…in recent years, the countries’ relationship, when it comes to the river at least, has entered a new era of agreement and mutual advancement, as both countries face unprecedented drought and a need to revamp water systems.
“On earlier occasions, what I’ve seen is two countries that had a bilateral water management agreement where the gains from one country would equal the losses of the other country,” Carlos de la Parra, who leads Restauremos El Colorado, an environmental nonprofit, tells TIME. “They’ve migrated into a regional approach, realizing that it’s the same river, it’s the same basin and investments on one side of the border will benefit both sides of the border.”
Under a 1944 treaty established between the U.S. and Mexican governments, Mexico was allotted a guaranteed annual quantity of water. The agreement had flaws though. It didn’t mention water quality, and in the 1960s when the river’s salinity rose dramatically, the water directed to Mexico was too salty for human consumption or agriculture. Following farmer protests and threats from the Mexican government to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice, the U.S. agreed to an updated treaty in 1973 that ensured equal water quality. Most recently in 2017, the two governments revisited the negotiating table to strike Minute 323, a nine-year deal that set standards for how water should be allocated during surpluses and reduced during droughts. It also committed both countries to pledge resources and funding for environmental restoration. John Shepard, senior advisor at the Sonoran Institute, a non-profit that advocates for Colorado River restoration, notes that a new deal could be on the horizon. “If the lower basins agreed to cuts as they’re being articulated in this agreement, then Mexico will likely agree to a proportional share of cuts.”
Keeping the river and its ecosystems healthy has been a source of argument over the years. In the U.S. the prevailing view has been that it’s Mexico’s responsibility to protect and restore the delta because it’s chiefly located in Mexico, where it then flows into the Gulf of California. Mexico has argued that the U.S. should take responsibility because the country’s management and control of the river caused poor water quality and decimated habitats. Now, experts on both sides of the border are working to find a more collaborative way forward.
“There’s a saying that, ‘a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.’ In many ways, that’s how I’m approaching this,” De la Parra says. “Many people like myself are hard at work, thinking about how we can capitalize the crisis and move the irrigation district and other water uses into a more productive, more sustainable model.”
For more than a hundred years, California, Arizona, and Nevada never accounted for evaporation on the lower basin of the Colorado River as they divided its water between themselves and later with Mexico. Their logic held that as long as there was more water than people used, they could ignore small losses from natural processes. More importantly, it was politically fraught—for decades, the lower basin states have been unable to reach an agreement about how evaporation should be taken into account when sharing the river’s waters. Even as a 23-year-long megadrought sucked moisture out of the already arid region, evaporation stayed off the books with decision making. But now, as water managers scramble to find a solution to a river that’s been overused, mostly for irrigation-heavy crops like livestock feed, they’re forced into a harsh reality: every drop counts, including those that disappear into the air.
One way to measure how much water dries up in the system each year is by looking at the evaporation losses on Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, located in Nevada and Arizona and Utah and Arizona, respectively. About 1.9 million acre-feet or 13 percent of the water from the reservoirs across the entire river is lost to evaporation each year, says Jack Schmidt, director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. In particular, the lower basin (which includes Lakes Mead, Mohave, Havasu, and a few smaller mainstream reservoirs) lost an average of 906,000 acre-feet of water per year to evaporation from 2016 to 2020, according to Schmidt, who cites data from the Bureau of Reclamation. To put that number into context, Nevada can legally use about 300,000 acre-feet per year with the existing deal. “The evaporation of water in the lower basin is equal to three Nevadas. Some people would say that’s a big number,” Schmidt says. Other estimates put the amount of water lost to evaporation even higher at about 1.5 million acre-feet per year, or about five Nevadas. But the overall amount of water that evaporates hasn’t actually changed that much in the past decade. That’s because there’s just less water in the reservoirs, which means there’s less water to lose,” according to Katherine Earp, a hydrologist for the Nevada Water Science Center. At the same time, she adds, as the reservoirs become shallower, the water becomes warmer, and evaporation increases slightly…
Earp cautions that scientists don’t know how much climate change and evaporation will cut into water held in the lower basin. She says there are two factors that could see direct impacts: the reservoirs’ temperature and depth. “Those are changing as the [lakes along the Colorado River] are changing,” she says. “Most of the evaporation is being done right at the surface with the wind. So that’s not changing. We’ve always had a big hot desert—we will continue to have a big hot desert.”
[Schmidt] outlines two potential solutions: consolidating water from the two major reservoirs into one or pumping some of the water underground. Schmidt did the math behind the first option. In a white paper published in 2016, he examined how much water might be saved if the lower basin states fill Lake Mead and put any remaining water into Lake Powell. “Right now we manage the system to equalize the storage contents in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and so we sort of maximize the surface area exposed to the sun,” he says. But he found the savings would be minimal, about 50,000 acre-feet of water across the two reservoirs, and says it should be used as a second-tier strategy…In the second option, water from the reservoirs would slowly be cached underground. Arizona and California already store some water underground in recharge basins with the intention to put water back into local aquifers. But there’s a risk of not being able to track and recover all of the water that seeps back into the ground. Still, Schmidt says recharge basins might be a good option if evaporation gets worse. “It’s a technique trusted by water managers,” Schmidt says. “Yes, it’s uncertain. But those uncertainties do not concern people enough that they don’t do it.”
RiversEdge West, a Grand Junction-based nonprofit, received $22,035 from the Colorado River District’s Community Funding Partnership and $34,433 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to restore two river sites owned by the city of Montrose.
According to RiversEdge West Restoration Coordinator Montana Cohn, the two sites together total around 70 acres, and the project will allow the group to remove about 8 acres worth of invasive tamarisk and Russian olive plants and replace them with native species…One site is off Mayfly Drive, and the other is near Home Depot off Ogden Road. Cohn said restoration efforts at these sites have yielded positive results before, and the new project will expand on previous work. He explained invasive thorns and plants like Russian olive and tamarisk crowd out native vegetation, degrade soil quality and, since some are thorny, block access to the river for wildlife, livestock and recreationists…
The project will go down in phases, starting with volunteer efforts this summer. Then in the fall, paid crews from the Americorps program Western Colorado Conservation Corps will come in with herbicides and chainsaws and remove as many of the invasive plants as possible. Efforts, including volunteer replanting efforts of native plants, will continue into 2024.
After landmark SCOTUS ruling limits what waters federal agencies protect under Clean Water Act, advocates concerned that NM is vulnerable.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling changed water law overnight last week – and the impacts will ripple through New Mexico over coming months.
New Mexico’s complicated water landscape, coupled with the fact it’s one of three states that does not have a state agency regulate pollution in surface water, leaves it uniquely vulnerable, officials for the New Mexico Environment Department said.
In their 9-0 decision in a case called Sackett vs. EPA the court ruled the federal government overreached in the case of Idaho couple Chantell and Michael Sackett. The court said the wetlands on their property were not classified as “waters of the United States,” and multiple rounds of permitting in order to infill and build a house on that land.
“Waters of the United States,” legal designation for the waters protected in 1972 Clean Water Act, which allows the federal government to limit pollutants such as livestock waste and industrial discharge and construction runoff.
The opinion limits the definition of what wetlands would be protected alongside “navigable waters,” defined in other cases as “relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies” – likes streams, oceans rivers and lakes.
“These wetlands must qualify as “waters of the United States” in their own right,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority opinion. “In other words, they must be indistinguishably part of a body of water that itself constitutes “waters” under the [Clean Water Act].”
While all the justices concurred with the judgment – to send the case back to lower courts for further proceedings in the Sacketts’ favor – Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by four other justices disagreed with the majority narrowing the definition from “adjacent” wetlands to “adjoining” wetlands.
New Mexico’s vulnerabilities
That distinction leaves New Mexico – and other parts of the arid Southwest – high and dry, said Tannis Fox, an environmental attorney for conservation nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center.
Fox said the rules limiting how much and what type of pollution from wastewater plants, construction sites and agriculture will still protect the state’s largest rivers but can’t say the same for tributaries.
“There are waters, same with wetlands within the entirety of a watershed, that are now at risk of not being protected under the Clean Water Act,” she said. “If there were a point source discharge into that body of water, you may not have to get a permit.”
The New Mexico Environment Department estimated that 93% of New Mexico’s streams and rivers are intermittent – seasonal rivers for example – or ephemeral – only running when there’s heavy rain, in a comment to the EPA in 2019.
These include “localized monsoonal downpours, ephemeral arroyos, cienegas, effluent-dependent streams, playa lakes, and other man-made reservoirs, waterways,” and canals.
Fox said this raises the question for existing permits on pollution, and future permitting landscape. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency directly administers pollution programs for New Mexico, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Currently, the agency reviews EPA permit applications, and “certifies” them based on if they meet state water quality standards.
Environment Protection Agency Region 6 officials – which oversees New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma Arkansas and Louisiana – declined an interview or comment.
In a written statement, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, said he was disappointed by the decision, saying it “erodes longstanding clean water protections.” He said the agency will review the decision, “and consider next steps,” but did not elaborate further.
Fox said New Mexico’s broad definition of waters of the state enshrined in the state’s constitution offers some protection beyond the federal definition, but it’s hard to enforce without a state permitting program.
“The immediacy of the need for a surface water program dramatically changed between today and yesterday,” Fox said.
Where is the state in getting a permitting program?
Since the court limited the federal scope, state officials said they anticipate more litigation to determine which waters will be protected, slowing down efforts to develop its own permitting program.
New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney said the science, technical and legal staff may have their hands full if permits are terminated prematurely.
“Because we may very well disagree that while not a “water of the U.S.,” we still have waters of the state to protect,” he said.
Kenney said the agency plans to bring rules for the program by December 2025, based on current funding and staff.
There’s several layers of red tape to get there, though.
The agency has to draft a resolution to be passed by the state legislature, seek input from New Mexicans and tribes, bring rules to it’s pollution authority board for passage, and get EPA approval after the statute passes.
Currently, the agency is funded for outreach in 2023.
Kenney said the ruling should be a “wake-up call” for lawmakers.
“Right now, we have $680,000 and a special appropriation to carry us through fiscal year 24. Maybe, maybe that increases so that we can get something done sooner,” he said, adding that there would probably be a presentation during the interim session.
As far back as 2019, the agency has testified that if the Clean Water Act no longer applies, more strict state and federal laws governing hazardous waste may apply. Kenney said he understands that for permit holders, this is a “nonstarter,” as hazardous waste laws have more restrictions and culpability.
Kenney warned that individuals and entities should think twice before petitioning to remove the permit and failing to include the state agency in that discussion.
“I will have no sympathy with respect to what transpires as a result of that, whether that’s protracted litigation, or robust enforcement for failing to include us in that discussion,” he said.
Climatologists are now expecting an El Niño pattern in 2023, after three years of La Niña. [Becky] Bolinger said that during El Niño winters, wetter conditions are expected in the American Southwest and along the Gulf of Mexico while drier conditions are expected in the Pacific Northwest. But in Colorado, the effects of El Niño tend to be less strong. The state is thousands of miles away from the ocean, so there tend to be additional variables that affect its climate…
The state can expect somewhat drier winters in the northern mountains and more moisture in the southern mountains from El Niño, Bolinger said. [Kyle] Mozley said that El Niño’s effects on Southern Colorado can vary depending on when El Niño starts and how strong it is. When El Niño is less intense, the Eastern Plains tend to get more moisture — but that can go away when the system is stronger. Mozley said that the current water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean indicate this El Niño will be moderate to strong in intensity…But the mountains in southern Colorado tend to get more precipitation in the fall, Mozley said. That can wane in the early months of the winter, then pick back up again in the spring.
As part of a deal struck by President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to suspend the nation’s debt ceiling — and avoid an economically devastating default — federal officials would issue permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which is designed to carry planet-warming natural gas from West Virginia. The pipeline would worsen the climate crisis. But it’s a top priority for West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, a conservative Democrat without whom the party would lose control of the Senate…
The bill would set a two-year deadline for federal agencies reviewing energy projects to issue environmental reports, and set a page limit on those reports (150 pages, or 300 for “extraordinarily complex” projects). It would allow energy companies to hire a third-party consultant to write those reports, rather than having a slow-moving federal agency take responsibility. Other changes would make battery-storage facilities eligible for quicker approval under the Obama-era FAST Act, and help federal agencies avoid duplicative environmental analyses of energy technologies that other agencies have already studied…
But it’s a double-edged sword. Most of those provisions could also be used to speed up permitting for fossil fuel infrastructure, such as pipelines, power plants and export terminals. Other provisions could limit the number of coal, oil and gas projects subject to federal scrutiny under the National Environmental Policy Act, conservationists say — and in the process harm the Black, Latino and low-income communities that have long suffered the injustice of fossil-fueled air and water pollution.
The National Environmental Policy Act “is one of the most powerful tools that environmental justice communities have on the books,” said Jean Su, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “If we keep making these exemptions … then we’re undercutting the whole point of the [law], which is to give voice to these environmental justice communities and the public to weigh in on how projects will affect them.”
Scientists say the United States must dramatically pick up the pace of building solar farms, wind turbines, batteries and electric power lines to have any hope of avoiding the worst consequences of global warming. Those consequences include deadlier heat waves, harsher droughts, more powerful storms, larger wildfires and more destructive coastal flooding. But across the country, local opposition has made it increasingly difficult to build clean energy. Conservationists, rural residents and Native American tribes are pushing back against projects they say would destroy wildlife habitat, spoil beautiful views and desecrate sacred sites. A report released Wednesday by Columbia Law School found that local governments across 35 states have implemented 228 ordinances blocking or restricting renewable energy facilities.