s past time. I can look at all six microphones up here and dozens of people across this room, and I can give your well-worn talking points. It’s time to set it aside and get real.”
This is a climate change story: Even without climate change, the Colorado River would likely be facing a shortage. It has long been known that the Colorado River is overallocated — there are more rights to water on paper than there is actual water in the river, at least in many years.
But climate change has undoubtedly amplified the problem.
At a meeting on Wednesday, Anne Castle, the U.S. Commissioner at the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the “real enemy” is not another state or economic sector. It is climate change. [ed. emphasis mine]
Over the last two decades, far less water has entered the river, further worsening the imbalance between water supply and demand. Even in years with near average precipitation, the Colorado River has seen below average runoff, attributed in part to dry conditions and poor soil moisture.
Like with so many issues related to climate change, addressing the problem is forcing officials to grapple with injustices and inequalities embedded in the systems governing the Colorado River. The founding documents for the river’s governance largely ignore the rights of Native American tribes and the ecosystems that sustain wildlife and plants throughout the Colorado River Basin.
In looking at the climate-caused crisis on the Colorado River and a world with less water to go around, water officials are beginning to grapple with some of these longstanding injustices.
Native American tribes hold the rights to roughly 20 percent of the Colorado River, but they have been excluded from past decisions about water use. That has started to change. On Thursday, top federal water officials held meetings with tribal leaders from across the Colorado River.
“We all have our own individual issues when it comes to water,” said Timothy Williams, chairman of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, whose reservation extends to Arizona, Nevada and California.
“I think it’s coming to a head. At some point, there’s decisions that are going to be made,” he said on Thursday. “We just want to make sure that we’re part of the decision-making process.”
First off here’s the link to the Colorado River Water Users Association 2022 Conference Twitter Fest.
Many state water officials fear they are already running out of time.
Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which delivers Colorado River water to central Arizona, said that “there’s a real possibility of an effective dead pool” within the next two years. That means water levels could fall so far that the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams — which created the reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead — would become an obstacle to delivering water to cities and farms in Arizona, California and Mexico.
“We may not be able to get water past either of the two dams in the major reservoirs for certain parts of the year,” Cooke said. “This is on our doorstep.”
The looming crisis has energized this annual gathering of water bureaucrats, the occasional cowboy hat visible among the standing-room-only crowd inside Caesars Palace. It’s the first time the conference has sold out, organizers said, and the specter of mass shortages looms as state water managers, tribes and the federal government meet to hash out how to cut usage on an unprecedented scale…
The states of the Upper Colorado River Basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — say it is difficult to specify how much they can cut because they are less dependent on allocations from reservoirs and more on variable flows of the river. The lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — also consume far more water.
“In the Upper Basin, we can say we’ll take 80 percent, and Mother Nature gives us 30,” said Gene Shawcroft, chair of the Colorado River Authority of Utah. “Those are some of the challenges we’re wrestling with.”
First off here’s the link to the Colorado River Water Users Association 2022 Conference Twitter Fest.
Click the link to read the article on The Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:
Speaking at a conference in Las Vegas, federal officials told water managers from the seven states that rely on the river that they will weigh immediate options next year to protect water levels in depleted reservoirs, and that the region must be prepared for the river to permanently yield less water because of climate change.
“The hotter, drier conditions that we face today are not temporary. Climate change is here today and has made it likely that we will continue to see conditions like this, if not worse, in the future,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton.
“The basin is seeing its worst drought in 1,200 years, and there is no relief in sight. And perhaps this is what it will be in the future,” Touton said.
Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, are now nearly three-fourths empty, and water levels are set to continue dropping. The latest government estimates show there is a risk that Lake Mead could reach “dead pool” levels in 2025, at which point the river would no longer flow past Hoover Dam, cutting off water for California, Arizona and Mexico. That grim scenario has given urgency to the search for solutions, as officials from states, water agencies, tribes and the federal government consider options for water cutbacks on a scale never seen before.
Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):
I came away from a week in Las Vegas more hopeful about a deal to prevent a Colorado River crash than I have felt since the ominous day last March when Lake Powell dropped below elevation 3,525.
The annual meeting of the Colorado Water Users Association is a bit like the shadow puppets of Java – projections onto a public stage of things hinted at but largely unseen behind.
On display in public this year, in the formal CRWUA panels, was a frank discussion of the river’s problems that I found unprecedented.
Behind, in the realm of the puppeteers, was even more frank talk about the shape of a deal that would be needed to halt the reservoirs’ declines. It’s still a longshot, with a narrow path to success and a very tight deadline – whatever “consensus plan” the seven Colorado River Basin states come up with has to be delivered to the Department of Interior by the end of January.
But going into CRWUA, I could see no path. Now one is dimly visible.
MANAGING BASED ON INFLOW, RATHER THAN RESERVOIR LEVELS
At the heart of the art of the possible here is shift in the discussion of a management framework, from the well-worn path of management by reservoir levels (if Powell “x” and Mead “y”, do “z”) to a system based on inflows. If less water flows in, you have to take less water out.
Phrased that way, it sounds so obvious, but it’s a major shift from the way the system was built and has been managed for a century. The reservoirs were built to store surplus when it’s wet to be used when it’s dry. I try not to use the phrase “paradigm shift” loosely, and it’s not entirely clear that it applies here. But the change that we’re seeing bears a lot of the hallmarks of the historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn’s original formulation of the concept – the accumulation of enough anomalies that you can no longer stick to the old way of thinking.
I point here, by way of metaphor, to the accumulating shipwrecks emerging from the shores of Lake Mead.
What the hydrologists call the “mass balance problem” makes this inevitable. In the long run, you can’t take more water out of a reservoir than flows in. But the realization earlier this year that Reclamation’s engineers are uncomfortable using Glen Canyon Dam’s lower elevation outlet works has place the mass balance barrier squarely within the range of the next few years’ planning. If you believe them (and, importantly, the Department of Interior seems to), then there’s no way around shifting pretty quickly to a management regime in which the water you release from Lake Powell has to match up each year with the amount that flows in.
SO WHAT CHANGES IN RIVER MANAGEMENT WHEN YOU SHIFT TO AN INFLOW-OUTFLOW REGIME?
As soon as you adopt a policy that says that releases from Lake Powell are essentially limited to what flows into the reservoir – which is the practical equivalent of “protecting elevation 3,490” or whatever line the river management community chooses above that to offer a safety buffer – 3,525 used to be the number people talked about, but we blew right through that last March – you trip two significant management triggers:
- you face the very real prospect of Colorado River flows past Lee Ferry dropping below the 10-year standard set by the compact, triggering either a compromise or a very ugly legal fight
- you face the very real prospect of deep cuts for water users in the Lower Basin, because you pretty quickly turn Lake Mead into an inflow-outflow system too – and/or very ugly legal fights
I could have written all of that before CRWUA began. In fact, I did.
But going into CRWUA I believed the only way to tackle those problems was with a federal intervention. Now there seems a hope of a collaborative solution – of which I’m a big fan.
RELAXING THE LEE FERRY CONSTRAINT
There were encouraging signs this week that compromise might be possible on the first point, that the Lower Basin might agree to look the other way at a Lee Ferry shortfall, if the Upper Basin states are willing to get past their “it’s a Lower Basin overuse problem” mantra of recent years and kick in some reductions of their own. My read on the situation is that it won’t take a lot of water – folks in the Lower Basin get the fact that it’s primarily their problem. But I’m not in the negotiating room. This will almost certainly be harder than my usual naively optimistic expectation, right?
CUTTING LOWER BASIN USE
Regardless of how the Lee Ferry thing plays out, the hydrologic reality is that there will have to be deep Lower Basin cuts – far deeper than anything contemplated to date. The fact that extreme scenarios are being discussed among the states, rather than having state officials step aside and make the federal government impose them (or, in reality, as newly named Upper Colorado River Commission member Anne Castle reminded us, having climate change impose them) was encouraging to see in the shadows of the CRWUA puppets visible to us outsiders.
That’s incredibly important to the Lee Ferry point, because if the Lower Basin can get together and take on the herculean task of coming up with a formula to agree to the necessary cuts rather than having them be imposed, the Upper Basin is more likely to be willing to contribute without their longstanding worry that anything they kick in will just be sucked up and used in the Lower Basin.
In other words, legitimate action by the Lower Basin states makes Upper Basin action more possible.
My twinkly collaboration fanboy smile should not mislead you into thinking this will be painless – there will be a lot less water for cities and agriculture, and it would be a legal and moral failing if Tribal sovereigns are not brought into this discussion. All of those things make this really hard.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
All of this – an implicit relaxation of the Lee Ferry constraint, voluntary deep cuts in the Lower Basin, and an Upper Basin commitment to contribute some water – seemed to me beyond reach before we gathered at CRWUA. But behind the scenes there was serious, good faith attention to all of them, without the people making the proposals getting laughed out of the room. As Southern Nevada’s John Entsminger told the Nevada Independent’s Daniel Rothberg, the basin states are “still fairly far away from coming to consensus, but we’re closer than we were on Monday.”
Responses to Interior’s request for comments on its crisis-management-in-real-time planning effort are due Tuesday. It will be interesting to see if any of the Basin States offer up a formal first pass at a plan. And Reclamation has asked the states to provide a consensus scheme by the end of January.
Heading into CRWUA, I believed no such consensus was possible. I’ve updated my priors.