Dave Barjenburch, National Weather Service meteorologist in Boulder, said our moisture streak is much more related to where high- and low-pressure ridges are located than to the transition from a La Nina pattern to El Nino. Typically, he said, Colorado weather this time of year is dominated by a high-pressure ridge in the Southwest, which produces warmer and drier conditions for Colorado. This spring, that high-pressure ridge has moved north into the upper Midwest, which has blocked or slowed our storm track over Colorado while creating above-average temperatures and below-average moisture in Canada, resulting in devastating wildfires. A deep low-pressure ridge in the western U.S. combined with the high pressure in the upper Midwest have funneled a consistent plume of Gulf of Mexico moisture into Colorado for several weeks, and Barjenburch said that pattern “isn’t going anywhere in a hurry.”
Lake Mead ended May 2023 at elevation 1,054.28 feet above sea level. That’s up five feet in a month, at a time of year when the reservoir is usually dropping, so I guess yay? It’s also up 6 1/2 feet from last year, so I guess yay?
But also worth noting: Mead is down 32 feet from May of 2019, the year the oddly-named “Drought Contingency Plan” was signed. I say “oddly named” because the clear outcome here suggests that our plan for the contingency of drought must have been to drain Lake Mead.
2023 WATER USE FORECAST
We’re far enough into the year that we can get a pretty good feel for how deeply Lower Basin water users are cutting in response to the current crisis.
Total cuts from the states’ base allocations are 1.079 million acre feet, which is less than the 1.2 million acre feet in Reclamation’s classic “Structural Deficit” calculation, and well below the 1.5 million or more – a 20 percent reduction – that’s been widely discussed as the need in a climate-change altered Colorado River Basin.
Here’s how the cuts are being made in 2023:
California: 4.178 million acre feet, a 5 percent reduction from California’s base allocation
Arizona: 2.031 million acre feet, a 27 percent reduction from Arizona’s base allocation
Nevada: 212,000 acre feet, a 29 percent reduction from Nevada’s base allocation
We can argue over whether this is “fair” – I’ve made my case here – but the reality is that Arizona and Nevada right now are contributing disproportionately to the cuts needed to save Lake Mead.
A big part of the reductions for 2023 are based on the requirements of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the Drought Contingency Plan. (Puzzled over why Arizona and Nevada have to make cuts under the ’07/DCP and California doesn’t? California’s power politics in the 1960s gave it higher priority rights.)
In response to the near term crisis on the river, California is taking an additional 5 percent in cuts this year beyond the ’07/DCP requirements, Arizona is taking 6 percent, and Nevada is taking 24 percent.
percent cut from base
Cut beyond ’07/DCP
END OF YEAR FORECAST
The latest Reclamation 24-month study has Mead ending calendar 2023 at elevation 1,062.32.
Despite this year’s monster snowpack and the gazillions of federal dollars currently chasing water use reductions, that’s still down 28 feet since the end of 2019, the year the DCP was signed.
A big thanks to my supporters – Inkstain will always be free, your help makes it possible.
UCOWR is a consortium of academic institutions and affiliates invested in water resources research, education and outreach. The annual conference connects member universities and partners, including federal and state agencies and private consultants, to develop new collaborations and transdisciplinary solutions to complex water problems.
John Tracy, director of the Colorado Water Center, said the conference is an important venue for discussing emerging water issues and how they are being handled in different parts of the United States. It’s also beneficial for water resource leaders to understand the outreach, education and research happening at universities across the country.
“Communities develop where there’s adequate water resources, so it becomes a very localized topic when you’re dealing with the challenges,” Tracy said, citing as an example the fact that Colorado is the only state with water courts, while other states have other methods. “If you don’t step out and listen to other people, you don’t get perspectives that may help you address your problems. That’s why these conferences are important.”
The conference includes technical sessions, workshops, panels, field trips and networking opportunities. The three-day event will feature more than 200 presentations, with sessions covering topics as diverse as the Colorado River, water contamination by PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and better ways to estimate crop consumption of water.
The Norm Evans Lecture, which highlights an innovative voice in water resources, will set the tone for the conference. Kearns is a scientist and science communicator who focuses on water, wildfire and climate change in the western United States. Her talk will address inclusive science communication.
“Effectively communicating the science is essential to good water management,” Tracy said.
Kearns has worked in science communication for more than 25 years, starting with the Ecological Society of America and serving as an American Association for the Advancement of Science Policy Fellow at the U.S. Department of State. She authored the book Getting to the Heart of Science Communication, and her work has been published in New Republic, On Being, Bay Nature and more.
The Norm Evans Lecture is supported by the Dr. Norm Evans Endowment, established by Ken and Ruth Wright of Wright Water Engineers to honor the director of the Colorado Water Center from 1967 to 1988. This annual lecture brings distinguished experts to CSU to speak on water management, education and policy.
CSU will host this year’s UCOWR conference at the Lory Student Center, which was also the site of the conference in 2017.
Norm Evans Lecture
“Getting to the Heart of Science Communication” Speaker: Faith Kearns When: 6-7 p.m. Monday, June 12, followed by a reception Where: Lory Student Center Theatre Free and open to the public
THE NEWS: The U.S. Supreme Court hands down a ruling in the long-running Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency case that significantly alters and narrows the scope of the Clean Water Act.
THE CONTEXT: Sometimes it feels like the Supreme Court doesn’t like — or maybe just doesn’t get — the arid Western U.S. Last week’s ruling is a prime example: It potentially removes federal protections from thousands of miles of Western waterways, making it far easier for developers to pollute or destroy arroyos, wetlands and ephemeral streams.
The specific case dates back to 2007, when EPA officials ordered Chantell and Michael Sackett to stop backfilling their soggy half-acre lot on the shores of Idaho’s Priest Lake, where they wanted to build a cabin. The EPA had determined that since the wetlands were adjacent to a navigable, interstate water (Priest Lake), it could be classified as “waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, and was therefore protected by the Clean Water Act. The Sacketts disagreed and took the feds to court. As the case wound its way through the legal system, the Sacketts’ cabin site transformed into the front line of a 50-year ideological battle over the definition of what constitutes legally decreed “waters.”
For years, the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers—the agencies charged with enforcing the CWA—considered WOTUS to include everything from arroyos to prairie potholes to sloughs to mudflats, so long as the destruction or degradation thereof might ultimately affect traditionally navigable waters or interstate commerce (which could include recreation, sightseeing, or wildlife watching). It was a broad definition that gave the agencies latitude to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters,” as Congress mandated when creating the law in 1972.
Property rights ideologues pushed back on the definition, saying it was too broad and therefore gave the feds too much power to curb pollution or restrict development. Occasionally a developer would use this rationale to flout the rules, and a few of the cases made their way to the Supreme Court. In the 1985 Bayview case, the justices upheld the broad definition of WOTUS, and in the 2001 SWANCC case they left the definition alone but found that isolated ponds were not protected by the Clean Water Act simply because they were migratory bird habitat.
Then, in his plurality opinion on the 2006 Rapanos case, the late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote what would become the right-wing’s preferred definition of waters of the U.S. He argued that they should include only “relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water … described in ordinary parlance as streams[,] . . . oceans, rivers, [and] lakes.” Scalia’s definition emphatically excluded “ephemeral streams” and “dry arroyos in the middle of the desert.” (He also referred to the “immense arid wastelands” of the Western U.S., giving an idea of where this guy’s coming from.)
Justice Anthony Kennedy disputed Scalia, saying instead the CWA should extend to any stream or body of water with a “significant nexus” to navigable waters, determined by a wetland’s or waterway’s status as an “integral part of the aquatic environment.”
The two conflicting Rapanos opinions have guided the agencies’ enforcement of the CWA ever since, with the George W. Bush and Trump administrations leaning toward Scalia’s narrow, anti-arroyo definition, and the Obama and Biden administrations adopting Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test.
Fast forward to the recent Sackett decision, which has two parts. First, the justices all agreed that the EPA should not have fined the Sacketts for filling in their wetland, because it does not fall under the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction. But the wider ramifications come from Justice Samuel Alito’s rewriting of the definition of “waters of the U.S.” in his majority opinion — and the debate among justices it sparked.
Sackett overtly focuses on wetlands, as did most of the back-and-forth between the disagreeing justices, who sparred over the definition of “adjacent.” Alito and the majority essentially believe “adjacent” and “adjoining” are synonymous, which removes any wetland lacking a continuous surface connection to a navigable body of water from federal jurisdiction. He also puts the kibosh on the “significant nexus” test. (Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch go even further, trying to reduce waters of the U.S. to rivers or lakes that can actually be navigated by ships.) Even Justice Brett Kavanaugh disagreed with Alito’s narrow definition, pointing out that “adjacent” is not the same as “adjoining.”
You might be wondering how any of this effects the arid West, where wetlands — either adjacent or adjoining — aren’t all that common. After all, intermittent streams only got passing mentions in the opinions and not once does the term “arroyo” appear. But there’s little question that arroyos and ephemeral streams will end up suffering collateral damage. The Sackett majority defers to Scalia’s Rapanos definition, writing: “ … we conclude that the Rapanos plurality was correct: the CWA’s use of ‘waters’ encompasses ‘only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water forming geographical features that are described in ordinary parlance as streams oceans, rivers and lakes.’”
So, yeah, we Southwesterners do refer in our ordinary parlance to many an intermittent stream as a “river,” e.g. the Santa Fe River, the Santa Cruz River, the Rio Puerco(s), and so forth. But I doubt that would have been adequate for Scalia and now for Alito and friends.
It’s not clear yet how all of this will play out on the ground, except that the Sacketts can finally build their cabin without fear of an EPA fine. The Clean Water Act, one of the nation’s most important environmental laws, is now weaker than it was a couple of weeks ago, and countless wetlands, sloughs, arroyos and ponds are now more vulnerable to development and pollution. Justice Elena Kagan summed it up in her response to Alito: “The majority thus alters—more precisely, narrows the scope of—the statute Congress drafted,” she wrote, adding that the opinion “ … is an effort to cabin the anti-pollution actions Congress thought appropriate.”
Steve Bannon, former President Donald Trump’s right-hand man, once said the goal of the administration was the “deconstruction of the administrative state. He wanted to eviscerate regulations protecting human health and the environment so they would no longer “burden” corporations or stand in their way of reaping boundless profit. Trump may no longer be president, and both he and Bannon may be headed to jail soon. But their agenda lives on among the majority of the nation’s highest court, which, Kagan wrote, has appointed “itself as the national decision-maker on environmental policy.”
She continued, referring to last year’s decision that hindered the EPA from enforcing clean air laws: “So I’ll conclude, sadly, by repeating what I wrote last year, with the replacement of only a single word. ‘[T]he Court substitutes its own ideas about policymaking for Congress’s. The Court will not allow the Clean [Water] Act to work as Congress instructed. The Court, rather than Congress, will decide how much regulation is too much.’ Because that is not how I think our Government should work — more, because it is not how the Constitution thinks our Government should work …”