#Drought news February 23, 2023: Weekly precipitation totals were half an inch to over an inch in parts of #Wyoming and #Colorado, abnormal dryness and severe drought were trimmed in southern Colorado

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

Click the link to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

This Week’s Drought Summary

An upper-level ridge over the northeastern North Pacific Ocean deflected Pacific storm systems away from the West Coast of the contiguous U.S. (CONUS) during this U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) week (February 15-21). This resulted in a generally drier-than-normal week over much of the West. An upper-level trough developed over the western CONUS downstream from the ridge, and the trough was responsible for a cooler-than-normal week over the West. Strong high pressure over the Gulf of Mexico extended into a ridge across the East Coast. A southerly flow between the trough and eastern ridge spread warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico across the eastern CONUS and directed weather systems northeastward from the southern Plains to Great Lakes. Two weather systems early in the week generated above-normal precipitation across parts of the central to eastern CONUS. As the week ended, weather systems moved across the northern tier states, bringing areas of snow. The week was wetter than normal across parts of the northern Rockies, from the Four Corners states to western Great Lakes, and from the central Gulf Coast states to Ohio Valley and Mid-Atlantic states. It was a drier-than-normal week across much of the West, southern Plains, coastal Southeast, and southern Great Lakes to New England, and parts of the northern to central Plains. Drought or abnormal dryness expanded where it continued dry in parts of the Pacific Northwest, southern Plains, and Florida. Drought or abnormal dryness contracted or reduced in intensity where it was wet over parts of the Four Corners area, southern and central Plains to Upper Mississippi Valley, and the Big Island in Hawaii…

High Plains

A storm system tracked across southern parts of the High Plains region early in the week, with another late in the week tracking across northern Wyoming. Weekly precipitation totals were half an inch to over an inch in parts of Wyoming, Colorado, northern and eastern Kansas, southern and eastern Nebraska, and southeast South Dakota. The rest of the region received little to no precipitation. Moderate to exceptional drought was trimmed in a few areas of northwestern and eastern Kansas, and adjacent parts of Nebraska, while abnormal dryness and severe drought were trimmed in southern Colorado. No change was made to the drought areas in the rest of the region…

Colorado Drought Monitor one week change map ending February 21, 2023.


Half an inch of precipitation fell over a few areas in the Four Corners states and in western Oregon, while 2 inches or more of precipitation occurred over parts of the Washington Cascades and northern Rockies. But for the most part, little to no precipitation fell across large parts of the West region. Abnormal dryness and moderate to severe drought were trimmed in northwest New Mexico where this week was wet and moist conditions were evident in soil moisture, snowpack, and Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) indicators. But low streamflow, snowpack, soil moisture, and SPI values prompted expansion of abnormal dryness and moderate drought along coastal Oregon and southwest Washington, as well as in the Idaho panhandle. While many reservoirs in California have recovered from the recent atmospheric river events that have struck that state, reservoirs in Oregon continue at drastically low levels and some reservoirs in Utah remain at low levels. As of February 21, 2023, the water level in Lake Powell was 3521.53 feet above sea level, which is the lowest level recorded since the lake was filled in the 1960s. As noted by the media, Lake Powell is a man-made reservoir that sits along the Colorado River on the Arizona-Utah border. It generates electricity for about 4.5 million people and is a key part of the Colorado River Basin system, which supplies water to more than 40 million people. Further north, an extension agent in Blaine County, Montana, reported the drought is causing reduced water for irrigation, later emergence of spring grasses, and grazing must be supplemented and water hauled for livestock…


Two inches or more of precipitation fell across eastern portions of the South region, specifically parts of Mississippi and much of Tennessee. Half an inch or more occurred from there to eastern Oklahoma and northeast Texas. For the rest of Oklahoma and Texas, the week continued a dry pattern. Abnormal dryness and moderate to extreme drought contracted in eastern Oklahoma, due to wet conditions this week and previous weeks and improved soil moisture and streamflow conditions, and abnormal dryness contracted in northeast Texas. But extreme to exceptional drought expanded in western Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle, while abnormal dryness and moderate to severe drought expanded in parts of southern Texas along the coast and along the Rio Grande River where streamflow and soil moisture conditions deteriorated and precipitation deficits continued to grow. According to media reports, 80-mph winds created a dust storm in the Oklahoma panhandle that caused a multiple car pileup, killing a driver…

Looking Ahead

A strong Pacific weather system moved across the West on February 22, with a low pressure and frontal system spreading rain and snow from the Plains to Mississippi Valley and across northern states. A series of weather systems will follow during February 23-28, spreading an inch or more of precipitation from Oklahoma to the Great Lakes, from the Tennessee to Ohio Valleys, and across much of the Northeast, as well as along the West Coast and into the interior West. Some precipitation totals will exceed 2 inches in the Upper Mississippi Valley and western Great Lakes, and exceed 4 inches along coastal Washington and California and into the Sierra Nevada range. The Gulf of Mexico Coast, western parts of the Great Plains, and parts of the Mid-Atlantic Coast will see little to no precipitation. High pressure over the Gulf of Mexico will keep temperatures warmer than normal from the southern Plains to Ohio Valley and Gulf Coast to Mid-Atlantic Coast, while temperatures will be cooler than normal across the Far West to northern Plains. For February 28-March 8, the outlook favors colder-than-normal weather across the West and Alaska, with warmer-than-normal weather from the southern Plains to Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes. Above-normal precipitation is likely across Alaska, the western CONUS, and much of the CONUS east of the Rockies except along the Gulf Coast where below-normal precipitation is favored.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending February 21, 2023.

Romancing the River: Caliphobia and the #ColoradoRiver — Sibley’s Rivers #COriver #aridification

All American Canal Construction circa. 1938 via the Imperial Irrigation District. The All-American Canal in far southern California under construction, to carry water to the Imperial Valley – so called because it lies entirely with the United States, unlike an earlier canal that was mostly in Mexico.

‘Caliphobia’ is a cultural germ that infects many Americans everywhere. ‘Caliphobia’ is fear and loathing of the State of California, the state that always seems to be ahead of everyone else in everything, bringing us everything from new entertainments and toys, to new laws on cultural frontiers the rest of us know we ought to be brave enough to embrace ourselves. I’m thinking of things like auto emission standards where the size of the California market brought the automobile industry to heel, with the nation eventually falling in line too. We hate them when they’re right.

Californians also occasionally take a big step backward in a deliberate way, and the nation eventually falls in step there too – remember ‘Proposition 13,’ California’s 1978 property tax revolution to protect existing homeowners at the expense of community health, a battle which ultimately generated the national ‘Tea Party’ and the Trumpian ‘I’ve got mine Jack’ culture. We hate them when they’re successfully wrong.

California always seems to be first with the worst as well as the best. For this they are generally disliked, even hated, in a subrational way that is often tinged with envy – Caliphobia. This leads to things like bumper stickers saying ‘Don’t Californicate us!’ and the perception of Californians as emigrants from the gridlock of their success, spreading through the West with fistfuls of money to drive up our housing prices.

California’s impact nationally has to do mostly with its size and population. Close to one of every eight Americans lives in California – approaching 40 million. One-eighth of our Congresspeople are part of the 53-person California delegation.

But where California – and Caliphobia – has had its largest and most ingrained impact may be in the Colorado River Region – the seven states through or between which the Colorado River meanders. California has close to twice as many people and Congressmen as the other six states combined.

We see Caliphobia rearing its head today on the Colorado, as six of the seven Basin states have put forward a plan for major cuts in water use in the Basin – cuts the Interior Department says are essential if their system of storage and distribution structures are going to remain functional. But California refuses to sign onto that plan, in which they would take a big hit; instead, they have put forward their own plan in which they would take a moderate hit, but only after Arizona and Nevada have taken big hits, demanding that their large senior priority rights be honored. This is engendering media headlines like ‘California Isn’t Playing Nice on the Colorado River’ or ‘Unlike California, Vegas isn’t gambling with its future by squandering water.’

Upper Basin States vs. Lower Basin circa 1925 via CSU Water Resources Archives

Caliphobia is nothing new along the Colorado River, however. It goes back to the early 20th century. All seven states in the Region – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming – had adopted the first come, first served appropriation doctrine for the distribution of the use of water. Appropriation law – free water for free land, permanently if you get there early – became a powerful growth engine that contributed to growth in all seven states in the early 20thcentury, but California’s population quintupled in that time.

This gave the six ‘slower’ states reason to fear that, in an unchecked seven-state horse race to appropriate use of the Colorado River’s water, California had the pole position and a fast start, and might put most of the river’s water to use while they were still getting started. The fact that the developers of the Salton Sink, aka the Imperial Valley, down at the end of the river, had a 1901 appropriation filing for more than two million acre-feet of river water lent substance to their fear. Caliphobia spread along the river.

Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. Members of the Colorado River Commission stood together at the signing of the Colorado River Compact on November 24, 1922. The signing took place at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover presiding (seated). (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

Their Caliphobia led to the convening, in 1922, of the Colorado River Compact commission, with the original intention to make an equitable seven-way division of the use of the river that would override the appropriation doctrine at the interstate level, assuring each state of a share of the river to develop in its own good time. But a seven-way split proved impossible to attain; they lacked necessary information about how much water was even in the river, and the only information they had about their own futures came from their own overheated imaginations. So in something close to desperation, with time running out, they came up with a big sloppy broad stroke: dividing the river in two, an Upper Basin with the four states above the unsettled canyon region (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming), and a Lower Basin with the three states below the canyons (Arizona, California, and Nevada). Basically, each Basin would get the consumptive use of 7.5 million acre-feet (maf), to further divide among themselves as their futures unfolded.

It is hard to see the Compact as a real success – certainly not an achievement deserving the reverence most water mavens hold it in today. It gave the four Upper Basin states relief from having to compete for water with California, but it left Arizona and Nevada in the cage with California, and Arizona refused to ratify the Compact as a result. California officials said their state would not ratify the Compact until there was solid assurance that the storage dam would be built. All the Compact really achieved was a minimum show of agreement by six out of the seven states, which Congress found acceptable enough, and proceeded with the Boulder Canyon Project Act that finally passed in 1929.

The Act itself relieved the Lower Basin states of the stress of dividing up their 7.5 maf – difficult given Arizona’s bad case of Caliphobia – by doing the division for them: 4.4 maf for California, 2.8 maf for Arizona, and 300,000 af for Nevada. Why so little for Nevada? All the action in Nevada then was in the western part of the state, in the relatively well-watered mining and ranching area just east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, four hundred miles from the Colorado River. The only town in southeastern Nevada was Las Vegas, a little flag-stop collection of ranchers and prospectors.

Caliphobia was enough of a presence in Congress so that, before the representatives would vote on the Boulder Canyon Project Act, California was required to pass a state law that the state would limit its use of Colorado River water to the 4.4 maf specified in the Act. California passed that law docilely enough in 1929; the Act contained not just the big dam to control the river, but the weir dam and All-American Canal for getting water to their Imperial Valley, so they had a lot to gain by complying.

But then, once the Act was passed and construction had begun, the seven largest California users got together in 1931 to divvy up their 4.4 maf – and an additional 962,000 acre-feet that they said the Upper Basin wouldn’t be using for decades, so why shouldn’t they use it in the meantime?

They were, in other words, going to use the Upper Basin’s unused share of the river to grow on, in hopes that there would prove to still be excess undivided water in the Basin when the Upper Basin needed its water – or that the engineers would have figured out how to bring new water in from some other river with water to spare. Early Anthropocene thinking: something would come along to keep them from being limited to their 4.4 maf. The intrastate Seven-party Agreement became part of the ‘Law of the River,’ along with the 1929 California Limitation Law.

The Metropolitan Water District, created to serve the Los Angeles-San Diego metropolitan area with Colorado River water, bet on the permanence of that surplus water in a big way: they built the 250-mile Colorado River Aqueduct to carry twice their share of the 4.4 legal allotment – a concrete conviction that they would not be limited.

The Bureau went along with this, given California’s assurance that it would only use ‘surplus water’ so long as it existed; it was consistent with the Bureau’s optimistic outlook for the future of the river’s flow – even though in 1931, the river’s flow dropped to half of the allotted 15 maf, the beginning of a droughty decade. The myth of a surplus flow, above and beyond the Compact allotments, was born, and would persist on paper too – well, to the present: it has been the increasingly fictitious surplus that supposedly ‘paid’ the 1.5 maf of evaporation and other system losses on the lower river.

The surplus was also supposed to take care of most of the Mexican allotment too, once that was negotiated in 1944. Anticipating an eventual allotment to Mexico, the Compact had said that ‘such waters shall be supplied first from the waters which are surplus over and above the aggregate’ allotted to the states, and ‘if such surplus shall prove insufficient for this purpose, then, the burden of such deficiency shall be equally borne’ by the two basins. More about that in a moment.

Caliphobia in the Upper Basin states increased as it became increasingly obvious after the 1930s drought that there was probably never going to be enough water in the river consistently for them to get a full 7.5 maf share. Yet the Compact committed them to ‘not cause the flow at Lee Ferry (the division point) to be depleted’ below 75 maf in any 10-year period. So even though there was not enough for their full allotment, they had to let the Lower Basin’s full allotment go downriver, or else – well, the Compact said nothing about what would or should happen if the flow at Lee Ferry fell below the Compact minimum, but that only enabled the Caliphobic imagination to run wild on what California would do to Upper Basin users in such an instance.

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.

That clause could have been interpreted as a mere caution to make sure the Upper Basin users themselves were not responsible for a seriously diminished flow of the erratic river past Lee Ferry. But it could also be interpreted as a delivery commitment even if the diminished flows were caused by something other than human uses, like a two decade drought – which would already have seriously impacted the Upper Basin. Would the Lower Basin – California – add insult to injury by placing a call on them to further diminish their own uses to meet the 7.5 maf ‘obligation’? Letting the Lower Basin escape sharing any of the pain from the erratic river?

I find no evidence that California and Arizona ever officially threatenedthat, but the Caliphobic imagination believed it would happen, so the 1948 Upper Colorado River Compact in a sense codified it as a delivery obligation no matter what, and even included punishment in a ‘call’ situation, for Upper Basin states who might have had gone above their percentage of the river’s highly variable flows.

Why did the Upper Basin not take advantage instead of the Compact’s Article VI invitation, ‘should any claim or controversy arise between any two or more of the signatory States,’ to work out a more equitable modification to the Compact? Caliphobia: fear that California was so big and powerful that it would just roll right over the four states. The six Davids were basically too timid to take on their Goliath.

Lake Powell, a key reservoir on the Colorado River, has seen water levels drop precipitously as a result of two decades of drought. (Source: The Water Desk and Lighthawk Conservation Flying)

Another insult was added to the cumulative inequity to the Upper Basin in 1970 when, with Powell Reservoir filling behind Glen Canyon Dam, ‘Operating Criteria for Colorado System Reservoirs’ were developed that set a desired minimum release from Powell for the Lower Basin, not the 7.5 maf Compact allotment, but 8.23 maf, the Compact allotment plus half of the Mexican obligation, to be shared among the four states. But was the Lower Basin subtracting their half of the Mexican obligation from their allotments? No, they were still relying on ‘surplus’ flows, even though with ever increasing Upper Basin use, and the Central Arizona Project under construction, that surplus was steadily diminishing.

It wasn’t until 2003 that the Interior Department – perhaps also a little fearful of California – cleared its throat and told California that it was time to give up the use of a no longer existing surplus. To everyone’s surprise, California agreed that, yes, it probably was time, and the terms of the ‘California Quantification Settlement Agreement’ were worked out, and California is now back to 4.4 maf, sometimes even a little less.

Does this mean that the basic mythic story of the past century is no longer Goliath and the six Caliphobic Davids, but is more Gulliver getting tied down by the Caliphobic Lilliputians? How the current situation among the seven states shakes out will tell us more on that.

On the one hand, there are probably thousands of farmers on spreads of all sizes throughout the Basin quietly hoping that California’s stand for the primacy of appropriation law succeeds. The future of that body of law may hang in the balance. Too many people are asking questions like, how can we resolve anything with an appropriation law when everything is already appropriated? The farmers are probably happy to have one of the really big dogs making their case.

On the other hand, the six-state plan is not really an appropriation issue; it is primarily an effort to clean up an error left standing too long: the Lower Basin has no surplus left in the water bank to cover its system losses – or its Mexican obligation, for that matter. (Why has that not been mentioned yet?) The resulting ‘structural deficit’ is why Mead Reservoir outflow is exceeding available inflow, and the logical thing to do is the ‘Nevada solution’ of simply parceling out that deficit in some equitable way among the three states, reducing their allotments accordingly. There is not really a priority issue involved in the six-state plan.

However it all shakes out in the next several months, we might hope that the irrational aspects of Caliphobia might phase out, and no question about equity in the Basin be left unasked out of fear. There is not enough love for California anywhere, even on the national level, for it to get away with throwing its weight around.

#Colorado Establishes Urban Landscape #Water #Conservation Task Force — Colorado Department of Natural Resources

A Garden In A Box kit planted in southeast Denver’s Hampden neighborhood. Photo credit: Denver Water

Click the link to read the release on the Colorado Department of Natural Resources website (Chris Arend):

The Colorado Department of Natural Resources and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB)  announced the creation and appointment of members to a water conservation focused Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force. Over the next year, the Task Force will work to identify practical ways to advance outdoor water conservation through state policy and local initiatives, to meet the pressing challenges of urban water conservation in Colorado.

The Task Force arose out of the Governor’s initiatives announced during his 2023 State of the State highlighting the need to prioritize the intersections of climate change, water and housing. The Task Force is also informed by the newly finalized Colorado Water Plan calls for “Transformative Landscape Change”—understanding the need to start building the landscapes of tomorrow, today and more closely aligning land use plans, water use, and water conservation.

“Rather than just pointing to other states’ methods, the Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force will strive to find solutions that work in our state’s unique environment,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The Task Force will focus on actionable recommendations like setting standards for turf-alternative ‘Colorado Scaping,’ gallons-per-square-foot water budgets, as well as evaluating land use development, water affordability, and much more.” 

Sustained outdoor water savings are often difficult to realize. These goals require water providers and other groups working together in ways that extend beyond turf removal and work to advance landscape transformation in ways that provide lasting water savings.

“There’s not one single solution to urban water conservation success in Colorado,” said Becky Mitchell, CWCB Director. “It will require a cumulative effort, everyone doing a little bit—so I’m happy to have such a robust team of experts on this Task Force including water providers, urban planning experts, land use experts, developers and more, from all across the state.” 

The 21-member task force is now set, consisting of 8 water utilities, 2 water conservation districts, 2 environmental non-governmental organization representatives, and several single seats. Additional Task Force consultation may also include coordination with specialists like: affordable housing professionals, water rate experts, arborists, transportation specialists or other groups as determined by the Task Force. The team will aim to meet 4 times over the next year, wrapping up in January 2024.

Members of the Task Force include:

1.Water Provider (Front Range)Greg FisherDenver Water
2.Water Provider (Front Range)Catherine MoravecColorado Springs Utilities
3.Water Provider (Front Range)Tim YorkAurora Water
4.Water Provider (Front Range)Rick SchultzCastle Rock
5.Water Provider (Front Range)Mariel MillerFort Collins
6.Water Provider (Front Range)Drew BeckwithCity of Westminster
7.Water Provider (West Slope)Andrea LopezUte Water – Grand Junction 
8.Water Provider (West Slope)Jarrod BiggsDurango Water
9. Resort Community RepresentativeTorie JarvisNWCCOG
10.Water Authority Lisa DarlingSouth Metro Water Supply Authority
11.Conservation District (West Slope)Amy MoyerColorado River District
12.Conservation District (East Slope)Frank KinderNorthern Water
13.Special District Paige McFarlandCentennial Water & Sanitation District
14.Nonprofit OrganizationLaura BelangerWestern Resource Advocates
15.Nonprofit OrganizationKate LarsonResource Central
16.Stormwater & Flood OrganizationBao ChongtouaMile High Flood District
17. Land Use Planning ExpertWaverly KlawSonoran Institute
18.Urban Planning ExpertAustin TroyUC Denver
19. DeveloperPatrick McMeekinHartford Homes
20. Community ExpertCinceré EadesDenver Parks & Rec
21. Landscape Industry ProfessionalJohn McMahonALCC

Paper: High Resolution SnowModel Simulations Reveal Future Elevation-Dependent Snow Loss and Earlier, Flashier Surface Water Input for the Upper Colorado River Basin — AGU

We are seeing the best start to our snowpack in over a decade. But it is only a start – most of the winter season has yet to unfold, major reservoirs hold below-average storage, and last years’ experience demonstrates that powerful #storms can punctuate but not end a #drought. Photo credit: California DWR

Click the link to access the paper on the AGU website (John C. HammondGraham A. SexstoneAnnie L. PutmanTheodore B. BarnhartDavid M. ReyJessica M. DriscollGlen E. ListonKristen L. RasmussenDaniel McGrathSteven R. FassnachtStephanie K. Kampf). Here’s the abstract and plain language summery:

Continued climate warming is reducing seasonal snowpacks in the western United States, where >50% of historical water supplies were snowmelt-derived. In the Upper Colorado River Basin, declining snow water equivalent (SWE) and altered surface water input (SWI, rainfall and snowmelt available to enter the soil) timing and magnitude affect streamflow generation and water availability. To adapt effectively to future conditions, we need to understand current spatiotemporal distributions of SWE and SWI and how they may change in future decades. We developed 100-m SnowModel simulations for water years 2001–2013 and two scenarios: control (CTL) and pseudo-global-warming (PGW). The PGW fraction of precipitation falling as snow was lower relative to CTL, except for November–April at high elevations. PGW peak SWE was lower for low (−45%) and mid elevations (−14%), while the date of peak SWE was uniformly earlier in the year for all elevations (17–23 days). Currently unmonitored high elevation snow represented a greater fraction of total PGW SWE. PGW peak daily SWI was higher for all elevations (30%–42%), while the dates of SWI peaks and centroids were earlier in the year for all elevations under PGW. PGW displayed elevated winter SWI, lower summer SWI, and changes in spring SWI timing were elevation-dependent. Although PGW peak SWI was elevated and earlier compared to CTL, SWI was more evenly distributed throughout the year for PGW. These simulated shifts in the timing and magnitude of SWE and SWI have broad implications for water management in dry, snow-dominated regions.

Key Points

  • Projections show lower peak snow water equivalent (SWE) below 3,000 m and earlier peak SWE, peak surface water input (SWI) at all elevations
  • Greater future peak SWI and reduced annual snow-derived SWI for all elevations, with a more even SWI distribution throughout the year
  • A greater fraction of future SWE will be in high elevations that are currently unmonitored

Plain Language Summary

Snowpack water storage has historically functioned as a reliable extension of manmade reservoir storage. Loss of this storage has consequences for water resource management, ecological communities, and natural hazards including wildfire. We modeled snow accumulation and melt at high spatial resolution in the Upper Colorado River Basin to assess patterns in the timing and magnitude of snow storage and snowmelt for historical and future scenarios. We analyze these patterns in relation to existing snow monitoring station coverage, and ask how this coverage may need to change in future decades to better represent water availability. Our results indicate widespread future snow storage losses at lower elevations, but limited change at higher elevations that will likely remain conducive to seasonal snow accumulation and melt for decades to come. Peak snow storage and peak snowmelt occurred earlier for all elevations in future years, with increased peak surface water input noted at all elevations. A greater fraction of future snow storage will be in currently unmonitored high elevations. Projected elevation dependent changes from this study have implications for other dry, snow dominated regions, and additional work is needed to evaluate combined effects of widespread snow loss and earlier, flashier input on coordinated water management.

As #ClimateChange and overuse shrink #LakePowell, the emergent landscape is coming back to life – and posing new challenges — The Conversation

The white ‘bathtub ring’ around Lake Powell, which is roughly 110 feet high, shows the former high water mark. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Daniel Craig McCool, University of Utah

As Western states haggle over reducing water use because of declining flows in the Colorado River Basin, a more hopeful drama is playing out in Glen Canyon.

Lake Powell, the second-largest U.S. reservoir, extends from northern Arizona into southern Utah. A critical water source for seven Colorado River Basin states, it has shrunk dramatically over the past 40 years.

An ongoing 22-year megadrought has lowered the water level to just 22.6% of “full pool,” and that trend is expected to continue. Federal officials assert that there are no plans to drain Lake Powell, but overuse and climate change are draining it anyway.

As the water drops, Glen Canyon – one of the most scenic areas in the U.S. West – is reappearing.

This landscape, which includes the Colorado River’s main channel and about 100 side canyons, was flooded starting in the mid-1960s with the completion of Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona. The area’s stunning beauty and unique features have led observers to call it “America’s lost national park.”

Lake Powell’s decline offers an unprecedented opportunity to recover the unique landscape at Glen Canyon. But managing this emergent landscape also presents serious political and environmental challenges. In my view, government agencies should start planning for them now.

A tarnished jewel

Glen Canyon Dam, which towers 710 feet high, was designed to create a water “bank account” for the Colorado River Basin. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation touted Lake Powell as the “Jewel of the Colorado” and promised that it would be a motorboater’s paradise and an endless source of water and hydropower.

Lake Powell was so big that it took 17 years to fill to capacity. At full pool, it contained 27 million acre-feet of water – enough to cover 27 million acres of land to a depth of one foot – and Glen Canyon Dam’s turbines could generate 1,300 megawatts of power when the reservoir was high.

Soon the reservoir was drawing millions of boaters and water skiers every year. But starting in the late 1980s, its volume declined sharply as states drew more water from the Colorado River while climate change-induced drought reduced the river’s flow. Today the reservoir’s average volume is less than 6 million acre-feet.

Nearly every boat ramp is closed, and many of them sit far from the retreating reservoir. Hydropower production may cease as early as 2024 if the lake falls to “minimum power pool,” the lowest point at which the turbines can draw water. And water supplies to 40 million people are gravely endangered under current management scenarios.

These water supply issues have created a serious crisis in the basin, but there is also an opportunity to recover an amazing landscape. Over 100,000 acres of formerly flooded land have emerged, including world-class scenery that rivals some of the crown jewels of the U.S. national park system. https://www.youtube.com/embed/y7jm08U38c0?wmode=transparent&start=0 As Lake Powell recedes, it is uncovering formerly flooded land and things that past visitors left behind.

Bargained away

Glen Canyon made a deep impression on explorer John Wesley Powell when he surveyed the Colorado River starting in 1867. When Powell’s expedition floated through Glen Canyon in 1869, he wrote:

“On the walls, and back many miles into the country, numbers of monument-shaped buttes are observed. So we have a curious ensemble of wonderful features – carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds, and monuments … past these towering monuments, past these oak-set glens, past these fern-decked alcoves, past these mural curves, we glide hour after hour.”

A red rock cliff towers above trees and a small pool of water.
This side canyon emerged in recent years as Lake Powell shrank. The white ‘bathtub ring’ on the rock wall shows past water levels. Daniel Craig McCool, CC BY-ND

Glen Canyon remained relatively unknown until the late 1940s, when the Bureau of Reclamation proposed several large dams on the upper Colorado River for irrigation and hydropower. Environmentalists fiercely objected to one at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border, alarmed by the prospect of building a dam in a national monument. Their campaign to block it succeeded – but in return they accepted a dam in Glen Canyon, a decision that former Sierra Club President David Brower later called his greatest regret.

New challenges

The first goal of managing the emergent landscape in Glen Canyon should be the inclusion of tribes in a co-management role. The Colorado River and its tributaries are managed through a complex maze of laws, court cases and regulations known as the “Law of the River.” In an act of stupendous injustice, the Law of the River ignored the water rights of Native Americans until courts stepped in and required western water users to consider their rights.

Tribes received no water allocation in the 1922 Colorado River Compact and were ignored or trivialized in subsequent legislation. Even though modern concepts of water management emphasize including all major stakeholders, tribes were excluded from the policymaking process.

There are 30 tribes in the Colorado River Basin, at least 19 of which have an association with Glen Canyon. They have rights to a substantial portion of the river’s flow, and there are thousands of Indigenous cultural sites in the canyon.

Another management challenge is the massive amounts of sediment that have accumulated in the canyon. “Colorado” means “colored red” in Spanish, a recognition of the silt-laden water. This silt used to build beaches in the Grand Canyon, just downstream, and created the Colorado River delta in Mexico.

But for the past 63 years, it has been accumulating in Lake Powell, where it now clogs some sections of the main channel and will eventually accumulate below the dam. Some of it is laced with toxic materials from mining decades ago. As more of the canyon is exposed, it may become necessary to create an active sediment management plan, including possible mechanical removal of some materials to protect public health.

The creation of Lake Powell also resulted in biological invasives, including nonnative fish and quagga mussels. Some of these problems will abate as the reservoir declines and a free-flowing river replaces stagnant still water.

On a more positive note, native plants are recolonizing side canyons as they become exposed, creating verdant canyon bottoms. Restoring natural ecosystems in the canyon will require innovative biological management strategies as the habitat changes back to a more natural landscape.

Finally, as the emergent landscape expands and side canyons recover their natural scenery, Glen Canyon will become a unique tourist magnet. As the main channel reverts to a flowing river, users will no longer need an expensive boat; anyone with a kayak, canoe or raft will be able to enjoy the beauty of the canyons.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes over 1.25 million acres around Lake Powell, was created to cater to people in motorized boats on a flat-water surface. Its staff will need to develop new capabilities and an active visitor management plan to protect the canyon and prevent the kind of crowding that is overrunning other popular national parks.

Other landscapes are likely to emerge across the West as climate change reshapes the region and numerous reservoirs decline. With proper planning, Glen Canyon can provide a lesson in how to manage them.

Daniel Craig McCool, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Utah

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

John Wesley Powell. By Painter: Edmund Clarence Messer (1842 - 1919) - Flickr, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7299882

USDA Forest Service Releases Action Plan to Advance Nation-to-Nation Relations

The Powell-Ingalls Special Commission meeting with Southern Paiutes. Photo credit: USGS

Click the link to read the article on the USDA website:

Washington, February 3, 2023 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service today published an action plan that outlines steps the agency will take to advance tribal consultation and strengthen Nation-to-Nation relationships with federally recognized Tribes.

Strengthening Tribal Consultations and Nation-to-Nation Relationships: A USDA Forest Service Action Plan” recognizes the role tribal governments play in decision-making about Forest Service-managed lands and waters through co-stewardship, consultation, capacity-building, and by other means.

“This is more than a document. This action plan solidifies a pivotal moment in our agency’s history. The Forest Service manages millions of acres of lands, including ancestral homelands of American Indian and Alaska Native Tribal Nations. We acknowledge the tragic history involving the forced displacement of Indigenous People and recognize that upholding our federal trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations is a responsibility and an ongoing journey for our agency.” said Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. “When we acknowledge this history and work to ensure our actions and investments are reflective of our commitment to a better future, we can build trust and repair relationships with Tribes.

“National forests and grasslands often include ancestral homelands that Tribes have stewarded for centuries. Indigenous Nations are a key partner in how we value, co-manage, and steward our Nation’s grasslands and forests. Understanding the perspective and wisdom of Indigenous people gives us an opportunity to reflect on our policies, programs and practices, the real-life implications they have on Indigenous peoples and what role we can play in rectifying historical or ongoing issues. With this plan as a guide, Forest Service employees will begin to implement a new way of working that will build trust and create innovative opportunities with Tribal Nations.”

The plan also emphasizes the agency’s unique, shared responsibility to ensure that decisions relating to federal stewardship of lands, waters and wildlife include consideration of how to safeguard the treaty rights and spiritual, subsistence and cultural interests of any federally recognized Tribe.

As part of this work, the Forest Service has renamed the State & Private Forestry deputy chief area to State, Private & Tribal Forestry to emphasize our commitment.

The action plan provides a framework for advancing existing laws, regulations and policies and is not intended to amend or establish new Forest Service policy or direction. Rather, the plan provides steps that can be implemented through existing programs and processes based on four focus areas:

  • Strengthen Relationships Between Indian Tribes and the USDA Forest Service.
  • Fulfill Trust and Treaty Obligations.
  • Enhance Co-Stewardship of the Nation’s Forests and Grasslands.
  • Advance Tribal Relations Within the USDA Forest Service.

On our commitment to “Enhance Co-Stewardship of the Nation’s Forests and Grasslands,” during the 2022 White House Tribal Nations Summit, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Dr. Homer Wilkes underscored the progress the Forest Service is making in the implementation of the Joint Secretarial Order on Fulfilling the Trust Responsibility to Indian Tribes in the Stewardship of Federal Lands and Waters (Order No. 3403), a policy framework to facilitate agreements with Tribes in the co-stewardship of federal lands and waters.

To date, the agency has signed 11 new agreements with 13 Tribes, involving eight National Forests, agreements that include a collective investment of approximately $4.1 million in FY22. These co-stewardship agreements, along with 60 others involving 45 tribes in various stages of review, represent a Forest Service FY22 investment of approximately $19.8 million in our shared commitment to advancing co-stewardship with tribes. The agreements also reflect an agency commitment to include consideration of how to safeguard the treaty, spiritual, subsistence, and cultural interests of any Indian Tribe by ensuring tribal governments play an integral role in decision-making related to the management of federal lands and waters through consultation, capacity-building, and other means consistent with applicable authority.

“The U.S. and Tribal Nations are working together to create more realistic and progressive relationships that honor and respect tribal sovereignty,” said Reed Robinson, director of the Forest Service Office of Tribal Relations. 

“We are witnessing significant growth of American Indian & Alaska Native populations, cultural expression and ownership, and economic development. This moment is critical for Forest Service employees to lead from where they are, to acknowledge, plan, take consequential actions, and step through the aperture of opportunity that, right now, is wider than any other time in history.”

North American Indian regional losses 1850 thru 1890.