Beyond 2026: Governance for the #ColoradoRiver in the #Anthropocene — Sibley’s Rivers #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):

The graph above is from a study released a couple weeks ago, mid-June, on ‘The Colorado River Water Crisis: Its Origin and the Future,’ authored by two elders of Colorado River affairs: Dr. John Schmidt, river scientist at Utah State University, and Eric Kuhn, longtime manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, now retired; both are deeply immersed in the river’s issues, and committed to working through the current crisis to a more reality-based future for the river and those who use its waters. A third author is Charles Yackulic, a noted scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, but not so well known in Colorado River matters. When Jack Schmidt and Eric Kuhn speak about the river, everyone listens – especially when they speak together.

This graph alone explains a lot of the pain and anxiety we’ve been experiencing, and anticipating experiencing, in the Colorado River region – the natural basin plus technological out-of-basin extensions. (Sometimes the anticipation of pain can be more painful than the actual eventuality – try to think ‘dead pool’ without a serious twitch.)

The black line meandering through the graph is a smoothing curve tracing the general up-or-down-and-how-far of the erratic annual flows of the river (the little black dots peppered all over the graph). But the genius of their analysis is in the three horizontal lines. They’ve divided the 117 years for which we have some semblance of measures for Colorado River’s flows into three fairly distinct periods: The Early 20th-Century Pluvial (two-bit word for ‘really wet period’) when the river averaged almost 18 million acre-feet a year (maf/yr) for a quarter-century; then the six-decade Mid to Late Century period when the river averaged 14.3 maf/yr; and then what they’ve chosen to call the Millennium Drought in which the river has only averaged flows of 12.5 maf/yr. (I would just call it ‘The Anthropocene.’)

Eugene Clyde LaRue measuring the flow in Nankoweap Creek, 1923. Photo credit: USGS

In terms of flow, that might be three different rivers. The large-scale management of the Colorado River began with the Colorado River Compact in 1922, created just past the peak of the Early 20th-century Pluvial; it was written for the ‘first river,’ as it was then. It’s true there were scientists like E.C. ReRue saying that tree rings indicated that the pluvial period was highly unusual, and 12-13 maf might be a better average flow when the river had a lot of pooled up storage and irrigation water spread out to dry under the desert sun…. But try telling that dour perception to a bunch of engineers and city-builders in the Early Anthropocene, sitting with their new-fangled bulldozers idling on the banks of a wild river running 18 maf a year….

As the river slipped into the severe drought of the 1930s, and the rest of the 20th century where the average flow was less than the 15 maf that had been divided in the Compact, to say nothing of the 1.5 maf for Mexico, it still seemed possible, with the addition of new elements in what became known as ‘The Law of the River,’ to continue governing that ‘second river’ more or less by the Compact. But it was an increasingly shaky situation, saved mostly by the fact that the Upper Basin states were using quite a bit less than their 7.5 maf/yr, and the water they weren’t using was pooled up in not one but two huge reservoirs that were occasionally both full.

But when the Millennial Drought struck just after the turn of the century, the ‘third river’ was born, its flows 40 percent lower than those of the ‘first river,’ things began to fall apart….

It’s interesting that the publication of this study more or less coincided with news releases about the official beginning of meetings to work out a new management regime for the Colorado River, to be in place by the end of 2026. There is nothing mystical or even historical about the choice of 2026 for this; the date stems from the fact that, early in what Schmidt, Kuhn and Yockulic call the ‘Millennial Drought,’ the managers of the Colorado River storage and delivery systems realized they were in trouble. After a really bad water year in 2002, followed by half a decade of mediocre-to-pretty-bad water years, storage in the River’s two big ‘fail safe’ reservoirs had dropped from near-full in 2001 to half-full. So the managers gathered in 2006 to work on new river management stratagems – beginning by creating ‘Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead’; the ‘interim’ for the Interim Guidelines would be two decades, to 2026, at which time they planned, or at least hoped, to have a new river management plan.

Management for all three of the rivers portrayed on the graph has been done under the auspices of ‘The Law of the River,’ the bag of compacts, treaties, laws, court decisions, state resolutions, federal regulations and other elements, that have accumulated over the past century around the original 1922 Colorado River Compact, to clarify, interpret, legislate, and otherwise support the Compact. The ‘Interim Guidelines’ went into the bag with the rest of the Law of the River – as did a set of Drought Contingency Plans (Upper and Lower Basins) in 2019.

But now – practically on the eve of 2026 – storage has continued to drop so alarmingly in the Mead and Powell Reservoirs, despite cuts in consumptive use under the Interim Guidelines, that last summer the Bureau of Reclamation and Interior Department issued a semi-panicky mandate that, to fend off the possibility of going to dead pool in the big reservoirs, it would be necessary to cut consumptive uses much more – by 2-4 maf/yr, a huge cut.

This has engendered several plans, the most popular of which would produce a reduction of three maf over three years – only half of the Bureau’s minimum request – and would require the federal government to pay $1.2 billion to get it done. This plan will probably be accepted, however, even though it too may prove insufficient to get us on to 2026, partly because any of the other plans would probably end up in court for the next decade, and partly because we just had a big fat pluvialish year of snow in the mountains that will give a stay to the increasingly scary decline in the big reservoirs.

This new agreement to reduce use will go in the bag along with the rest of the Law of the River. The question then becomes – what will happen in 2026? Will we just be adding another set of patches, bandaids and crutches to the Law of the River bag, to keep the 1922 Colorado River Compact propped up and somewhat afloat?

Crested Butte

When I think of the Colorado River Compact today, I think of the 1950 Chevy I bought for $50 in 1970-something from an old guy in Crested Butte. After driving it for a couple years, it started running worse than usual, so I took it to the garage to see what the mechanic recommended.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘if it was mine, I’d jack up the radiator cap and put a better car under it.’

That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. And there are still a lot of people who think the Colorado River Compact is still just fine, with a little help from the Law of the River bag of tricks. People who say it would be impossible to replace the Compact, and don’t want to hear of it.

But look at the graph. The Colorado River Compact was written for a river that for a quarter century was running an average of 17.9 maf. Now it is a considerably different river. There is one sentence in the Colorado River Compact we ought to revisit – its first sentence:

“The major purposes of this compact are to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System; to establish the relative importance of different beneficial uses of water, to promote interstate comity; to remove causes of present and future controversies; and to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin, the storage of its waters, and the protection of life and property from floods.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Compact for managing the river we have now that did all of those things? The 1922 Compact really only fulfilled the fourth objective; it sufficed to ‘secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin,’ so long as Congress was willing to ignore that there was ‘interstate comity’ with only six of the seven states, and there were plenty of ‘present and future controversies’ lurking in the wings.

The commissioners had also failed in their original intentions for ‘providing for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters’. What they had wanted to do was to effect a seven-way division of the river so that each state would know that, when it was ready to go into super-growth mode like California already was, there would be water for them to develop. Essentially, they wanted to abrogate the appropriation doctrine at the interstate level, so that one state (California) could not preclude development in the other states.

They spent most of their first week of compact commission meetings trying to work out that seven-state division, but they were all so full of their own big dreams that it would have required a couple ‘first rivers’ to fulfill their hopes. The two-basin division of the river they eventually settled on sufficed to get the Boulder Canyon Project underway, but was not what they had hoped to do. It did give the Upper Basin states a temporary sense of relief, until the drought of the 1930s made them realize the implications of the ‘shall not cause the flow to be depleted below’ clause, which afforded plenty of potential future controversies; the Lower Basin states, meanwhile, found immediate cause for controversy, with Arizona soon suing California.

All of this makes me think it may be time to, as it were, jack up the first sentence of the existing Compact, and create a new Compact to put under it, one that actually accomplishes the three worthy stated objectives that remain unfulfilled.

Also in the news last week was the announcement that The Supremes, our jolly kick-ass band of judicial activists, have delivered another kick to some of the First People in the Colorado River basin. We’ll begin to delve into that in the next post here….

Map credit: AGU

The legal loopholes that threaten farmworkers’ health and safety: As summer #heatwaves loom and farmworkers take to the fields, an in-depth report highlights massive gaps in regulations, especially around #pesticide use and exposure — Grist

Field workers harvesting strawberries. Photo credit: Public Policy Institute of California

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

An estimated 2.4 million people work on farms in the United States. Though their work is critical to agriculture and the economy alike, pesticide exposure continues to be a major occupational risk—and the effects ripple out into society and the food we eat.

Pesticides can easily drift onto farmworkers—and the schools and neighborhoods near fields. Current pesticide regulations aren’t consistently enforced, and vulnerable workers aren’t always able to seek help when there are violations. 

Exposures may continue around the clock, especially on farms where workers and their families live, says Olivia Guarna, lead author of a recent report, “Exposed and at Risk: Opportunities to Strengthen Enforcement of Pesticide Regulations for Farmworker Safety,” by the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law and Graduate School, in partnership with the nonprofit advocacy group Farmworker Justice. This is one of a series of reports addressing needed policy reforms and federal oversight of programs impacting farmworkers. 

Alongside faculty and staff in the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems, Guarna, a honors summer intern with a background in environmental issues, spent 10 weeks interviewing attorneys, officials, administrators, legal advisors, and farmworker advocates, researching how pesticide use is regulated and enforced in Washington, California, Illinois, and Florida. What Guarna didn’t expect was just how complicated the regulatory scheme is. The federal Environmental Protection Agency technically has oversight over pesticide use, yet in practice receives little data from states, whose enforcement is spotty at best. “There are a lot more protections on paper than I think are actually being implemented to protect farmworkers,” she says.

One of the biggest issues, according to Laurie Beyranevand, Director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems and one of the authors of the report, is that unlike other environmental laws administered by the EPA, the agency doesn’t adequately gather data from the states, making enforcement of existing standards more difficult. 

In Florida, the report found, inspections are virtually never a surprise. “Farmworkers report that when inspectors come to the farms, growers know they are coming, and they get to prepare,” says Mayra Reiter, project director of occupational safety and health for Farmworker Justice. “Inspectors don’t get to see what goes on day-to-day in those workplaces.”

Washington is considered one of the more progressive states in terms of farmworker protections. Yet between 2015 and 2019, Guarna discovered the average violation rate there was 418%, meaning that multiple violations were found on every inspection performed. 

In California, when violations are found, fines are often not levied, the report concluded. Even when penalties are issued, they’re often for amounts like $250 — token fines that growers consider to be part of the cost of doing business. Only a single case reported in California between 2019 and 2021 involved a grower being fined the more significant sum of $12,000.

Still, California is one of the few states that makes information readily available to the public about what chemicals are being applied where. Elsewhere, it’s virtually unknown. Washington, Florida, and Illinois do not require pesticide use reporting at all. 

“You have the farmworkers being directly exposed, and there’s so little transparency on what’s in our food,” Guarna says. “It’s not just farmworkers who are affected — drift is a big problem when it’s close to schools and neighborhoods. There’s just so little we know. A lot of the health effects happen years down the road.

In some instances, toxic exposure has become quickly and tragically evident when babies are born with birth defects. Within a span of seven weeks in 2004 and 2005, for example, three pregnant farmworkers who worked for the same tomato grower, Ag-Mart, in North Carolina and Florida, gave birth to babies with serious birth defects, like being born without arms or legs. Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued two complaints against Ag-Mart in 2005, alleging 88 separate violations of pesticide use laws altogether. Ultimately, 75 of those violations were dismissed. Ag-Mart was fined a total of $11,400.

Yet thousands of poisonings continue to happen each year, Farmworker Justice says. In August 2019, for example, a field of farmworkers in central Illinois was sprayed with pesticides when the plane of a neighboring pesticide applicator flew directly overhead, the report noted. Several workers turned up at local emergency rooms with symptoms of chemical exposure. 

Despite these incidents, Illinois does not mandate that medical providers report suspected cases of exposure. Only because a medical provider at the hospital personally knew someone in the local public health department—who in turn contacted connections at the Illinois Migrant Council and Legal Aid Chicago—did the exposure result in legal action.

Workers often live on the farms where they work, exposing them to chemicals virtually round-the-clock, Reiter adds. “We know from farmworker testimonies that when they return to their homes, they can smell the pesticides, and it lingers for days after they return,” she says.

Vulnerable legal status can make it difficult for farmworkers to report exposures. Millions of farmworkers hail from Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere in Central America, according to Farmworker Justice, although significant numbers also come from countries like Jamaica and South Africa. An estimated half of farmworkers in the U.S. are undocumented

Millions of others come on H2-A guest-worker visas that allow them to come to the country for seasonal jobs of up to 10 months. These temporary visas are tied to specific employers, so workers fear being deported or otherwise retaliated against if they raise complaints about safety violations.

“Because [workers] are looked at as expendable, they’re regularly exposed to neurotoxic pesticides that can be carried into their home settings,” says agricultural policy expert Robert Martin, who recently retired from John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “They’re largely immigrants, and they don’t have a lot of legal protections. The advocates they do have, like Farmworker Justice, are terrific, but they’re really taken advantage of by the system because of their legal status.”

Inherent conflicts of interest also present legal loopholes. The state agencies charged with enforcing federal and state pesticide safety laws, like state Departments of Agriculture, are often the same agencies that promote the economic interests of the ag industry. And farmworkers know it. “That sort of cultural conflict is a big issue,” Guarna says. “Farmworkers have become deeply skeptical of departments of agriculture, and skeptical that they have farmworkers’ interests at heart. They fear their complaints are going to fall on deaf ears.”

While the EPA is legally required to maintain oversight over state agencies, in practice, they only require states to report about federally funded work—and the vast majority of state programs are funded by state budgets. Mandatory and universal standards for inspections and responses to violations would help tremendously, the report concludes. “One of our recommendations is that there should be whole-of-program reporting where states, tribes, and territories have to report all their activities,” Guarna says. “There are some very discrete fixes that can be made that would have a huge impact, so I am hopeful about that.”

Among the report’s 17 policy recommendations is to ensure that enforcement of pesticide safety gets delegated to an agency that is specifically tasked with protecting the health of workers. This could include transferring enforcement to state departments of labor or health, or even creating a new authority specifically dedicated to pesticide regulation.

“Exposed and At Risk” follows a previous report from the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems that focused on the two major threats facing farmworkers—heat stress and pesticide exposure. It focused on opportunities for states to take action to better protect farmworkers, and was written in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. That collaboration also led to a third report, called “Essential and in Crisis: A Review of the Public Health Threats Facing Farmworkers in the U.S.,” which recently explored the public health and environmental impacts of industrial agriculture. Martin, who co-authored these findings, explains that the concentrated power and wealth of large agribusiness companies has consequences for both worker safety and the environment. 

Following corporate consolidation since the 1980s, “there are fewer meat, seed, pesticide companies, and their combined economic power really keeps the status quo in place,” Martin says. ”There are some pretty direct public health threats of these operations.”

As “Exposed and at Risk,” notes, the regulatory system should be structured in a way that works to protect farmworkers. But currently, federal regulators lack sufficient data to even identify the tremendous gaps in enforcement. Requiring states to develop comprehensive reporting systems would be a small step toward protecting the foundation of American agriculture.

Vermont Law and Graduate School, a private, independent institution, is home to a Law School that offers both residential and online hybrid JD programs and a Graduate School that offers master’s degrees and certificates in multiple disciplines, including programs offered by the School for the Environment, the Center for Justice Reform, and other graduate-level programs emphasizing the intersection of environmental justice, social justice and public policy. Both the Law and Graduate Schools strongly feature experiential clinical and field work learning. For more information, visit, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Roberts Tunnel runs dry, bringing possible extension to Summit County’s rafting season — Summit Daily News #runoff #BlueRiver

Rafters lift their paddles in the air as they make their way through a series of rapids on the Blue River as the Gore Range rises above the scene. This year is the first weeks-long opportunity to raft down the Blue River since 2019. Performance Tours Rafting/Courtesy photo

Click the link to read the release from Performance Tours Rafting via the Summit Daily News:

The 23-mile-long pipe that siphons water from Dillon Reservoir to the Front Range has run dry thanks to decreased water demand from the metropolitan areas near Denver. 

This has allowed Summit County to keep more than 6,000 acre-feet of water in Dillon Reservoir, and officials with Denver Water, which controls the flows out of the reservoir, say it will help support more recreation on the Lower Blue River. 

The outflow to the Blue River currently hovers around 1,050 cubic feet per second. That rate is around 175% of the historic outflow for the last week of June. Last year, outflow was at 56 cubic feet per second, which sits at the historic minimum.

For comparison purposes, a basketball is about one cubic foot. So to put the current flows into perspective, people can imagine 1,050 basketballs flowing past them every second. 

Commercial rafting operations typically require flow rates above 500 cubic feet per second. 2023 marked the first weekslong commercial rafting season in Summit County thanks to above-average precipitation this spring and reduced demand from the Front Range

Over the next week, the spillway should release flows between 900-1,200 cubic feet per second, and Denver Water forecasts don’t call for the flows dropping below 500 cubic feet per second until mid-July.

The commercial rafting season was nearly ended by a downed tree across the commercial stretch of the river, but locals banded together to remove it and save the season despite the danger posed by the situation.

As of Monday, June 26, all 10 of Denver Water’s major reservoirs were full, causing free river conditions on the South Platte River.

Multiple swift-water deaths have caused public safety groups to urge caution while recreating on and near rivers. Officials advise folks to never use plastic tubes or vessels that aren’t commercial-grade rafts, and only experienced rafters should attempt to navigate High Country rivers due to their increased flows, natural obstacles and terrain traps.

Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS

Greenland melt punching off the charts — Jason Box @climate_ice

#Drought News June 29, 2023: Much of N.W. #Nebraska, E. #Wyoming, N.E. #Colorado saw rainfall of at least 2 inches over the last week

Click the link to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor website.

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

This Week’s Drought Summary

Widespread changes were made across the country, with many degradations and improvements occurring. In the eastern U.S., mostly widespread improvements occurred following widespread heavy rains, though parts of New Jersey and Long Island that missed out on these rains saw conditions worsen. The Midwest and east-central Great Plains saw mostly worsening conditions and widespread crop stress and low streamflows after another week of mostly dry weather. A mix of improvements and degradations occurred in Texas, where recent precipitation amounts have varied widely. The northern Great Plains received widespread heavy rainfall this week, leading to large-scale improvements to ongoing drought and abnormal dryness. In the Pacific Northwest, a few areas saw above-normal precipitation and improving conditions, but larger parts of the region saw increasing evaporative demand, continued dry weather and lowering streamflows, leading to worsening conditions…

High Plains

This week’s weather varied substantially across the High Plains region. Much of the Great Plains portion of the region, with the exception of eastern Nebraska and eastern Kansas, saw widespread precipitation, some of it heavy. Much of northwest Nebraska, eastern Wyoming, northeast Colorado, South Dakota and the southern half of North Dakota saw rainfall of at least 2 inches over the last week. In western Nebraska, eastern Wyoming and the Dakotas, this led to widespread improvements to the drought depiction in areas where the heaviest rains fell. Isolated heavy rains in central and western Kansas also led to localized improvements to ongoing drought areas. Meanwhile, conditions continued to worsen in southeast Nebraska, northeast Kansas and the Kansas City area, where mostly dry weather continued. Given continued decreases in soil moisture and groundwater, and growing short- and long-term precipitation deficits, exceptional drought was introduced in parts of the Omaha metropolitan area. North of Lincoln, Nebraska, hay production was reported to be about a third of normal for this time of year. Stress to other vegetation, including trees, also continued in southeast Nebraska this week…

Colorado Drought Monitor one week change map ending June 27, 2023.


With the exception of western portions of Washington and Oregon, much of the West region experienced near- or cooler-than-normal temperatures this week. Heavy rains fell in parts of southeast Montana, northwest Wyoming and adjacent portions of central Idaho and southwest Montana. These rains helped to alleviate long-term precipitation deficits and increase streamflows in these areas, leading to a reduction in coverage of ongoing drought and abnormal dryness. Adjacent to improvements in the Texas Panhandle, recent precipitation in northeast New Mexico has also helped to improve conditions there. Continued above-normal precipitation in parts of central and south-central Oregon has helped to alleviate long-term precipitation deficits and increase soil moisture, leading to localized shrinking of drought coverage. In southeastern and western portions of Washington, and in western Oregon, recent dry weather, low streamflows and increasing evaporative demand led to an expansion of drought and abnormal dryness in parts of these areas…


Much warmer than normal temperatures covered the western half of the region, especially across southwest Texas, where temperatures were at least 9 degrees above normal in many locations. Farther east, temperatures were near normal or cooler than normal, with readings coming in from 3 to 6 degrees below normal in eastern Tennessee. Recent rains in central Louisiana led to a shifting of a small area of moderate drought as short-term precipitation deficits shifted to the northeast. Short-term moderate drought developed in parts of northeast Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, where short-term precipitation deficits grew and streamflow decreased. In north-central, central and southeast Texas, soil moisture and streamflow decreased amid growing precipitation deficits, leading to localized worsening in drought conditions or introduction of abnormal dryness. Farther west in Texas, a combination of precipitation this week and a re-evaluation of precipitation from recent weeks led to more improvements in the Texas Panhandle and in adjacent western Oklahoma, as well as improvements in a severe drought area south of Lubbock…

Looking Ahead

Through the evening of Monday, July 3, the National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center is forecasting widespread rain, locally heavy, to fall from southeast Wyoming and northeast Colorado eastward across Nebraska and northern Kansas, southern Iowa and northern Missouri, and farther east into the Midwest and Ohio River Valley. Rainfall amounts in central Illinois may exceed 3 inches locally. Widespread moderate and locally heavy rainfall amounts are forecast in parts of the Appalachian Mountains as well. Locally heavy rains are forecast in southern Florida during this period as well. West of the Continental Divide, mostly dry weather is expected.

Looking ahead to the period from July 4-8, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center forecast favors above-normal precipitation across much of the contiguous U.S., especially from eastern Idaho through Nebraska and northern Kansas. Below-normal precipitation is favored in Arizona and in western Washington and northwest Oregon. Below- or near-normal temperatures are favored in the northwestern Great Plains, while above-normal temperatures are likely in the south-central U.S., south Florida and the eastern Great Lakes, with warmer-than-normal temperatures slightly favored across much of the eastern and southern U.S., excluding southern California and the southern Appalachians. Warmer-than-normal temperatures are also strongly favored in the Pacific Northwest. Wetter-than-normal weather is favored across Alaska, except for the Panhandle, where below-normal rainfall is slightly favored. Warmer-than-normal temperatures are slightly favored in the north slope and Arctic Coast regions of Alaska, and in the far southeastern Alaska Panhandle. Cooler-than-normal conditions are favored across roughly the southwestern half of Alaska.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending June 27, 2023.