New study says that as electrical output from Colorado River dams declines benefits with a Southwest Power Pool alignment grow
For water geeks, first a bit of alphabet soup from energy geeks:
RTO stands for regional transmission organization, a way of sharing electricity across a broad region to better match demand with renewable energy supplies.
SPP stands for Southwest Power Pool, which provides some of this energy sharing across several Midwestern states. It is trying to provide something similar in Colorado and adjoining Rocky Mountain states. It began offering the first small step, something called the Western Energy Imbalance Service.
Three of Colorado’s four largest utilities have already joined, as have several others of relevance to Colorado, including the Western Area Power Administration and the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska. Conspicuously absent is the David of Colorado, i.e. Xcel Energy, which sells more than 50% of electricity consumed in the state.
Now, to the news. A new study by Brattle Group finds the benefits of joining an RTO operated by SPP would yield significantly more benefits, somewhere between $55 million and $73 million per year, depending on hydrologic conditions.
The savings increase to $89 million per year under severe drought conditions. The modeling for reduced hydroelectric production was among several differences from a similar study conducted in 2020. See the report here.
A press release from Tri-State Generation and Transmission, Colorado’s largest electrical supplier after Xcel, also notes potential operational and reliability benefits provided by RTO participants.
Throwing their lot with the Southwest Power Pool, at least in its incipient alignment, are not only Tri-State but also Colorado Springs Utilities and Platte River Power Authority. Not incidentally, all depend upon purchases of hydroelectricity from the Western Area Power Administration which distributes power from Glen Canyon Dam and other federal hydroelectric facilities. As a privately owned utility, Xcel is ineligible to receive what was traditionally extremely low-priced electricity from the federal dams.
Record-high construction prices and low insurance payouts have squeezed Marshall fire victims trying to rebuild in Boulder County. The few local companies offering to build passive homes wouldn’t work within the [Peter and Michelle Ruprecht’s] budget. That all changed with a link posted in an online community group. It directed Peter Ruprecht to a web page for the RESTORE Passive Home, a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house designed for the Marshall fire burn area. The designers promised a $550,000 price tag after government incentives, which fell in line with the construction quotes the family had received from other commercial builders. The couple is now the first to sign up to build the home…
Debates over construction costs and climate-minded building standards have supercharged local politics in the aftermath of the Marshall fire. Earlier this year, Louisville and Superior — the two communities hit hardest by the disaster — faced intense pressure from fire victims worried mandatory green building codes would further boost construction prices. Both local governments ended up allowing those families to rebuild to earlier, less-stringent standards. The RESTORE Passive Home attempts to prove green homes can fit within middle-class budgets. The task could prove critical as governments push to reduce the climate impact of buildings, which account for 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and 20 percent of Colorado emissions — largely due to natural gas appliances and an electricity grid dominated by fossil fuels. Passive homes could also help insulate families from climate threats like poor air quality and future fires. Andrew Michler, a passive house designer behind the new project, said the task requires a major shift in his industry. Instead of one-off homes built for committed environmentalists, passive home designers need to start building for the mass market. He said only about 20 homes in Colorado have met international passive home standards.
In 2017, majority owner and operator Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) announced that the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station was too expensive to operate and that the last two of the plant’s four units would be retired in 2022, rather than operating until 2053. On-the-ground communities and advocates had long since called attention to the plant’s expense as well as its damage to health, air and our climate.
In 2019, New Mexico passed the Energy Transition Act (ETA) to build on PNM and Tucson Electric’s closure decisions by enabling use of low-interest bonds to save customers money and provide economic transition benefits to plant and mine workers and the community. About $40 million in funding through the Energy Transition Act has been or will be disbursed to plant and mine workers and the impacted community. Four Corners residents encouraged state agencies to act urgently to use the $20 million earmarked for community funding to invest in local, sustainable projects that move the region forward.
As PNM and the other owners retire the plant (which was shuttered sometime early this morning, when the coal stockpile ran out), community organizations issued the following statements:
“The plant closure has significant positive and negative implications. One positive impact is the anticipated release of ETA funds to help secure the self-sustenance of communities that were impacted by the plant,” said Duane “Chili” Yazzie of ToohBAA, a Shiprock Farmers Cooperative. “Our farmers group in Shiprock applied for the funds in the hope that it will help address one of the great needs that our farmers have, with the provision of skilled labor. With the funds, we expect to acquire equipment operators, diesel mechanics, planners and administrators who will help organize our farming activity to optimize our agricultural potential. We look forward to an expedited release of those funds.”
Community organizations also focused on the need to properly reclaim, decommission and clean up the plant, rather than allowing it to continue to pollute under Enchant, which has failed to obtain the permits, buyers or funding to operate with carbon capture, a technology that has failed in every commercial coal plant where it has been tried. At its peak, San Juan Generating Station used more water than the entire city of Santa Fe. Some of the water rights from the plant have now been allocated to run in the San Juan River.
“We now have an opportunity to protect and manage water sources in the Four Corners region,” said Jessica Keetso of Tó Nizhóni Aní, Navajo Nation. “A transition to solar, wind, renewable, clean-energy investments helps eliminate the waste and misuse of water. Precious water sources have been used to feed giant power plants all over the Four Corners region for over half a century. These water sources are limited and have been compromised in many regions. It’s time to make sure that transition and cleanup happen in an organized and speedy manner, and that ETA investments bring an opportunity for coal-impacted communities to drive economic diversification.”
“As Four Corners residents, we want to see the negotiated replacement power, solar and energy storage, and we want the ETA implementation money to go to the impacted coal workers and communities,” said Mike Eisenfeld of San Juan Citizens Alliance. “Enchant Energy has been disingenuous and unaccountable on the progress of their project, which joins a long list of failed carbon-capture and sequestration projects funded through the Department of Energy. City of Farmington has expended nearly $2 million in legal fees supporting Enchant’s failed project with timelines now extending to 2027. We’re looking at the immediate need for past and current owners to carry out their decommissioning and reclamation responsibilities within 90 days of SJGS and San Juan Mine closure.”
“Today marks a pivotal moment in our Four Corners region with the decline of fossil-fuel production. We regard this moment as a transformation for the environment in less CO2, methane, NOx, VOCs, coal ash, and other toxic pollutants. We welcome a return of cleaner air and water for the health of tribal communities and climate,” said Ahtza Chavez, Executive Director of Naeva.
“Abandonment and remediation will be difficult. Over 50 years of damage was done to the environment,” said Norman Norvelle, former San Juan Generating Station plant chemist and Farmington resident. “From releasing plant wastewater effluent into the Shumway arroyo, to air pollutants and mercury into the San Juan River watershed and the fish of quality waters. Also, plant solid and liquid waste disposal into unlined surface mine pits. Even after the plant is shut down there will be need for extensive cleanup and monitoring to verify cleanup of the contaminants. Sampling and monitoring should be done by 3 or 4 different organizations to assure completeness and honesty.”
“If not done adequately, the San Juan Generating Station chemical contaminants will go into the San Juan River near the Hogback. All of the contaminants from the plant plus the biological contaminants from San Juan County, such as fecal bacteria, will flow into the San Juan River Basin onto the Navajo Reservation to Lake Powell,” Norvelle said.
“The San Juan Generating Station has been a source of jobs and revenues in Four Corners for more than half a century, but it can no longer be operated in a manner that is fiscally and environmentally responsible,” said Cydney Beadles, Managing Senior Staff Attorney of Western Resource Advocates’ Clean Energy Program. “The Energy Transition Act helps mitigate the impacts on local workers and communities and ensures that ratepayers get the cost savings that come from shutting down an inefficient coal plant, and the Public Regulation Commission issued an order requiring bill credits upon abandonment. Unfortunately, those credits have been temporarily suspended by the state Supreme Court at PNM’s request, but we remain hopeful that the court will soon lift that stay.”
“The solar and storage replacement power approved in 2020 will provide $1 billion in investment in the communities most impacted by San Juan,” added Camilla Feibelman, Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter Director. “With pandemic supply-chain and other delays, it is incumbent upon PNM to work with developers of the solar and storage replacement power to overcome these obstacles and get those projects online as soon as possible. Analyses showed that the San Juan Solar project, to be sited in the same school district, will replace 100% of the property-tax base of San Juan.”
Aviation currently represents 8 percent of U.S transportation-related emissions. Scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are helping U.S. airlines develop and validate new, net-zero-carbon fuels designed to slash carbon emissions. Using an innovative combination of fuel property measurements, molecular-level chemistry models, and high-performance computing simulations, NREL identifies cleaner, cost-competitive drop-in fuel solutions for this sector. From accelerating market-ready sustainable fuels to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving safety, NREL is enabling a cleaner aviation sector to take flight. To learn more, visit https://www.nrel.gov/transportation/s…. For a text version of the video, visit https://bit.ly/3QzIjoG.
The river is in deep doo-doo, and worse may very well come. So why such a sluggish reaction?
On a day in late May when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. It was my first visit.
Turning off the paved highway, I drove about 10 miles around the toe of Sleeping Ute Mountain, past a few irrigation ditches, one carrying water, and a lot of fields and center-pivot sprinklers. I knew the runoff the San Juan Mountains, the source of water for the 7,700-acre farming operations by the Utes, was bad. I didn’t realize just how bad it was.
Unlike many tribal rights in the Colorado River Basin, the water rights of the two Ute tribes in Colorado were negotiated in 1986. The agreement resulted in delivery of water to Towaoc, where I ate at the casino restaurant twice on that trip. Before, potable water had to be trucked in.
Mike Preston, filling in for a Ute leader at the Colorado Water Center conference this week, remembers a time before that delivery of water. “There were stock tanks sitting in people’s yards, and a water truck would back up and fill those tanks, and people would go out with buckets to get their potable water.”
The Utes got other infrastructure, too, including water from the Dolores River stored in the new McPhee Reservoir that allows the Utes to create a profitable farm enterprise. But to get the use of McPhee water, the Utes conceded the seniority of their water rights. It worked well for a lot of years, but now in a warmer, drier climate, it leaves the Utes in a hard, dry place: They got 10% of their full allocation in 2021 and 40% this year.
They have been forced to adapt. Instead of planting alfalfa, they planted corn and other crops that use less water and can be fed to cattle. They culled cattle from their herd of 650. The tribe – as are others in Colorado – is exploring the viability of kernza, a new perennial grain created at The Land Institute in Kansas.
Still, some adaptation is impossible. The agricultural enterprise has laid off about half of its employees. And last year, despite securing all available government grants created to allow farmers to make it through hard times, the operation lost $2 million.
Listening to that story related by Preston in a video feed to the conference on the campus of Colorado State University, I wondered whether this was a metaphor for what faces the 40 million people who, in one way or another, depend upon water from the Colorado River.
“No wonder Lakes Powell and Mead are in the condition that they are in today,” he said after accounting the over-drafting of the two big reservoirs, now down to 24% and 26% of storage respectively. “The bank account has been drawn down,” he said, “and we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit.”
By now, the 21st century story of the Colorado River has become familiar in its broadest outlines, part of the national narrative of despair. The pivoting reality came on hard in 2002, when the Colorado River carried just 4.5 million acre-feet of water.
To put that into perspective, as Eric Kuhn, co-author of “Science Be Dammed,” did at this conference, those who framed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 assumed 20.5 million acre-feet as they went about apportioning the river’s flows. In the 21st century, the river has averaged 13 million acre-feet.
Alarm has been sounded but…
Now, scientists are warning that river managers should plan for no more than 11 million acre-feet, a reflection of the new hotter, and in some places, drier climate. Some think that figure is overly optimistic.
The seven basin states – particularly the thirsty states of California and Arizona – have cinched their belts with various agreements. But they have not responded in ways proportionate to the risk they now face. There is a very real danger of the reservoirs dropping to just puddles of dead pool, too little to be released downstream. Imagine the Grand Canyon without water. Imagine no water below Hoover Dam. Do these images leave you dumbstruck?
A public official on the Western Slope recently confided to me that he and others had grown weary of what they called “drought, dust and dystopia” stories. That troubled me, leaving me to wonder how my own stories are being received.
At the conference this week on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, I heard something of the same self-doubt.
“With all due respect to my fellow panelists, I live in an area where some of the topics that are mentioned, we’re not uniformly and broadly received,” said Perry Cabot, the lead researcher at Colorado’s State University’s Western Colorado Research Center near Grand Junction. “I think as researchers, we tend to believe that just more educating is going to change the dynamics of the narrative.”
Other panelists agreed with Cabot’s observation that new narratives, not just information, would better convey the gravity of the situation.
“I think the scientific community has gotten its head handed to itself,” said Brad Udall, who has dome some of the pioneering research that shows that “aridification” – as much or more than drought itself – is driving the reduced flows. Drought ends, but aridification resulting from atmospheric greenhouse gases? Not any time soon.
That has gone against the grain of water managers. A decade ago, there was still skepticism about climate change, and water always has been variable. Surely, good winters would return in the mountains of Colorado and other upper basin states that produce 90% of the river’s flows. Colorado alone is responsible for 60%.
After all, every batter goes through slumps, every best-selling author can tell of rejection slips.
By now, however, a clear trend has become evident. Even in good snow years, the runoff lags.
At the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for refilling the glass that is now far less than half-full in the coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.
Even so-so precipitation has been coming up as something worse. For example, the snowpack in the Gunnison River watershed last year was 87% of average, but the runoff was only 64%.
Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last year has been among the six warmest in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuizen, a water resources engineer for the River District. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to apportion demand to match supply. After all, there’s money in the bank, and for probably a year more, enough water in the reservoirs to generate electricity.
At water meetings, an element of collegiality has remained, at least until recently. Testiness has crept in, an element of what Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based River District, calls finger-pointing.
Colorado water officials, Mueller included, are doing some of that themselves.
They point out that Colorado and the other upper-basin states get nicked for 1.2 million acre-feet in evaporative losses in their delivery of water to Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas. California, Arizona, and Nevada do not. “It’s like running two sets of books,” said Mueller.
Mueller was negotiating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the day of the conference in Fort Collins. His stand-in, Dave Kanzer, explained that the Law of the River —the Colorado River Compact and other agreements – don’t necessarily apply anymore. It is “based on long-term stable water supply, and we no longer have that,” he said.
Renegotiate the compact?
The Colorado River Compact assumed too much water and also used precise numbers when ratios would have been better, Mueller has observed. Instead, those who gathered in Santa Fe in November 1922 apportioned
7.5 million acre-feet to each of the two basins, upper and lower. In practice, the lower-basin states have been using twice as much water as Colorado and other upper-basin states.
Colorado’s average annual consumption from the Colorado River and its tributaries is 2.5 million acre-feet. In terms of the compact, what mattes entirely is when the diversion began, before or after the compact.
About 1.6 million-acre feet- mostly older agriculture rights – are pre-compact, but 900,000 acre-feet came later. This includes water for Western Slopes cities and the nearly all of the 500,000 acre-feet diverted across the Continental Divide to cities along the Front Range and farms in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys. This water is most imperiled.
Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District, said he does not believe it’s practical to attempt to amend or renegotiate the Colorado River Compact.
“But within a few years, maybe after we have figured out how to get out of the current crisis, we’re going to essentially ignore all of the provisions of the compact except perhaps article one, which defines the purpose and the signatures page.”
Lochhead has much the same opinion about the much-disputed element of the compact about the obligations of Colorado and other upper basin states to deliver water. It really won’t matter, he said. The real problem is that the basin states need to align demand with supply that, during the last few years, has been close to 11 million acre-feet. (Keep in mind, the compact assumed more than 20 million acre-feet).
“We’re literally in a situation of triage,” said Lochhead. “Something needs to be done in the very near term to lay a foundation for actions that can be taken in the medium and longer term to manage the river to a sustainable condition.”
The feds need to step up
Lochhead outlined three possibly overlapping alternatives.
First: involuntary regulations and restrictions. The federal government – although it has been using it with restraint – does indeed have authority to regulate use of water that enters into Mead. The U.S. Supreme Court has characterized its power as such. The Bureau of Reclamation must be seen as delivering a coherent threat.
“That gives the U.S. government enormous authority over what happens in the lower basin,” Lochhead said. This is unlikely to happen until after the November election, he said, but it absolutely must happen.
Voluntary agreements must also occur. The Bureau of Reclamation imposed an August 2022 deadline for agreements. If the deadline had been a hard one, the states would have failed. Lochhead said it came down to finger pointing. Arizona and California “stared across the river at each other, seeing who’s going to blink first.”
The federal government has now put $4 billion on the table – through the Inflation Reduction Act —to “grease” the skids in terms of voluntary agreements. (Think, perhaps voluntary retirement of water rights). “They’re going to have to buy down demands in the lower basin,” said Lochhead, conjecturing on deals involving the Imperial Irrigation District, the giant ag producer just north of the border with Mexico.
Lochhead also described the need for reductions in water use in the municipal sectors. Denver Water and several other water agencies in Colorado – but also in Nevada and California and Arizona—announced an agreement in August in which they will try to pare their consumption. For example, Denver wants to end irrigation of medians along roads and highways and crimp the amount of water used for turf. But Denver and other cities need to continue to have trees, said Lochhead.
More cities will join this pact to reduce water use for residential consumption in coming weeks and months, Lochhead said.
But he said Colorado may need state legislation to ensure that real-estate developers can’t create landscaping in the future that requires lots of water, offsetting these gains.
That brings me back to the Ute Mountain Ute lands that I visited in May. By virtue of their 1986 agreement, reality has smacked them hard. There is pain, but there is also adjustment. They have had to adjust.
Something of the same thing must occur in the broader Colorado River Basin. So far, it’s easier to postpone action. But another so-so year – or worse? While the states are trying to make the cuts necessary for a river that is delivering 12 million acre-feet per year, Mueller warns that the plans must contemplate a 9 million acre-foot river, as some scientists have said may come to pass.
But in Grand Junction, one of the scientists pointed out to me that it’s just possible the river may deliver 7 million acre-feet – and that could be next year and the year after.
Then, we may need a new metaphor, something worse than an empty bank account.
Technology tied into irrigation pipelines will provide power for 7,600-acre farm and Bow and Arrow Brand corn mill
The kinetic energy that irrigation water produces as it surges through pressurized pipe on the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch Enterprise is wasted as it is reduced to operate the center-pivot sprinkler system. Now, that precious power can be captured and used. The Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch Enterprise decided to capture the dissipated energy through a series of small hydroelectric power plants placed on irrigation lines that serve center-pivot sprinklers on the 7,700-acre farm southwest of Towaoc.
This summer, the tribe started up its first hydroelectric generator on an irrigation line for a field prepped for winter wheat on the farm, which has 110 center pivots. Two more generators are installed on nearby field irrigation lines and are staged to begin operations. By 2024, the tribe will have 10 hydropower plants capturing the energy from the pressurized pipes, which drop in elevation from the nearby Towaoc Highline Canal…
On the farm, nondescript buildings that house the turbines, piping, generators and electrical panels hum and whistle with the sounds of renewable energy. Water from the irrigation line surges into the turbine at more than 200 pounds per square inch as it drops 220 feet in elevation from the nearby Towaoc Highline Canal, engineers said. The plant captures 18 kilowatts of energy from the flow but leaves enough water pressure to power the center pivot. Once all online, electricity produced from all 10 plants covers electricity costs for the farm and the adjacent Bow and Arrow Brand corn mill.
Most of the major players – the ones that matter, anyway, by which I mean Arizona, California, and the federal government – appear boxed in by constraints they can’t seem to overcome, while the water in the Colorado River’s big reservoirs is circling the drains.
Arizona’s giving up a lot of water right now, and it’s hard to see how they solve their in-state politics and give up more without California coming up with substantial cuts of its own. Meanwhile California’s internal politics have so far constrained it from coming up with meaningful contributions. This may change soon, but the numbers being discussed may not be enough to move the needle as far as it needs to move. And the federal government seems torn between tough immediate actions and placing responsibility on the states to come up with a plan to save themselves.
Last week’s Water Education Foundation Colorado River symposium in Santa Fe was striking.
It’s an invitation-only event, and I’m not sure what the ground rules are, so I’ll treat it as a sort of “Chatham House Rules” thing.
I will say this. I moderated a panel. Harsh words were exchanged. I was kind of an asshole as I tried to get people to say the quiet parts out loud. But right now, we need to be saying the quiet parts out loud, because the water is circling the drains.
THE STATUS OF THE RESERVOIRS
Lake Mead will end water year 2022 next Friday [September 30, 2022] with a surface elevation ~1,044 feet above sea level, down 1.8 million acre feet from a year ago.
Lake Powell will end the year at somewhere around elevation ~3,529, down 1.5 million acre feet from a year ago.
Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which must now be in the end-of-water-year mix because of the way Reclamation and the states have begun moving water around like pawns on the Upper Basin chess board, will end the year at elevation 6,013, down 300,000 acre feet from last year.
Absent action by water users to use less, next year’s not-all-that-farfetched possibilities (by which I mean the Bureau of Reclamation’s latest “minimum probable” forecast) has Powell dropping below minimum power by the end of 2023 – and staying there. Absent downstream action by water users to use less water, Mead drops to 1,016 by the of water year 2023.
If the federal government holds water back in Powell to prevent the need to use the dam’s bypass tubes, that drops Mead even farther.
For those not steeped in the numbers, this is cracked-mud, five-alarm fire bad.
2022 Water Use
Californians are touchy about these numbers, specifically the observation that they’re taking more than their full allocation this year, even as the reservoirs are tanking. They point out that in recent years they have used significantly less than their allocated 4.4 million acre feet, banking unused water in Lake Mead as a hedge against drought. Which they’re suffering now, massively. Which is true, and fair to point out.
So, for completeness sake, here are the three Lower Basin states’ annual take on Lake Mead going back a decade.
I point this out as a native Californian, and with love for my California friends. The laws and policies we have developed allow – even encourage! – this. The doctrine of prior appropriation was designed to remove water from our rivers for “beneficial use”, emptying them in the process. California played a masterful game over the 20th century to ensure the priority of its water rights and the federal largesse needed to put the water to use.
But understand, please, why everyone else in the basin is glaring at you: you have a larger allocation than everyone else, and you’ve been reducing your use less than everyone else. The law gives your water use priority over others in the basin, but that doesn’t make it feel any fairer to the rest of us as everyone is being asked to cut back to save the shrinking river on which we all depend.
So where do we go now?
Despite the failure of the basin states to come up with a plan to reduce water use in 2023, and the unwillingness or inability of the federal government to impose one, the mass balance problem has not changed. The “protection volumes” – the amount of cutbacks needed next year and every year thereafter for the foreseeable future – are still huge. If the 2023 water year is similar to the last three, water users need to cut 2 million acre feet just to hold the reservoirs where they are and protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell from dropping to critically low elevations, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s modeling.
Never mind about refilling.
According to a piece by Jake Bittle at Grist, California is working on a deal among the water users that would cut something – it’s not entirely clear what, Bittle references a range of 350,000 to 500,000 acre feet. This is super interesting in part because of the context – this is California going it alone. Yay for voluntary cuts! But it’s hard to see how the largest user on the system agreeing to cuts of that size gets us anywhere close to 2 million acre feet. But given the water politics within California, it’s also hard to see how California cuts more, at least voluntarily. Imperial Irrigation District is rightly demanding action on the Salton Sea, which has been shrinking as a result of past Imperial cutbacks. (Less irrigation means less percolation and runoff into the Sea. Bad air quality, bad mojo, as the Sea shrinks.) Getting Imperial farmers (and others, but Imperial’s the big player) to accept cutbacks voluntarily will have a big price tag. Forcing the cuts will almost certainly lead to litigation.
That leaves Arizona in a box. They’ve already cut nearly 800,000 acre feet this year, which is huge. There’s more water to be had in Yuma – again, for a price – but it’s hard to see Arizona coughing up more water absent California cutting more deeply. Where’s the fairness in that?
All the rest of us – Nevada, and the states of the Upper Basin – can do is look on in horror. I’ve been critical of the Upper Basin states for not agreeing to kick in some water, and I still think we’re going to have to do that sooner or later. But we’re only using ~4 million acre feet a year, on average, of our 7.5 million acre foot allocation. At this point, any savings we can muster are small relative to the use by California and Arizona. And given the Lower Basin states’ inability to come up with a plan, anything we do add to the system right now will just drain out the bottom in continued overuse.
Which leaves the federal hammer.
According to a press release last week, which (oddly?) came from the Department of Interior rather than the Bureau of Reclamation, Interior is preparing for the possibility that it may need to reduce releases from Glen Canyon Damn in 2023. (See Kuhn, Fleck, and Schmidt on this question.) This echoes something Reclamation said in August.
That would have the effect of further dropping Mead as Reclamation’s engineers scramble to protect Glen Canyon Dam.
Interior is also:
“Preparing to take action to make additional reductions in 2023, as needed, through an administrative process to evaluate and adjust triggering elevations and/or increase reduction volumes identified in the 2007 Interim Guidelines Record of Decision.”
“Take administrative actions needed to further define reservoir operations at Lake Mead, including shortage operations at elevations below 1,025 feet to reduce the risk of Lake Mead declining to critically low elevations.”
Folks in the federal government are frankly boxed in as well – between Lower Basin users unwilling or unable to cut use enough on their own to save themselves, with constraints imposed by a sincere attempt to be more inclusive of Tribal interests than the federal government has ever been, with the crazy problems of the Salton Sea hovering over any attept to rein in the basin’s largest water user, with the international challenge of including Mexico in the coming decisions, and with a crucial mid-term election looming.
So far, those constraints have prevented the federal government from getting specific about the threats – at least in public.
It’s hard to look at all these constraints, the boxed-in-ness – on Arizona, on California, on the federal government – and not see dead pool looming.
Absent a big snowpack, I don’t see how this ends well.
Click the link to read the post on the InkStain website (Eric Kuhn, John Fleck, and Jack Schmidt):
With most forecasts pointing toward another below-average winter of precipitation in the Rocky Mountains in 2022/2023 and with total basin-wide reservoir storage now less than 20 maf (less than 17 months of supply at the rate water has been consumed in the basin since 2000), it is time for the federal government to announce immediate, major reductions in Lake Powell releases for the coming water year (October 1, 2022, to September 30, 2023).
The importance of this leadership by Interior is pressing, because discussions among the basin states to cut their 2023 consumptive uses are at a stalemate and the Bureau of Reclamation is struggling to move the negotiation process along. An announcement by Interior, made no later than the 2022 Colorado River Water Users meeting in December, should set the annual release from Lake Powell for Water Year (WY) 2023 at approximately 5.5 million acre-feet (maf), 20% less than the 7.0 maf releases in water year 2022 and more than 30% less than the long-term release of 8.23 maf. Reductions in monthly releases to accomplish this objective ought to begin in January 2023.
In a news release Thursday, and in conversations at the Water Education Foundation’s Colorado River symposium this week in Santa Fe, officials with the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation suggested this option is already on the table. And Lower Basin water managers, doing the math for themselves, are already bracing for the possibility. A formal announcement, soon, would thus come as no surprise.
With last year’s decision to only release 7.0 million acre-feet in WY2022 (the water year that ends on September 30), the Secretary of the Interior has already determined that she can and will take actions to protect power generation and the structural integrity of Glen Canyon Dam. We believe it is now time to take bold action and further reduce Lake Powell releases for the following reasons:
First – The winter forecast justifies an immediate reduction in releases. It is now clear that we’re headed for a La Nina three-peat at least through most of the winter. While there is still a lot of uncertainty, too many forecasts are pointing to a warm, dry winter for most of the Colorado River’s watershed, especially the Rocky Mountains. This warm and dry winter outlook means it’s time to focus on the likelihood that inflows to Powell will probably be similar to Reclamation’s present minimum probable forecast made in its 24-month study.
Second – The projections of the current 24-month study’s minimum probable forecast justify a drastic reduction in releases. Given the dry and warm winter forecasts, basing 2023 reservoir operations on the minimum probable forecast should be considered responsible water-supply management. Based on the latest projections made by Reclamation, storage in Lake Powell would drop to elevation 3469’, only ~2.7 maf of storage above the dead pool, and well below the 3490’ elevation below which hydroelectricity cannot be generated. Keeping the storage level above 3525 ft may not be possible, but an infusion of 2 maf of storage into Lake Powell through a combination of Drought Operations (DROA) deliveries from Flaming Gorge reservoir and reduced releases to Lake Mead would increase the probability of maintaining Lake Powell slightly above 3510 ft, a 20-ft (1 maf) cushion above minimum power pool elevation. Recognizing recent cautions from Jim Prairie (the UC Region’s lead modeler) that there may only be two years of DROA releases left in Flaming Gorge, a 500,000 af delivery combined with a 1.5-maf reduction in releases from Glen Canyon Dam would be a wise strategy that would leave Reclamation with the flexibility to make one more Flaming Gorge DROA delivery in 2024, if necessary.
Third – A 5.5-maf release would create clear markers to evaluate the impacts of the additional Lower Basin cuts on storage in Lake Mead and show what is necessary to preserve power generation at both Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams. Such an action would show the urgent need for additional system cuts to preserve both Lake Mead and total system storage. A reduction in the annual release by 1.5 maf would drive Lake Mead below elevation 1000 ft, but releases of only 5.5 maf would also be likely to keep Lake Powell above minimum power pool. At the end of WY2023, Lake Mead active storage would fall to 3.7 maf (~elevation 988 ft). Assuming a resumption of 7 maf-Glen Canyon Dam releases in WY2024, Lake Mead storage would drop to elevation ~965-970 ft in July 2024, close to its minimum power elevation of 950’. Under this scenario, both reservoirs would have only about a 20 ft cushion over minimum power pool elevation, but power generation at both dams would be preserved, albeit at a minimal level.
There are obvious tradeoffs between the reduction of Lake Powell releases to our suggested 5.5 maf and the imposition of additional reductions in Lower Basin consumptive uses. Reduction of Lake Powell releases to 6.0 million acre-feet in WY2023 would be the largest release that ought to be considered for the coming year, because such a release would only increase storage about 20 ft. Reducing releases to 5.5 maf or even 5 maf would be much wiser, but even these radical policies may only be enough to “tread water.” Recovering system storage is likely to take several more years of reduced releases from Lake Powell that might include additional years when annual releases are as low as 5 maf.
Fourth – If the forecast of a dry winter proves to be in error and more precipitation comes in late winter 2023, Reclamation can increase the annual release during the spring. Reclamation has the flexibility to increase annual releases back to 7.0 maf/year (or more under the possible, but unlikely, event of a big year). Ideally, if the Lower Basin has a plan in place to cut an additional 1.5-2.0 maf of its uses, the benefits of such an increase in Powell releases later in the water year could also be redirected to recovering storage in Lake Mead.
Fifth – A 5.5-maf release in WY2023 could leave the Upper Basin with a future compact deficit that would force resolution of the long-standing dispute over the Upper Basin’s 1944 Treaty obligation to Mexico. The ten-year flow at Lee Ferry for 2013-2022 will be about 85.5 maf, but under our proposed scenario of a 5.5 maf release in WY2023 and a continuation of the Millennium Drought, the ten-year total release would be less than 82.5 maf by 2025 or 2026. Further, as the 9-maf years from 2015-19 fade into the past, the running ten-year tally could stay well below 82.5 maf through the end of the decade.
Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead has labeled this 82.5 maf metric as the basin’s first hydrologic “compact tripwire.” This observation is based on the Lower Division States’ view that under the 1922 Compact, the Upper Division States have an annual obligation to contribute 50% of the 1944 Treaty delivery to Mexico every year (normally 750,000 af, but a little less when Mexico takes a shortage) plus the 75 maf non-depletion obligation. The Upper Division States, of course, disagree, taking the position that the 750,000 af release for Mexico is a “luxury”, not a requirement under the 1922 Compact. Their view is that their Lee Ferry obligation is no more than 75 maf every ten years.
The Upper Division States’ position, however, puts their post-Compact uses at considerable risk! If the basins are unable to reach a compromise and turn to litigation instead and the Supreme Court rules in favor of Arizona, Nevada, and California or even finds a middle ground, it’s quite likely that the Upper Division States could end up owing a lot of water or money or both. The Upper Division states would be wise to consider resolving their Mexican Treaty obligation as a part of the post-2026 guidelines negotiations. Having an effective Upper Basin demand management program (or functional alternative) in place will almost certainly be a part of any negotiated settlement.
Summary If the WY 2023 runoff turns out to be below average, as many forecasts now suggest, maintaining Lake Powell storage elevation above minimum power pool with a reasonable cushion will require a combination of (1) another DROA release from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and (2) a significant reduction of the WY 2023 Lake Powell release to well below 7 maf. At this point, using the most probable 24-month forecast which uses an optimistically wet (1991-2020) hydrologic baseline and totally ignores the available winter forecasts, simply obfuscates reality, and creates obstacles to finding the needed cuts. Using the minimum probable forecast to set the 2023 annual release sooner than later would add both clarity and urgency to the stalled task at hand – finding the necessary additional cuts needed to stabilize and recover the system. Using the minimum probable forecast is a “no regrets approach.” If the forecast improves, an upward adjustment of annual releases is an easy and welcome fix. The opposite, a downward adjustment made in spring 2023, would create more havoc.
There are associated issues that Reclamation ought to begin to consider immediately. What would be the impact to the Grand Canyon ecosystem of a 5.5-maf annual release? How should monthly flows be distributed under such a low annual release? How should the present invasion of smallmouth bass in Grand Canyon be managed under very low annual releases? What might be the impact on commercial river running in Grand Canyon in 2023? How should the ever-increasing temperatures of Powell releases be managed? These are all questions that need to be addressed in fall 2022 so that our recommendations can be implemented in January 2023.
We’ve suggested the 5.5 maf figure based on the September 24-month study. By November or December, the minimum probable forecast may dictate a different release number.
Whatever that number is, Reclamation should consider letting the basin know as soon as reasonably possible.
– Jack Schmidt is Janet Quinney Lawson Chair in Colorado River Studies, Center for Colorado River Studies, Watershed Sciences Department, Utah State University
– John Fleck is Writer in Residence at the Utton Transboundary Resources Center, University of New Mexico School of Law; Professor of Practice in Water Policy and Governance in UNM’s Department of Economics; and former director of UNM’s Water Resources Program.
A new progress report on Colorado’s greenhouse gas emission reductions shows the state is not on track to meet key goals. And anyone could have seen it coming.
The goals are set by statute, yet state officials haven’t taken climate action with sufficient seriousness to do right by the law, let alone public health and the planet. One hopes the new report inspires urgent action, though state officials have approached the climate emergency with a maddening combination of strong rhetoric and weak action for years.
Colorado residents will pay the price.
State lawmakers three years ago enacted House Bill 19-1261, a landmark achievement that requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas pollution compared to 2005 levels by goals of 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. As part of the effort to meet those targets, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission in 2020 established a regime to track and ensure progress on emission reductions. It set targets for a handful of sectors that are to blame for the most emissions, including electricity generation, oil and gas production, transportation, and residential and commercial building energy use.
The state has since made some notable strides toward hitting the targets. State law now requires electric utilities to file clean energy plans and work to reduce emissions. While renewable energy is becoming much cheaper to produce, and market forces rather than state action has much to do with the green transition, Colorado’s last coal plant is expected to close by the beginning of 2031, and utilities in the state are expected to see a roughly 80% reduction in emissions by 2030.
In 2019, the state adopted a zero-emission vehicle standard that requires an increased percentage of cars available for sale in Colorado to be electric-powered. The modest measure, which does not require drivers to actually buy electric cars, is expected to boost from 2.6% three years ago to 6.2% in 2030 the proportion of zero-emission vehicles sold in Colorado.
Officials recently enacted standards that require state and local transportation planners to meet a series of greenhouse gas reduction targets. And during the most recent legislative session, the General Assembly enacted a package of climate-friendly measures, the largest climate investment being a $65 million grant program to help school districts buy electric buses.
But for every climate advance in Colorado there’s often a planet-threatening failure.
As Newsline’s Chase Woodruff reported last year, the administration of Gov. Jared Polis abandoned one of its own top climate-action priorities, an initiative called the Employee Traffic Reduction Program, which would have required big Denver-area businesses to reduce the number of their employees commuting in single-occupant vehicles. The initiative was dropped following “intense opposition from business groups and conservatives, many of whom spread misinformation and conspiracy theories,” Woodruff reported.
Earlier this year the administration frustrated environmentalists again when it delayed adoption of an Advanced Clean Trucks rule, which would impose emissions standards on medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.
This is all aligns with the governor’s insistence on a “market-driven transition” to renewable energy and a preference for voluntary industry action.
Is it any surprise then that the transportation sector accounts for Colorado’s most grievous instance of greenhouse gas negligence? What makes this especially troubling is that, with all those internal combustion engines buzzing around Colorado roads, transportation is the state’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Additional strategies for reducing emissions from the transportation sector will be needed” to meet state targets, the recent progress report concludes.
Emissions from transportation in Colorado have in fact grown in recent years, contributing greatly to the state’s overall off-track status.
The average temperature in Colorado keeps trending up. Denver this year experienced its third-hottest summer on record. The city’s four hottest summers have occurred in the last 10 years, and 3 of 4 of its hottest summers have occurred in the last three years.
Climate change is contributing to the aridification of the Southwest, it’s depleting water resources and it’s fueling more frequent and ferocious wildfires. It’s killing people, and it’s getting worse.
Polis, a Democrat, sits in the governor’s chair, so he shoulders the most responsibility, but Republicans would no doubt exacerbate the crisis were they in his position. Heidi Ganahl, the Republican nominee for Colorado governor, recently released her proposed transportation policy, which is almost entirely about investing in highways and almost exhaustively dismissive of climate change.
State officials, to safeguard the wellbeing of present and future generations of Coloradans, must take urgent steps to meet the 2025 emissions reduction targets. The progress report shows they’re failing to do so.
Affected areas in Colorado, Connecticut, Texas, New Jersey, and New York are home to nearly 40 million people
As a result of a lawsuit brought by a coalition of environmental groups, today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency downgraded four areas across the country from a “serious” to a “severe” rating for their smog pollution. This downgrade in the ratings triggers more protective measures to reduce smog pollution.
The four areas, including the Denver Metro area, have some of the nation’s worst air quality. EPA downgraded the areas because their ground-level ozone pollution—commonly called smog—continues to exceed the levels that are safe for human health, wildlife, and plants.
“Recognizing that these areas have a severe smog problem marks an important step forward in reducing this pollution,” said Ryan Maher, an environmental health attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Now it’s time for concrete plans to fix it.”
Smog pollution is linked to human health problems like asthma attacks, cardiovascular problems, and even premature death. Those most at risk include older adults, children and people who work outdoors. The harm smog does to plants can damage entire ecosystems and reduce biodiversity.
“For the more than 3.5 million people living in the Denver Metro and North Front Range region of Colorado, today’s finding gives new hope for clean air,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “Now it’s up to Governor Polis and his administration to do the right thing and finally clean up this smoggy mess and restore healthy skies along Colorado’s Front Range.”
The four environmental groups sued the EPA in March 2022 after the agency missed its deadline to reclassify these areas from a serious to a severe rating for smog. The agreement resulting from this lawsuit required EPA to finalize the ratings for these four areas by today: the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston-Galveston-Brazoria areas in Texas; the New York City metro areas of Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey; and the Denver-Boulder-Greeley-Fort Collins-Loveland area in Colorado.
“The 37 million people who live in these areas with unsafe levels of toxic pollution deserve clean air and immediate federal action,” said Kaya Allan Sugerman, director of the Center for Environmental Health’s illegal toxic threats program. “Today’s victory will help protect these communities from the dangers of this pollution.”
Under this agreement, EPA must also determine whether the smog ratings for Ventura County and western Nevada County in California need to be downgraded by December 16, 2022.
The downgraded ratings finalized today are part of the environmental groups’ ongoing effort to compel the EPA to protect human health and the environment from smog pollution in accordance with the requirements of the Clean Air Act.
Water leaders, agricultural producers, environmentalists and others from across the drought-stricken river basin met Friday for the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar to discuss the historic-low levels in the river’s biggest reservoirs — and the need to cut back usage from Wyoming to California. While the problems the basin faces were apparent in the day-long discussions about the state of the river, solutions were not. The event’s host, Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller, told attendees that scientists now recommend that water managers plan for the river to provide just 9 million acre-feet of water annually. That’s a reduction of about a quarter from the amount used in 2021 by U.S. states, Native American tribes and Mexico. In an interview, Mueller said the Friday seminar was held to educate attendees on the seriousness of the Colorado River situation. Still unanswered is what the states and tribes represented in the room will do to drastically curtail use.
While the representatives for the governments agreed that solutions need to be collaborative, no one offered to be the first to make big cuts. However, representatives from nearly every state stressed that they have already cut back on the amount of water they’re legally allowed to use.
“I think the honest answer is right now there is no plan,” J.B. Hamby of the Imperial Irrigation District in California said in response to a question from the audience about how significant cutbacks would be achieved.
The Imperial district’s farms use millions of acre-feet of water a year to produce massive portions of the national food system. Hamby said water managers along the Colorado River have been distracted by incremental “dumpster fires,” and are not adequately focusing on the need for a new long-term plan that accounts for reduced water in the river.
The theme [of the seminar “Overdrawn”] refers to the emergency status of the Colorado River and its biggest reservoirs: Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Mead, on the border of Nevada and Arizona, has dropped so low that there’s fear that turbines at Hoover Dam won’t have enough water to keep spinning and generating hydroelectric power for millions of people…
Throughout the seminar sessions Friday, upper-basin managers said lower-basin states need to take the lead in the water savings. Asked why the upper basin wouldn’t put out a plan first to get the entire river system closer to a solution, Mueller with the Colorado River Water Conservation District said in the interview with CPR News that the state of Colorado is working on specific conservation plans but doesn’t intend to release them until the lower-basin states act…Meanwhile, lower-basin water managers attending the Friday conference stressed the water savings they have made in the past and asked that states like Colorado stop waiting for the lower-basin to act.
Andy Mueller, general manager of western Colorado’s Colorado River District, said at the annual water seminar that his entity puts on that everyone in the basin needs to come to the table with solutions for reducing usage. But before that can occur, he said the federal Bureau of Reclamation needs to address the fact that the way river water is currently divvied up between Upper and Lower Basin states doesn’t account for evaporation and transit loss in the Lower Basin that amounts to 1.2 million acre-feet a year.
“The key here is getting the accounting fixed and then recognizing that we all have an obligation to participate (in conservation measures) as well,” Mueller said.
He warned that alternatively the river district may consider pursuing litigation to make that fix happen.
Friday’s event at Colorado Mesa University comes as the Colorado River Compact that divvies up river water between the Upper and Lower basins turns 100 years old this year. Drought and a warming climate have reduced precipitation and streamflows in the basin during the last 20 or so years that the compact has been in effect. While it allocated 7.5 million acre-feet a year to each of the basins, the watershed doesn’t produce that volume of water. Water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at less than a quarter of what they can hold, which is threatening their ability to produce hydroelectric power and raising the prospect of them reaching “deadpool” and being no longer functional.
The Lower Basin has been using more water than allocated to it under the 1922 compact, and the Upper Basin, far less than its share. In addition, Mueller said, evaporation of water in federal Upper Basin reservoirs such as Powell, Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa gets attributed to the usage by the Upper Basin, which he said makes sense. But evaporation and transit losses aren’t calculated into Lower Basin usage, which Mueller, an attorney, said is “probably illegal in the context of the river.” He said the Bureau of Reclamation needs to fix that, but doesn’t want to because of the pain it would cause in the Lower Basin and the potential for resulting litigation…
Mueller then added, “I just want to be clear, from my perspective and the river district’s, there very well may be litigation if they don’t fix this problem, from us, because if their threat is to come after our federal projects in the Upper Basin we will defend those projects.”
Already, the Bureau of Reclamation has been making some water releases from Upper Basin federal reservoirs such as Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa to try to shore up levels in Lake Powell.
It’s one of those days when the clouds pile up in the azure blue, their shadows gliding across the sandstone and sage, offering a bit of relief from the late June heat. They also promise rain, but I have my doubts. This is the Paradox Valley, after all, which lives up to its name in more way than one, a place of beauty and brutality.
The Uravan Mineral Belt, which roughly follows the lower Dolores River in western Colorado, slices perpendicularly across the Paradox Valley just like the river, giving it its name. The mineral belt, meanwhile, got its name from the elements that lie within: vanadium and uranium. The belt was the center of the radium boom from the early 1900s into the 1920s and was ravaged for uranium from the 1940s into the 1980s. Vanadium was mined here in between.
Jennifer Thurston, the executive director of the Colorado mining watchdog group INFORM, tells me there are 1,300 mining sites, abandoned and otherwise, in the Dolores and San Miguel River Basins, making it among the most heavily mined sites in the West. And it shows.
I’m here with Thurston and Soren Jespersen to take a look at myriad wounds inflicted by the mining industry, most still gaping and oozing with uncovered waste rock, rusty equipment, and other detritus decades after they were last active. But this is more than a journey into the past, it’s also a look at what might happen again in the not-so-distant future. A renewed interest in nuclear energy as a low-carbon power source and a desire to source reactor fuel domestically could wake the U.S. uranium industry from its long dormancy and rouse some of the mineral belt mines back into action.
“Here we go again,” Jespersen, of Colorado Wildlands Project, said earlier in the day, as we examined what looked a tombstone-looking monument marking the internment site of nearly 1 million tons of radioactive tailings from the Naturita Mill. “Are we going to stumble blindly down the same path?” Thurston and Jespersen are both working, in their own way, to prevent that from happening.
The U.S. uranium industry has been on a downward slide since the eighties. First the 1979 Three Mile Island incident gave Americans the nuclear power jitters (Chernobyl, in ’86, didn’t help matters). Then the Cold War ended, allowing the fissionable material in dismantled nuclear warheads to be downgraded to a concentration that could be used as reactor fuel, and opening up Russian and former Soviet republic markets to the world. Uranium prices dropped significantly, gutting the domestic mining industry. Now at least 95% of all of the uranium used to fuel American reactors is imported from Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Russia, and other countries.
After the Fukushima disaster it seemed as if nuclear power would gradually fade away, at least in the U.S. New conventional reactors are simply too expensive to build and low natural gas prices and a flood of new renewables on the power grid threatened to make the existing, aging nuclear fleet obsolete. But as the effects of climate change become more and more apparent, and the sense of urgency around the need to decarbonize the power sector intensifies, climate hawks are giving nuclear power a new look.
The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant outside San Luis Obispo, California, for example, is scheduled to shut down in 2025, but now California Gov. Gavin Newsom is leading a push to keep it open longer. His reasoning: The state’s grid doesn’t have the renewable generation capacity yet to replace the big plant, meaning if it were to close now grid operators would have to rely on carbon-emitting natural gas-fired generation.
Meanwhile, a Bill Gates-backed firm called TerraPower is working to build an advanced nuclear reactor in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and Oregon startup NuScale is looking to install a battery of small modular reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory and sell power to small, Western utilities.
Any of these initiatives, on their own, can’t revive the U.S. uranium industry. But this mild resurgence in nuclear power, paired with the fallout (only figurative, we hope) of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has caused the price of uranium to double over the last couple of years. If that trend continues—and if the federal government pitches in subsidies for the industry—it might be enough to make U.S. uranium mining economically feasible and spark renewed interest in the Uravan Mineral Belt.
Thurston has tirelessly worked to bring regulations and regulators out of the 19th century, sometimes by dragging them into court. She was instrumental in the fight to block a proposal to build a uranium mill in the Paradox Valley several years ago and more recently has forced regulators to revoke long-idled mines’ “temporary cessation” status, clearing the way for them to be cleaned up. (For more on her efforts, check out this Land Deskdispatch from March.
Jespersen is taking a different tack, he explains as we stand next to the confluence of the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers, swatting away pesky horse flies. His organization was formed with the aim of achieving landscape level protection for Bureau of Land Management lands on the Colorado Plateau. In this case, they are looking at the Dolores River watershed, specifically the lower, northern end, which manages to be spectacular, remote, and industrialized by uranium mining, all at once.
A piece of that is moving forward. In July, Sen. Michael Bennett introduced a bill that would establish a National Conservation Area along the Dolores River from McPhee Dam to the San Miguel County line, just upstream from Bedrock and the Paradox Valley. That would add a layer of protections to a 76-mile stretch of the river corridor, including prohibiting new mining claims. However, it would not stop mining on existing claims or Department of Energy leases, both of which are abundant.
But, thanks to local political opposition, Bennett’s bill leaves out the lower 100 river miles—along with serpentine canyons, slickrock expanses, isolated mesas, and the western edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau. Jespersen and Colorado Wildlands Project are looking to up protections on that remaining section, specifically the area from the Dolores River’s confluence with the San Miguel River downstream. During uranium mining times, much of that section of river was dead, thanks to tailings and other waste dumped into the river from the mills and mines. But still other areas remain relatively unmarred and even qualify for wilderness designation.
We drive along the Dolores River, stop for lunch at the Bedrock recreation area, which was once a well-tended and crowded takeout zone for Dolores River rafters. But since McPhee Dam’s operators have released little more than a trickle into the river due to aridification, the picnic area no longer serves much of a purpose and is sad-feeling and overgrown. Thurston tells us mining speculation has picked up in the area, but not much else. And then she explains a sort of ore pre-processing technique called ablation that some mining companies are hoping to use to save costs and maybe get around regulations.
Then we drive into the heart of the wreckage on a nearby mesa. From there we see the JD-7, a big, open pit mine in the Paradox Valley that never even produced ore. Now it sits idle and unreclaimed. We peer down into the darkness of a mine shaft and poke around in a dilapidated building where packrats have taken up residence among old equipment. This is one of the mines that INFORM won a cleanup case against, but regulators haven’t approved a reclamation plan, so nothing’s happened. “This whole formation is basically Swiss cheese,” Thurston says as we ponder yet another abandoned site, replete with a couple of ancient cars with “straight eights” under the hoods. And we go out to a point where we can look out on the landscape and see the web of roads scraped through the piñon, juniper, and sagebrush decades ago to give prospectors access to every inch of this vast space.
It’s heartbreaking to see, but hopeful, too, as the land is slowly healing. Yet it’s infuriating to think that the wounds may one day be torn open again.
Well how about that. You may remember our story last month about the Horseshoe-Gallup oil field and about how a determined group of activists and land protectors were trying to bring regulators’ attention to the blight there. Not only did they get the Bureau of Land Management’s attention, but they got their boss—Interior Secretary Deb Haaland—to come out and see one of the worst sites. Haaland also announced $25 million in federal funding to plug and reclaim orphaned oil and gas wells in New Mexico during her visit.
Lost in much of the coverage of the region’s water woes is the ecological crisis caused by prolonged drought, climate warming and development.
In the Colorado River basin, our past has come back to haunt us.
We’re not just talking about the dead bodies emerging from the drying shoreline of Lake Mead. The river’s water crisis has caused the nation’s two biggest reservoirs to sink to historic lows.
It’s a problem of our own making — in more ways than one.
The Colorado River Compact, signed a century ago, overallocated the river’s water. Experts have long warned that nature can’t continue to deliver the water that the government has promised to farms, cities and towns.
A drying West, warmed by climate change, has now made that shortage impossible to ignore.
For years demand has outstripped natural flows on the river, and some states and Tribes have already taken cuts to their allocations. Additional conservation measures were expected as the seven U.S. states that share the river — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California and Nevada — have been working on hammering out a new deal. The region’s more than two dozen federally recognized Tribes have also been fighting for a seat at that table and a hand in the river’s management. But the deadline for a revised agreement between all the parties came and went this summer with no resolution in sight.
To say there’s a lot at stake would be an understatement.
Some 40 million people rely on the 1,400-mile-long river in the United States and Mexico, including in many of the West’s biggest cities. It also greens 5 million acres of irrigated agriculture.
But that’s come at a cost. Long before cities and industrial farms emerged, the river supported diverse mountain and desert ecosystems, providing refuge and resources for countless animals and plants.
Many of those species now struggle to survive the cumulative pressures from drought, climate warming and human developments. And they remain an overlooked part of the region’s water crisis…
A lot can happen in two decades.
In 2000 Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which help manage water supplies along the Colorado, were nearly full. Today they’re both hovering just above one-quarter capacity — the lowest ever since being filled.
In the intervening 20 years the Colorado River basin has seen a prolonged drought that’s now believed to be the driest period in the region in the last 1,200 years. River flows have fallen 20% compared to the last century’s average.
And it’s not just from a lack of precipitation. Researchers attributed one-third of that reduced river flow to climate change. Warming temperatures increase evaporation, as well as evapotranspiration by plants. So even when the Rocky Mountains do receive snow or rain, less of that runoff makes it to the Colorado River and its tributaries.
Experts say we’ll see more of these so-called “hot droughts” as the climate continues to warm. The basin is expected to see a five degree-Fahrenheit jump by 2050. That will make things not just hotter but drier. If we don’t dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions, the Colorado’s flow could drop 35% to 55% by the end of the century.
Years ago the region’s prolonged drought was dubbed a “megadrought,” but some of the region’s top scientists say “aridity” may be a better term. That means that the combination of warming and drying will be much more permanent.
Aridity and Animals
The region’s ecosystems — and those who live in them — are feeling the heat.
“Climate warming is just hammering this basin, and part of what we see in addition to the water disappearing is this protracted wildfire season,” says Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for Audubon, the bird-conservation organization. “The fires are more intense and cover ever-larger landscapes, that in turn has the possibility to severely impact the health of the watershed.”
Millions of trees have also been lost to insects and disease exacerbated by drought, including along riverbanks, where less shade is warming streams. Many desert plants, like ocotillos, Washington fan palms and Joshua trees, are also declining from warming temperatures, less precipitation and thirstier animals.
Across the region streams and springs are drying up, too, leading to declines in populations of aquatic amphibians, fish and insects that make up the base of the food chain.
“We haven’t seen any entire species go extinct yet,” says Michael Bogan, an assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona. “But if you project this into the future, that’s certainly something we’re worried about.”
His concern includes the fate of endangered desert pupfish and Gila topminnows.
“They used to be present in large river systems, but the changes in the habitat and the introduction of non-native fishes have basically excluded them from all of those large historic habitats,” he says. “Now the only refuge where they can survive is these smaller habitats — these headwater streams and springs — and those are the exact types of places that are disappearing now.”
Birds are at risk, too, a recent study found. The researchers visited areas of the Mojave Desert that had been studied in the previous century and found that, on average, the sites lost 43% of their species. The main driver, they believe, is decreased precipitation from climate change.
Birds who live in the desert already endure harsh conditions, but climate change could push them past tolerable limits, causing lethal hyperthermia or dehydration. A lack of water can also cause reduced fitness and or force birds to skip a breeding cycle.
We already see this happening with burrowing owls. A study by researchers from the University of New Mexico looked at how increasing air temperature and aridity affected the species.
Between 1998 and 2013 the birds at their study area in New Mexico experienced a decline in the number of young that left the nest and a precipitous 98.1% drop — from 52 breeding pairs to just one.
The researchers associated the declines with the effects of decreased precipitation and increased temperature. “An increasingly warm and dry climate may contribute to this species’ decline and may already be a driving force of their apparent decline in the desert Southwest,” they concluded.
Mammals aren’t immune to the changes, either. Another recent study found grave threats to pronghorn across the region. Their models predicted that half of the 18 populations they studied would disappear by 2090.
A decrease in water supply affects animals’ health but can also cause behavioral changes that could put them in harm’s way. If animals need to move outside their normal range in search of declining food or water, it could lead to more interactions with predators or more human-wildlife conflicts, especially if animals look for resources in more urbanized areas.
Fewer sources of water also force a greater number of animals to congregate at the remaining watering holes. Experts say this increases the risk of disease outbreaks like the one that happened in 2020 along the Pacific flyway in California and Oregon, when 60,000 birds crowded into sparse wetlands perished from avian botulism.
An Altered River
Many of the most severe ecosystem impacts currently affecting the Colorado basin predate the 20-year drought.
Hoover Dam’s construction in 1936, followed by the building of Glen Canyon Dam 30 years later, dramatically altered river’s flow, blocked sediment that creates riparian habitat, and changed the temperature of the river…
Today the 360 miles between the two dams, which include the Grand Canyon, have become “a river that’s managed to pool-to-pool,” says Pitt. “There’s not much flowing river once you get below Hoover Dam.” That’s caused a loss of riparian forest, which supported birds and other wildlife, and pushed four native fish — humpback chub, bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker — to the brink of extinction.
“There’s concern for quite a number of species because of the historically altered river flow,” says Pitt.
It also decimated 1.5 million acres of wetlands downstream at the Colorado River Delta in Mexico.
“For most of the last 50 years, the river has not flowed to the sea,” says Pitt. “An untold wealth of wildlife disappeared off the map because of the desiccation of that landscape.”
Development, dams and water diversions along the Colorado, along with today’s drought and climate warming, have pushed many species to the razor’s edge. Some are barely hanging on.
Of particular concern right now are humpback chub, which suffered after Glen Canyon Dam’s construction. Managers have spent decades trying to recover the fish — with some recent success.
But now the species faces a new threat: non-native largemouth bass — a voracious predator of humpback chub — who thrive in the warmer water that’s being released from the diminished reservoir.
In June researchers detected the fish downstream of Glen Canyon Dam, in the same habitat where humpback chub numbers were finally improving.
“The National Park Service is really worried that if those populations of non-native fish get established in the Colorado River downstream from Glen Canyon Dam, that could be catastrophic for the humpback chub,” says Pitt.
The situation is emblematic of the larger ecological consequences stemming from our river management.
“How we manage the dams and the water levels is directly affecting the ecology of the Colorado River itself,” says Bogan.
And while that imperiled ecology may not be the headline news regarding the Colorado River crisis, its significance shouldn’t be understated.
Millions of people visit the Grand Canyon each year to peer over the canyon’s lip and glimpse the Colorado’s path through the ancient towering walls. They come, too, to see California condors, bald eagles and southwestern willow flycatchers — all of whom could disappear if the river does.
The loss of plants and animals across the basin is also a loss of cultural resources for the region’s Tribes.
And as the river declines, so does everything around it…
Worse Before It Gets Better
As states work to deal with shortages of water from the Colorado River, there’s a chance that things could get worse before they get better.
One concern is an overdrafting of groundwater, particularly in Arizona, which legally bears the brunt of shortages on the Colorado and has many areas where groundwater pumping is not regulated.
That can leave groundwater-dependent springs and streams at risk of drying.
Another area of concern is California’s Salton Sea — the famously saline lake in the desert fed now only through agricultural runoff from the neighboring irrigation districts. One of those is the Imperial Irrigation District, which gets the biggest chunk of California’s Colorado River allotment. As the region attempts to work out a new plan to decrease water use, there’s pressure on the agency to fallow some of its 475,000 acres, but that would also mean less runoff making it to the Salton Sea.
“The Salton Sea is some of the only remaining habitat for migrating water birds and shorebirds in interior California,” says Pitt. “The Central Valley was that habitat once upon a time, but has been completely developed. So it’s a critical habitat for many species.”
It’s also a public health threat. As winds sweep across the drying lake, particles of dust and pollution are swept into neighboring communities where residents suffer from high rates of asthma and respiratory problems.
“The answer is not that we can’t reduce any water use from the Imperial Irrigation District,” she says. “As uses of water are reduced in irrigated agriculture that drains to the sea, there needs to be mitigation.”
A plan, that includes habitat restoration and dust mitigation suppression projects, created decades ago to do just that has been slow to get off the ground. It needs to “ramp up quickly to protect wildlife and to protect public health,” she says.
The Path Forward
There is some good news.
Agreements between Mexico and the United States in the past decade have enabled “pulse flows” of water to flow downstream to repair a small amount of the lost wetland habitat in Mexico’s California River Delta. And in the desert, fortunately, a little can go a long way.
“We’re seeing improvements in both the number of bird species detected there and the populations of those species,” says Pitt. She’s optimistic that the two governments will continue to support that environmental program in the future.
It’s an idea that could help upstream habitat as well.
“I think really the most important thing that’s being done at both the state level and at the local level is trying to get dedicated flows in streams that are explicitly for the conservation of aquatic species,” says Bogan. Although right now, because of the complexities of water rights, that work is limited and usually local in scope.
“But it’s something that at least has given me a little bit of hope,” he says.
Another strategy, says Pitt, is “natural distributed storage,” which means restoring wetlands and high-elevation meadows to slow water down as it runs across the landscape. That can help recharge groundwater and provide moisture to soil and plants.
“The more moisture we’re keeping around the less vulnerable these areas are to fire,” she says. “It will have an incredible wildlife benefit because those meadows are rich habitat.”
It’s akin to the work that beavers do naturally, but people can replicate.
“It sounds small if you look at it on one little creek,” she says, “but if we can start to see it implemented across the upper basin, I think it could really scale up to make a difference.”
With the cumulative impacts of human development and climate change adding up, Pitt says we should look to the federal government and states to make sure that Endangered Species Act programs are supported to help protect and restore habitat for the dozens of already at-risk species in the basin. This means going beyond supplementing the number of endangered wild fish with hatchery-raised fish, which is the current management strategy.
And of course, the region still needs to grapple with how it allocates and manages the Colorado River’s water. Pitts says she’d like to see a greater role for Tribes in that process and the inclusion of adequate water to maintain healthy ecosystems.
“Environmental water needs to be recognized as part of our objectives for water management,” says Pitt.
“It’s both extremely challenging at this moment because there’s so much less water available to carve up between users,” she says. “But it’s a moment to really rethink how we do things.”
The 1960s and 1970s were a golden age of infrastructure development in the U.S., with the expansion of the interstate system and widespread construction of new water treatment, wastewater and flood control systems reflecting national priorities in public health and national defense. But infrastructure requires maintenance, and, eventually, it has to be replaced.
That hasn’t been happening in many parts of the country. Increasingly, extreme heat and storms are putting roads, bridges, water systems and other infrastructure under stress.
Two recent examples – an intense heat wave that pushed California’s power grid to its limits in September 2022, and the failure of the water system in Jackson, Mississippi, amid flooding in August – show how a growing maintenance backlog and increasing climate change are turning the 2020s and 2030s into a golden age of infrastructure failure.
I am a civil engineer whose work focuses on the impacts of climate change on infrastructure. Often, low-income communities and communities of color like Jackson see the least investment in infrastructure replacements and repairs.
Crumbling bridge and water systems
The United States is consistently falling short on funding infrastructure maintenance. A report by former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker’s Volcker Alliance in 2019 estimated the U.S. has a US$1 trillion backlog of needed repairs.
A water main break now occurs somewhere in the U.S. every two minutes, and an estimated 6 million gallons of treated water are lost each day. This is happening at the same time the western United States is implementing water restrictions amid the driest 20-year span in 1,200 years. Similarly, drinking water distribution in the United States relies on over 2 million miles of pipes that have limited life spans.
The underlying issue for infrastructure failure is age, resulting in the failure of critical parts such as pumps and motors.
Jackson, a majority-Black state capital, has dealt with water system breakdowns for years and has repeatedly requested infrastructure funding from the state to upgrade its struggling water treatment plants.
Climate change exacerbates the risk
The consequences of inadequate maintenance are compounded by climate change, which is accelerating infrastructure failure with increased flooding, extreme heat and growing storm intensity.
Much of the world’s infrastructure was designed for an environment that no longer exists. The historic precipitation levels, temperature profiles, extreme weather events and storm surge levels those systems were designed and built to handle are now exceeded on a regular basis.
Unprecedented rainfall in the California desert in 2015 tore apart a bridge over Interstate 10, one of the state’s most important east-west routes. Temperatures near 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 C) forced the Phoenix airport to cancel flights in 2017 out of concern the planes might not be able to safely take off.
Power outages during California’s September 2022 heat wave are another potentially life-threatening infrastructure problem.
The rising costs of delayed repairs
My research with colleagues shows that the vulnerability of the national transportation system, energy distribution system, water treatment facilities and coastal infrastructure will significantly increase over the next decade due to climate change.
We estimate that rail infrastructure faces additional repair costs of $5 billion to $10 billion annually by 2050, while road repairs due to temperature increases could reach a cumulative $200 billion to $300 billion by the end of the century. Similarly, water utilities are facing the possibility of a trillion-dollar price tag by 2050.
After studying the issue of climate change impacts on infrastructure for two decades, with climate projections getting worse, not better, I believe addressing the multiple challenges to the nation’s infrastructure requires systemic change.
Two items are at the top of the list: national prioritization and funding.
Prioritizing the infrastructure challenge is essential to bring government responsibilities into the national conversation. Most local jurisdictions simply can’t afford to absorb the cost of needed infrastructure. The recent infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act are starting points, but they still fall short of fixing the long-term issue.
Without systemic change, Jackson, Mississippi, will be just the start of an escalating trend.
A federal judge in Wyoming affirmed on Friday the Biden administration’s decisions to postpone oil and gas lease sales in early 2021, holding that the federal government has broad authority to postpone sales in order to address environmental concerns.
The Wyoming court rejected across the board the arguments by industry and Wyoming, and found that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acted within its legal authority under the Mineral Leasing Act, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and other laws when it postponed lease sales in order to ensure that it fully considered the environmental harms they could cause. The court also held that industry and Wyoming lacked standing to challenge the postponement.
“We find it reassuring that the court affirmed the Bureau of Land Management’s authority to postpone oil and gas lease sales in order to make certain they adhere to the law,” said Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “The judge called out as nonsensical the state and industry group’s argument that postponing a lease to ensure compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires a NEPA analysis of its own. This suggests any appeal of this decision will have an uphill battle in court.”
“We’re pleased the Judge affirmed the Department of the Interior has significant discretion to decide when to offer public oil and gas resources at lease sales. The law requires Interior to serve the public interest by analyzing and considering the environmental and social costs of leasing before holding lease sales, and that’s what they did,” said Bob LeResche, Powder River Basin Resource Council Board member from Clearmont, Wyoming. “Last year BLM initiated a comprehensive review of the federal oil and gas program, and this is the perfect time for the Department to complete their review and fully reform the federal oil and gas program to better protect taxpayers, communities, and the environment. We call on them to do so.”
In early 2021, the Biden administration issued an executive order aimed at tackling the climate crisis, which directed the Department of the Interior to temporarily pause new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and offshore waters. The pause was meant to provide the federal government an opportunity to undertake a systematic review of its oil and gas program and consider how to address its climate impacts. Before Interior could decide how to implement the executive order, it was targeted in five lawsuits filed by industry trade associations and Republican-led states. Friday’s ruling came in two of those lawsuits, brought by the State of Wyoming, Western Energy Alliance (WEA), and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) intervened on behalf of 21 groups to defend the lease sale postponements and leasing pause.
“This ruling is a victory for people who cherish public lands, and the communities whose livelihoods are intertwined with these special places,” said Ben Tettlebaum, senior staff attorney with The Wilderness Society. “The court rightly affirmed that our public lands are not up for a fire sale to the fossil fuel industry whenever it chooses. The Interior Department has the clear authority to manage these lands for conservation, wildlife, and the health and well-being of communities who rely on them.”
The Wyoming ruling follows an August 18 ruling from the Western District of Louisiana Louisiana that permanently blocked a blanket leasing pause in thirteen states (not including Wyoming) that had sued over the executive order in Louisiana District Court. The Louisiana ruling came one day after the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a preliminary injunction previously issued by the Louisiana court, finding that it lacked adequate “specificity.” Similar to the Wyoming decision, however, the August 18 Louisiana ruling appears to permit the government to postpone sales based on National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other concerns.
“Given the climate crisis and its superstorms, floods, fires, and droughts, it’s essential that the President have the authority to control oil and gas leasing – or deny leasing – on mineral deposits owned by the American people,” said Erik Molvar, executive director with Western Watersheds Project. “Friday’s ruling puts the federal government back in the driver’s seat for managing federal mineral deposits and paves the way for keeping oil and gas in the ground.”
“BLM has never adequately considered the impacts of its fossil fuel leasing program on climate,” said Peter Hart, attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “Courts across the country have found BLM’s leasing decisions illegal based on this failure. This opinion confirms that BLM doesn’t have to continue selling leases that don’t comply with law. Instead, the agency should STOP and consider the real impacts of more leasing. After that, we may all agree: ‘it isn’t worth it!’”
“The climate induced disasters keep stacking up, from mega droughts and catastrophic floods to wildfires and unhealthy air. Business as usual is not working,” said Anne Hedges, director of policy for the Montana Environmental Information Center. “The President simply must have the ability to take the time necessary to find a better path forward. People’s lives, livelihoods and communities depend on getting this right. This pause is a small step in the right direction.”
“The court reaffirmed the federal government’s long-standing obligation to protect the environment and public interest, not just sell off lands when demanded by oil and gas companies,” said Michael Freeman, senior attorney with Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office. “We hope the Biden administration will exercise that authority to limit new oil and gas leasing and avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.”
“This welcome decision affirms that the Biden administration has wide latitude to rein in federal fossil fuels,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Allowing any new fossil fuel projects, including oil and gas leasing, is flatly incompatible with avoiding catastrophic climate change. The administration still has much work to do to bring federal fossil fuel production to a swift and orderly end.”
“The law is clear, the oil and gas industry doesn’t have a right to frack public lands,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director. “And given our climate crisis, it’s more critical than ever to ensure the industry is not fracking public lands.”
“This decision shows that the Department of Interior is not beholden to the fossil fuel industry, as many states and industry groups have alleged,” said Adam Carlesco, staff attorney with Food & Water Watch. “Given this understanding of its legal authority, Interior must move towards a future where public lands are protected for a variety of uses – not simply used as sacrifice zones for a polluting industry that is exacerbating our climate crisis.”
“This decision marks a step forward in ensuring our public lands are part of the climate solution, not the problem,” said Dan Ritzman, Director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Water Wildlife Campaign. “At a time when we need to be rapidly transitioning away from dirty oil and gas to meet our climate commitments and avoid the worst of the climate crisis, the last thing we need is to sell off even more of our treasured public lands to the fossil fuel industry.”
Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center represent a coalition of conservation and citizen groups in the Wyoming litigation. Earthjustice represents Conservation Colorado, Friends of the Earth, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, Valley Organic Growers Association, Western Colorado Alliance, Western Watersheds Project, and Wilderness Workshop. The Western Environmental Law Center represents Center for Biological Diversity, Citizens for a Healthy Community, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, Earthworks, Food & Water Watch, Indian People’s Action, Montana Environmental Information Center, Powder River Basin Resource Council, Western Organization of Resource Councils, and WildEarth Guardians.
Click the link to read the bulletin on the WMO website:
Increasing risk of “climate penalty” from pollution and climate change
An anticipated rise in the frequency, intensity and duration of heatwaves and an associated increase in wildfires this century is likely to worsen air quality, harming human health and ecosystems. The interaction between pollution and climate change will impose an additional “climate penalty” for hundreds of millions of people, according to a new report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
The annual WMO Air Quality and Climate Bulletin reports on the state of air quality and its close interlinkages with climate change. The bulletin explores a range of possible air quality outcomes under high and low greenhouse gas emission scenarios.
The WMO Air Quality and Climate Bulletin 2022 focuses in particular on the impact of wildfire smoke in 2021. As in 2020, hot and dry conditions exacerbated the spread of wildfires across western North America and Siberia, producing widespread increases in particulate small matter ( PM2.5) levels harmful to health.
“As the globe warms, wildfires and associated air pollution are expected to increase, even under a low emissions scenario. In addition to human health impacts, this will also affect ecosystems as air pollutants settle from the atmosphere to Earth’s surface,” says WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas.
“We have seen this in the heatwaves in Europe and China this year when stable high atmospheric conditions, sunlight and low wind speeds were conducive to high pollution levels,” said Prof. Taalas.
“This is a foretaste of the future because we expect a further increase in the frequency, intensity and duration of heatwaves, which could lead to even worse air quality, a phenomenon known as the “climate penalty,” he said.
The “climate penalty” refers specifically to the climate change amplification effect on ground-level ozone production, which negatively impacts the air people breathe. The regions with the strongest projected climate penalty – mainly in Asia – are home to roughly one quarter of the world’s population. Climate change could exacerbate surface ozone pollution episodes, leading to detrimental health impacts for hundreds of millions of people.
The Air Quality and Climate Bulletin, the second in an annual series, and an accompanying animation on atmospheric deposition was published ahead of International Day of Clean Air for blue skies on 7 September. The theme of this year’s event, spearheaded by the UN Environment Programme, is The Air We Share, focusing on the transboundary nature of air pollution and stressing the need for collective action.
The bulletin is based on input from experts in WMO’s Global Atmosphere Watch network which monitors air quality and greenhouse gas concentrations and so can quantify the efficacy of the policies designed to limit climate change and improve air quality.
Air quality and climate are interconnected because the chemical species that lead to a degradation in air quality are normally co-emitted with greenhouse gases. Thus, changes in one inevitably cause changes in the other. The combustion of fossil fuels (a major source of carbon dioxide (CO2)) also emits nitrogen oxide (NO), which can react with sunlight to lead to the formation of ozone and nitrate aerosols.
Air quality in turn affects ecosystem health via atmospheric deposition (as air pollutants settle from the atmosphere to Earth’s surface). Deposition of nitrogen, sulfur and ozone can negatively affect the services provided by natural ecosystems such as clean water, biodiversity, and carbon storage, and can impact crop yields in agricultural systems.
Wildfires in 2021
The European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service measures global particulate matter. PM2.5 (i.e. particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller) is a severe health hazard if inhaled over long periods of time. Sources include emissions from fossil fuel combustion, wildfires and wind-blown desert dust.
Intense wildfires generated anomalously high PM2.5 concentrations in Siberia and Canada and the western USA in July and August 2021. PM2.5 concentrations in eastern Siberia reached levels not observed before, driven mainly by increasing high temperatures and dry soil conditions.
The annual total estimated emissions in Western North America ranked amongst the top five years of the period 2003 to 2021, with PM2.5 concentrations well above limits recommended by the World Health Organization.
At the global scale, observations of the annual total burned area show a downward trend over the last two decades as a result of decreasing numbers of fires in savannas and grasslands (2021 WMO Aerosol Bulletin ). However, at continental scales, some regions are experiencing increasing trends, including parts of western North America, the Amazon and Australia.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) includes scenarios on the evolution of air quality as temperatures increase in the 21st century. It has assessed that the probability of catastrophic wildfire events –like those observed over central Chile in 2017, Australia 2019 or the western United States in 2020 and 2021– is likely to increase by 40-60% by the end of this century under a high emission scenario, and by 30-50% under a low emission scenario.
If greenhouse gas emissions remain high, such that global temperatures rise by 3° C from preindustrial levels by the second half of the 21st century, surface ozone levels are expected to increase across heavily polluted areas, particularly in Asia. This includes a 20% increase across Pakistan, northern India and Bangladesh, and 10% across eastern China. Most of the ozone increase will be due to an increase in emissions from fossil fuel combustion, but roughly a fifth of this increase will be due to climate change, most likely realized through increased heatwaves, which amplify air pollution episodes. Therefore heatwaves, which are becoming increasingly common due to climate change, are likely to continue leading to a degradation in air quality.
A worldwide carbon neutrality emissions scenario would limit the future occurrence of extreme ozone air pollution episodes. This is because efforts to mitigate climate change by eliminating the burning of fossil fuels (carbon-based) will also eliminate most human-caused emissions of ozone precursor gases (particularly nitrogen oxides (NOx), Volatile Organic Compounds and methane).
Particulate matter, commonly referred to as aerosols, have complex characteristics which can either cool or warm the atmosphere. High aerosol amounts – and thus poor air quality – can cool the atmosphere by reflecting sunlight back to space, or by absorbing sunlight in the atmosphere so that it never reaches the ground.
The IPCC suggests that the low-carbon scenario will be associated with a small, short-term warming prior to temperature decreases. This is because the effects of reducing aerosol particles, i.e. less sunlight reflected into space, will be felt first, while the temperature stabilization in response to reductions in carbon dioxide emissions will take longer. However, natural aerosol emissions (e.g., dust, wildfire smoke) are likely to increase in a warmer, drier environment due to desertification and drought conditions, and may cancel out some of the effects of the reductions in aerosols related to human activities.
A future world that follows a low-carbon emissions scenario would also benefit from reduced deposition of nitrogen and sulfur compounds from the atmosphere to the Earth’s surface, where they can damage ecosystems. The response of air quality and ecosystem health to proposed future emissions reductions will be monitored by WMO stations around the world, which can quantify the efficacy of the policies designed to limit climate change and improve air quality. WMO will therefore continue to work with a wide range of partners including the World Health Organization and the EU’s Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service to monitor and mitigate the impacts.
The World Meteorological Organization is the United Nations System’s authoritative voice on Weather, Climate and Water
For further information contact: Clare Nullis, WMO media officer, email@example.com. Tel 41-79-7091397
Managers of districts that rely on the Colorado River have been talking about how much water they may forgo. So far, they haven’t publicly revealed how much they may commit to shore up the declining levels of Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir.But state and local water officials say there is widespread agreement on the need to reduce water use next year to address the shortfall. Without major reductions, the latest federal projections show growing risks of Lake Mead and Lake Powell approaching “dead pool” levels, where water would no longer pass downstream through the dams. Though the states haven’t agreed on how to meet federal officials’ goal of drastically reducing the annual water take by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, the looming risks of near-empty reservoirs are prompting more talks among those who lead water agencies…
Though [Tanya] Trujillo and [Camille] Touton have stressed their interest in collaborating on solutions, they have also laid out plans that could bring additional federal leverage to bear. Their plan to reexamine and possibly redefine what constitutes “beneficial use” of water in the three Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — could open an avenue to a critical look at how water is used in farming areas and cities. How the government might wield that authority, or tighten requirements on water use, hasn’t been spelled out. The prospect of some type of federal intervention, though, has become one more factor pushing the states to deliver plans to take less from the river…
Because most water rights fall under state law, developing a new definition of “beneficial” would be complicated and could lead to lawsuits, Larson said. What might qualify as “waste” would also be hard to pin down, he said, because “one person’s waste is another person’s job.”
Arizona and Nevada are calling for a look at “wasteful” water use as a way of prodding large California agencies like the Imperial Irrigation District to agree to substantial cutbacks, [Rhett] Larson said. It’s an indirect way, he said, for the two states to send a message that “California, your agriculture needs to be more efficient.”
It’s time for hay farmers to come to the Colorado River water-conservation table
In June, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told the Colorado River Basin states that they needed to reduce water consumption by 2-to-4 million acre-feet — or as much as 30% of the seven states’ total use — to save the system from collapsing. It was an enormous ask, unprecedented in scope, and probably the first time a Reclamation official’s words ever went viral.
A few weeks later, I stood on a dusty trail in Page, Arizona, looking out at Glen Canyon Dam and wondering whether such huge cuts were even possible, without, say, shutting off every irrigation canal into California. And how could the states possibly manage such a huge reduction while also fulfilling their legal obligation to deliver an equally large amount of additional water to the 30 tribes in the Colorado River Basin?
Part of the answer lay right in front of me: The trail I was hiking followed the edge of the local golf course, an emerald green carpet on the parched red earth. I wondered how much water you could save by cutting off every golf course in the West. Then I started ticking off other water-saving measures
– Tear up the turf lawns;
– Shut down water-guzzling coal power plants;
– Drain private swimming pools, and ban new ones;
– Shut off those Las Vegas fountains*;
– Halt new housing growth;
– Make water recycling the norm;
– Plug the leaks in water-distribution systems;
– Ban water-guzzling data centers in arid areas;
– Structure water rates in a way that discourages waste;
And put water-flow restrictors on LA-area celebrities’ homes to keep them from wasting water.
Surely that would do it. Especially the last item, given that Kim Kardashian was just busted for using 232,000 gallons more than she was supposed to — and doing so in just one month. (Sylvester Stallone was equally guilty.) But when I sat down to tally up the savings all this added up to, I still came up short. Way short.
459 acre-feet Average annual water used to irrigate a golf course in the Southwest, according to the U.S. Golf Association. (1 acre-foot = 325,851 gallons)
300 Number of golf courses in Arizona, according to Golf Arizona.
145million gallons Daily consumptive water use of power plants in Colorado River Basin states, which amounts to about 162,000 acre-feet per year.
Now, 2 million acre-feet is a huge amount of water: enough to fill more than 1 million Olympic-size swimming pools. To get to Touton’s upper goal, you’d need to drain 2.2 million monster-sized pools. Hell, you could shut off every water tap in Las Vegas, and you’d still come up 2-million-swimming-pools’-worth short — or about 1 trillion gallons. In fact, you could halt all municipal water consumption in the Colorado River Basin — dry out Phoenix and Tucson lawns, deprive Los Angeles and Denver of showers and toilet flushing — and it still wouldn’t be quite enough.
“There’s not 2 million acre-feet of municipal use within the Lower Basin (Nevada, California and Arizona) and probably just above that if you look basin-wide,” said Colby Pellegrino, a deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in an executive roundtable in August. “To think this problem can just be solved by cities just is wrong,” she continued. “Agriculture has to step up to the table.”
But I come from a long line of western Colorado farmers, and my instinctive reaction to this kind of talk is: Them’s fighting words! We Upper Basin folks learn early on about “first in time, first in right,” and that if you don’t put all of your allotted water on your fields, it’ll run downstream to overflow Las Vegas’ lavish fountains, the swimming pools of Phoenix and Hollywood celebrities’ private forests. The notion of “buying and drying” farms so the cities can keep growing is anathema.
2.6 million acre-feet Amount of Colorado River water California’s Imperial Irrigation District is expected to consume this year, most of which goes to agriculture.
244,635 acre-feet Amount of Colorado River water Nevada is expected to consume this year. That’s less than half the amount of water that evaporates off of Lake Mead each year.
75% Portion of Utah’s Colorado River use consumed by agriculture in 2018.
But once I calmed down, I realized that Pelligrino has a point. See, if you want to cut water consumption, you have to tackle the biggest water users. And the biggest user of Colorado River water, by far, is not lawns, not Vegas golf courses (mostly irrigated by recycled wastewater), not the Bellagio fountain, not even Kardashian or Stallone. It’s agriculture, which historically has accounted for up to 80% of all consumptive water use in the Colorado River Basin. Not only do crops need more water than houses, but in most cases, farmers have senior rights to the bulk of the water. And of all the crops grown in the region, alfalfa and hay fields collectively are the thirstiest.
That’s not just because alfalfa uses a lot of water, though it does — about 1.5 million gallons per acre per year, rivaled only for thirstiness by almonds and pistachios. It’s also because so much of the West’s agricultural land is devoted to growing alfalfa. Colorado, Utah and Arizona farmers irrigated about 4.1 million acres of crops in 2017, and nearly half of those acres were in alfalfa. The Colorado River Basin’s largest single water consumer is the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California, which draws some 2.6 million acre-feet from the river each year, nearly all of which goes to crops. About one-third of the district’s irrigated acreage is devoted to alfalfa, which annually consumes at least 400,000-acre feet of Colorado River water — more than Nevada’s entire allotment.
3 to 6 acre-feet Amount of water needed annually to irrigate an acre of alfalfa. The amount is greater in hotter, drier climates.
3 million Acres of irrigated agricultural land in Western states (including the Colorado River Basin) planted with alfalfa grown for forage (hay), grazing or seed in 2022.
$880 million Value of hay shipped overseas last year from Colorado River Basin states, most of which went to China, Japan and Saudi Arabia.
If the Rocky Mountains’ winter snowpack is like a huge reservoir that feeds the Colorado River system, then the alfalfa fields stretching from western Colorado to Southern California comprise a sort of anti-reservoir, sucking up a good portion of the water in order to feed beef and dairy cattle in the U.S., China, even Saudi Arabia. If you were to stop filling up the alfalfa anti-reservoir, or fallow all of the alfalfa fields in the Colorado River Basin, you’d come up with Touton’s desired cuts and then some fairly quickly. It’s simple math.
Which is not to say doing so would be pretty, painless, politically palatable or even possible. Buying and drying up small farms en masse would threaten rural economies and cultures. Many farmers grow alfalfa or other hay as a side crop — it’s reliable, relatively easy to care for, provides multiple harvests during the long growing season and gains value during drought. If farmers were forced to get rid of their hay, their operations might no longer be viable, and the cost of beef and dairy products would certainly go up. Gone would be the experience of rolling down the windows on a summer’s eve and inhaling the poignant aroma of a freshly cut field. Gone the bucolic sight of the long sunset shadows cast by the bales — all replaced by patches of dusty, noxious-weed-breeding ground or yet more residential sprawl.
Most of us can probably agree that farms should not be dried to allow cities to grow heedlessly, or to allow urban folks to water big lawns or enable Kim Kardashian to do whatever the heck she does with all that water. In the past, Phoenix’s sprawl has gobbled up citrus groves and cotton fields, and Colorado’s Front Range cities have bought and fallowed distant farms to accommodate houses and lawns. That, too, must stop. The goal here is not to transfer the water from farms to cities, but from farms and cities back to the river itself — or, rather, to the rivers, plural. The Klamath River in southern Oregon and Northern California is in crisis as well, and the Great Salt Lake is rapidly shrinking. Alfalfa fields are a primary culprit in both cases.
So, banning alfalfa is not the answer. But piping Mississippi River water over the Rockies or building billion-dollar, energy-intensive desalination plants to enable farmers to continue dumping water on hundreds of thousands of acres of cattle fodder is simply insane. It’s time for agriculture, and especially Big Alfalfa, to step up and give up a portion of its water either by becoming more efficient, switching to less water-intensive crops or fallowing more fields. The growers will be compensated: Congress just authorized $4 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act for that very purpose.
Industrial-scale farmers are currently growing and irrigating some 85,000 acres of alfalfa in California’s Imperial Valley. Cover all of that land with solar panels instead, and you’d save desert land from industrialization, generate enough power to replace Glen Canyon Dam’s hydroelectricity output several times over — and maybe even stave off the Colorado River’s collapse.
But there’s a problem that looms for the [Jim Bridger] coal plant operator and the customers that rely on it for electricity. This water is piped here from the Green River, a tributary of the rapidly shrinking Colorado River. Now, amidst a decades-long drought and a shortage of water downstream across the Southwest, future conservation in the basin could mean industrial users like Jim Bridger see their water shut off, says Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart.
“They would be likely the first one shut off. Unless they were able to find a different source of water, we would have to just shut off their water and not allow them to divert,” Gebhart says.
The western U.S. hasn’t been this dry for more than 1,200 years, but 30 western coal plants continue to suck up 156 million gallons a day of the region’s scarce water, according to the Energy Information Administration. Now the very plants whose emissions help drive climate change are at risk of shutdowns, because the water they need to operate has fallen to unprecedented levels. Some utilities are already sending warnings, telling federal regulators that the drought could threaten coal plant operations. But there’s uncertainty at the state level over which officials are responsible for managing drought risk to power plants and the threat of brownouts and blackouts.
Old coal plants like Jim Bridger have for decades been critical to the grid, says David Eskelsen, spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, a division of PacifiCorp, which operates the Wyoming plant. “With all the concerns about the use of fossil fuels, climate change, and the use of water in this way,” Eskelsen says, “that has to be balanced against the role that these particular power plants play in the stability of the regional transmission system.” But rising water scarcity in the West means the stability of coal plants like Jim Bridger is no longer a sure thing, says Joe Smyth, research manager at the Energy and Policy Institute, a utility watchdog group.
“If you don’t have water to cool it, you can’t run it, right? Like it’s not a minor risk. It is a very disruptive event,” he says, “If you’re not aware of those risks, then you are not really operating your power plants responsibly.”
The big climate law that Congress just enacted will go a long way toward meeting Mr. Biden’s goal [of cutting GHG emissions]. Coupled with other policies and with trends in the marketplace, it is expected to cut emissions by something like 40 percent. But the law — even assuming it survives Republican attacks and defunding attempts over the coming years — does not fully redeem Mr. Biden’s pledge. How can America get the rest of the way toward meeting his 50 percent goal?
The answer is in all of our hands. Many of us are already trying to help as best we can, perhaps by nudging the thermostat a degree or two, by driving or flying less or by eating differently. These actions are useful, but they are not enough. The public must make the transition from green consumers to green citizens and devote greater political energy to pushing America forward in its transition to a clean economy. How? The answers may be as close as your city hall or county commission. Your local school board — yes, the school board — has some critical decisions to make in the next few years. Opportunities to make a difference abound in your state Capitol.
The reason the public needs to speak up is simple. What Congress just did was, in a nutshell, to change the economics of clean energy and clean cars, using the tax code to make them more affordable. But it did not remove many of the other barriers to the adoption of these technologies, and a lot of those hurdles are under the control of state and local governments.
Consider this: Every school day, millions of Americans put their children on dirty diesel buses. Not only are the emissions from those buses helping to wreck the planet on which the children will have to live, but the fumes are blowing into their faces, too, contributing to America’s growing problem with childhood asthma. It is now possible to replace those diesel buses with clean, electric buses. Has your school board made a plan to do so? Why isn’t every parent in America marching down to school district headquarters to demand it? Electric buses are more expensive right now, but the operating costs are so much lower that the gap can be bridged with creative financing. A school board that is not thinking hard about this and making plans for the transition is simply not doing its job.
Here is another example. The power grid in your state is under the control of a political body known as a public utilities commission or public service commission. It has the legal authority to tell electric companies what power plants they are allowed to build and what rates they can charge. By law, these boards are supposed to listen to citizens and make decisions in the public interest, but the public rarely weighs in. We once needed special state laws to push utilities toward renewable energy, but Congress just changed the ground rules. With wind and solar farms becoming far more affordable, every utility in America now needs to re-examine its spreadsheet on how it will acquire power in the future. The public utility commissions supervise this process, and they are supposed to ensure that the utilities build the most affordable systems they reasonably can. But too many utilities, heavily invested in dirty energy, still see clean energy as a threat. They are going to drag their feet, and they will ply their influence with state government to try to get away with it. Citizens need to get in the faces of these commission members with a simple demand: Do your jobs. Make the utilities study all options and go for clean power wherever possible.
One more example: The conversion to electric cars has begun, but as everyone knows, we still don’t have enough places to charge them, especially for people on long trips. State governments can play a major role in alleviating this bottleneck. Under Gov. Jared Polis in Colorado, the state is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to build charging stations, with poor neighborhoods included. Other states can do the same, and citizens need to speak up to demand it.
If you live in a sizable city or county, your local government is probably slowing down the automotive transition, too. These governments buy fleets of vehicles for their workers, and this year most of them will once again order gasoline-powered cars. Why? Because that’s what they’re used to doing. Citizens need to confront the people making these decisions and jolt them from their lethargy.
The Colorado River remains in an unfolding and worsening crisis. Demand far exceeds supply. Long-term drought, worsened by climate change, has meant less water refilling the river’s large reservoirs as water users have continued to overtap them. Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas, is the grim evidence, where, at 27 percent full, old boats have washed ashore in what can feel like an apocalyptic scene. The math is unavoidable: Without cuts, the reservoir will keep dropping…
Yes, some cuts went into effect for Nevada, Arizona and Mexico. Yet it’s important to note that these cuts were already planned for, accounted for and agreed to in several deals struck over the past 15 years.The cuts are not negligible; Arizona will have its apportionment reduced by 21 percent, and Nevada’s apportionment will be trimmed by 8 percent. Still, the cuts are not nearly enough to stop the rapid decline of reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell...
The reality is that, even with the original deadline passing, there is reason for the states to cut more — and act this year. Without action, Lake Mead will continue to drop, risking a major (and in some places, the only) water supply for users downstream in Arizona, California and Mexico. Only Nevada, with its “third straw,” can take water from Lake Mead if the reservoir drops below what is known as “dead pool,” a threshold at which water cannot pass through Hoover Dam. If the large-scale cuts are deferred any longer, it means more uncertainty for all water users.
Click the link to access the operating plan on the USBR website.
The operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead in this August 2022 24-Month Study is pursuant to the December 2007 Record of Decision on Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead (Interim Guidelines), and reflects the 2022 Annual Operating Plan (AOP). Pursuant to the Interim Guidelines, the August 2021 24-Month Study projections of the January 1, 2022, system storage and reservoir water surface elevations set the operational tier for the coordinated operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead during 2022.
The August 2021 24-Month study projected the January 1, 2022, Lake Powell elevation to be less than 3,575 feet and at or above 3,525 feet and the Lake Mead elevation to be at or above 1,025 feet. Consistent with Section 6.C.1 of the Interim Guidelines the operational tier for Lake Powell in water year 2022 is the MidElevation Release Tier.
The August 2021 24-Month Study projected the January 1, 2022 Lake Mead elevation to be at or below 1,075 feet and at or above 1,050 feet. Consistent with Section 2.D.1 of the Interim Guidelines, a Shortage Condition consistent with Section 2.D.1.a will govern the operation of Lake Mead for calendar year (CY) 2022. In addition, Section III.B of Exhibit 1 to the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) Agreement will also govern the operation of Lake Mead for CY 2022.Efforts to conserve additional water in Lake Mead under a 2021 Lower Basin Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to facilitate near-term actions to maintain the water surface elevation of Lake Mead will also take place in CY 2022.
In light of the prolonged drought, low runoff conditions, and depleted storage at Lake Powell, the Department of the Interior implemented an action under Sections 6 and 7.D of the 2007 Interim Guidelines specifically reducing the Glen Canyon Dam annual releases to 7.00 maf in water year 20221. This action was undertaken in conjunction with the 2022 Drought Response Operations Plan actions which together are anticipated to add approximately one million additional acre-feet of storage to Lake Powell by April 2023. The Department of Interior and Reclamation will work to determine the manner in which to operate Glen Canyon Dam to ensure the benefits of these actions are preserved.
The reduction of releases from Lake Powell from 7.48 maf to 7.00 maf in water year 2022 will result in a reduced release volume of 0.480 maf that normally would have been released from Glen Canyon Dam to Lake Mead as part of the 7.48 maf annual release volume, consistent with routine operations under the 2007 Interim Guidelines. The reduction of releases from Glen Canyon Dam in water year 2022 (resulting in increased storage in Lake Powell) will not affect future operating determinations and will be accounted for “as if” this volume of water had been delivered to Lake Mead. The August 2022 24-Month Study modeled 2023 and 2024 operations at Lakes Powell and Mead as if the 0.480 maf had been delivered to Lake Mead for operating condition purposes both for the U.S. Lower Basin and for Mexico. The elevations listed in this report reflect the projected physical elevations at each reservoir after implementing operations as described.
Using the approach described in the immediately preceding paragraph, the August 2022 24-Month Study projects the January 1, 2023, Lake Powell elevation to be less than 3,525 feet. Consistent with Section 6.D.1 of the Interim Guidelines, Lake Powell’s operations in water year 2023 will be governed by the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier with an initial projected water year release volume of 7.00 maf. Because the 2022 operations were designed to protect critical elevations at Lake Powell, Reclamation will implement Lower Elevation Balancing Tier operations in a way that continues to protect these critical elevations, or preserves the benefits of the 2022 operations to protect Lake Powell, in water year 2023. Specifically, Reclamation modeled operations in WY 2023 as follows in the August 24-Month Study:
• The Glen Canyon Dam annual release has initially been set to 7.00 maf, and in April 2023 Reclamation will evaluate hydrologic conditions to determine if balancing releases may be appropriate under the conditions established in the 2007 Interim Guidelines;
• Balancing releases will be limited (with a minimum of 7.00 maf) to protect Lake Powell from declining below elevation 3,525 feet at the end of December 2023;
• Balancing releases will take into account operational neutrality of the 0.480 maf that was retained in Lake Powell under the May 2022 action. Any Lake Powell balancing release volume will be calculated as if the 0.480 maf had been delivered to Lake Mead in WY 2022; and
• The modeling approach for WY 2023 will apply to 2024.
Consistent with the provisions of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, and to preserve the benefits to Glen Canyon Dam facilities from 2022 Operations into 2023 and 2024, Reclamation will consult with the Basin States on monthly and annual operations. Reclamation will also ensure all appropriate consultation with Basin Tribes, the Republic of Mexico, other federal agencies, water users and non-governmental organizations with respect to implementation of these monthly and annual operations.
Reclamation will continue to carefully monitor hydrologic and operational conditions and assess the need for additional responsive actions and/or changes to operations. Reclamation will continue to consult with the Basin States, Basin Tribes, the Republic of Mexico, and other partners on Colorado River operations to consider and determine whether additional measures should be taken to further enhance the preservation of these benefits, as well as recovery protocols, including those of future protective measures for both Lakes Powell and Mead.
The August 2022 24-Month Study projects the January 1, 2023 Lake Mead elevation, determined as if the 0.480 maf had been delivered to Lake Mead in water year 2022, to be below 1,050 feet and above 1,045 feet. Consistent with Section 2.D.1 of the Interim Guidelines, a Shortage Condition consistent with Section 2.D.1.b will govern the operation of Lake Mead for calendar year 2023. In addition, Section III.B of Exhibit 1 to the Lower Basin DCP Agreement will govern the operation of Lake Mead for calendar year 2023. Efforts to conserve additional water in Lake Mead under the 2021 MOU will also continue in CY 2023.
Current runoff projections into Lake Powell are provided by the National Weather Service’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center and are as follows.
The observed unregulated inflow into Lake Powell for the month of July was 0.491 maf or 51 percent of the 30-year average from 1991 to 2020. The August unregulated inflow forecast for Lake Powell is 0.250 maf or 66 percent of the 30-year average. The preliminary observed 2022 April through July unregulated inflow is 3.75 maf or 59 percent of average.
In this study, the calendar year 2022 diversion for Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) is projected to be 1.08 maf. The calendar year 2022 diversion for the Central Arizona Project (CAP) is projected to be 0.997 maf. Consumptive use for Nevada above Hoover (SNWP Use) is projected to be 0.238 maf for calendar year 2022.
Due to changing Lake Mead elevations, Hoover’s generator capacity is adjusted based on estimated effective capacity and plant availability. The estimated effective capacity is based on projected Lake Mead elevations. Unit capacity tests will be performed as the lake elevation changes. This study reflects these changes in the projections. Hoover, Davis, and Parker Dam historical gross energy figures come from PO&M reports provided by the Lower Colorado Region’s Power Office, Bureau of Reclamation, Boulder City, Nevada. Questions regarding these historical energy numbers can be directed to Colleen Dwyer at (702) 293-8420.
“There was a lot of talk at council about it being a bold decision, but I don’t see it that way. Not only is it what we need to do, but we have all the tools to do it cost effectively.” — Mayor Ian Billick
Crested Butte, that most lovely of Colorado mountain towns, now vibrant in summer flowers and always in the bold colors of Victorian storefronts, has now entered into the fractious national debate about natural gas.
The municipality decided Aug. 3 that it will no longer allow natural gas in new buildings. Major remodels will be required to be electric-ready. It’s the first jurisdiction in Colorado to take this action.
Others may soon follow, posing the question of whether Colorado will soon get more rambunctious in its debate about how to effectively achieve the reduction in emissions identified in a 2019 law. That law specified economy-wide emission reductions of 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
Buildings must necessarily be part of this drawdown, and that puts the focus on natural gas, which provides space and hot-water heating for more than half of Colorado buildings. Cars last 15 years or longer, but upgrades of buildings often don’t occur for decades.
The Colorado Greenhouse Gas Pollution Roadmap adopted in January 2021 identified emissions from buildings as a relatively small but vital sector. “Even though the emissions reductions from these actions will be relatively modest in the near term,” the roadmap says, “they will grow to become very significant in the period after 2030.”
Berkeley in November 2019 became the first municipality in the United States to ban natural gas in new construction. Since then 80 other towns, cities, and other jurisdictions have followed, first in California but then in other states, too.
In response, 23 states—including five of the seven states bordering Colorado—have adopted laws that prohibit such local regulations. That’s a ban on bans, if you will. An effort was underway in 2020 by oil-and-gas interests in Colorado to put a similar ballot measure, called preemption, before voters. The effort was withdrawn after negotiations with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Colorado legislators in 2021 instead passed several bills that collectively start squeezing natural gas from buildings without blanket bans. The most important of these bills, SB21-264, requires the four regulated utilities that sell natural gas in Colorado to submit clean-heat plans beginning in 2023.
This clean-heat requirement along with other laws adopted in 2021 nudge Colorado’s four regulated utilities that deliver natural gas toward helping their customers convert their homes and businesses from natural gas to electricity. Xcel Energy, the largest, sells both gas and electricity, so the loss of gas sales will be offset by increased electricity sales. Atmos, the supplier of natural gas to Crested Butte, does not sell electricity, so it will have to cut its emissions in other ways.
Crested Butte might seem an unlikely trailblazer. It’s smallish, with 1,334 full-time residents. The conventional wisdom holds that the big liberal bastions wade into changes first, which then get gradually introduced into the more rural outposts. But neither Denver nor Boulder, though they have started squeezing emissions from buildings in significant ways, have gone quite as far.
Denver, for example, requires heat pumps for space heating and heat-pump water heaters for existing buildings — but not homes — at the time of system replacement, starting in 2024 to 2027. That’s not an explicit ban on natural gas, although it may come close,
The most important aspect of Crested Butte’s example may be its colder climate. It sits at 8,909 feet. Other places that are actually lower in elevation lay claim to the dubious distinction of record cold, but Crested Butte knows chill, an average low of 6 below during January, its coldest month. Town officials, after examining the available technology, including air-source heat pumps, concluded that nobody will suffer in this transition to building electrification.
If it can work in Crested Butte, surely it should work in Castle Rock or Colorado Springs or any number of other places.
Mark Reaman, the editor of the Crested Butte News, called the measure “largely symbolic in the sense it will not save the world. Not even close,” he wrote in a column titled “Symbolism Matters.” “But it could send a message and set an example to those living and visiting here. It is tangible action applicable at the local level.”
Crested Butte, he added, “is one of those towns that punches above its weight given the people it draws and the attitude that doing something locally matters.” His offered the metaphor of a seed now planted “that might grow beyond our little garden.”
To get an understanding of how Crested Butte got to where it is and how it fits with the bigger picture now evolving in Colorado, Big Pivots conducted an e-mail interview with three people:
Ian Billick is the mayor of Crested Butte. He ran on a platform of climate change action and housing. He is also a biologist who manages the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, where scientists from across the country gather during summers to study climate change and other topics at an elevation of 9,000-plus-feet.
Christine Brinker is the senior buildings policy manager for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. She has been deeply involved with helping draft the state legislation and local policies that seek to pivot Colorado’s buildings to fewer emissions.
Mike Foote is a public-interest environmental attorney from Boulder County who served in the Colorado Legislature from 2013 to 2021. As a Democratic legislator, he co-sponsored legislation in 2019 that set Colorado on its march to realize deep, deep decarbonization of its economy – buildings being a particularly knotty problem to solve.
Big Pivots: As mayor of Crested Butte, Ian, can you identify a precise moment when the vision began to take place of eliminating natural gas in new buildings and those with major remodels?
Ian Billick: Several years ago, and before I joined the council, Crested Butte adopted an aggressive climate action plan. New building codes are issued every three years and given how much buildings contribute to carbon emissions, it made quite a bit of sense to consider electrification in adopting the new code.
Pivots: Let’s talk about that aggressive climate action plan. Crested Butte in around 2007 joined a great many towns and cities in adopting a resolution favoring renewable energy. It was my impression that nothing much then happened, perhaps because nobody knew where to start. What explains the more muscular approach?
Billick: A combination of an experienced town staff that has identified meaningful leverage points and a Town Council that has collectively made climate action a top priority. Also, improvements in building technology, including air source heat pumps, along with increases in natural gas prices, make electrification more cost effective, independent of climate impacts.
Pivots: Striking to me was the relative lack of discussion about the adequacy of alternative technologies to natural gas. Was there concern that air-source heat pumps would be unable to perform satisfactorily in Crested Butte’s relatively cold climate?
Billick: The efficiency of air-source heat pump technology declines significantly with colder temperatures. However, the technology works much better in very cold temperatures than it did even a few years ago and can be effectively combined with supplemental heat systems. It’s an example of how recent improvements in technology have made this move possible.
Pivots: The adequacy of the technology was not a major talking point? And do I understand that you had the support of local building contractors?
Billick: We did not spend a lot of time talking about the adequacy of the technology. We had a consultant, August Hasz, with the Resource Engineering Group, which has substantial experience building fully electrified housing in similar, high-altitude, cold environments. We also had local builders who have built successfully here without natural gas express their support. For me, that was very compelling.
Pivots: Let’s explore both of these. What other high-altitude, colder environments? And your local builders – if they are comfortable with the new technology, what do you think that says about places like Vail or Summit County?
Billick: Resource Engineering Group cited projects in Basalt Valley and Telluride. An affordable housing project recently opened in Gunnison that is all electric.
Pivots: You have cited analysis by Rocky Mountain Institute that electrification will usually reduce costs. Is that comparison of gas vs. electric in the completed building? Or is that in cost savings over time?
Billick: One thing we learned is that the cost-benefit analysis of electrification versus natural gas is complicated; you can’t say that one technology will always be cheaper. But RMI has found that in many circumstances both up-front costs as well as lifetime costs will be cheaper with electrification. For example, there are costs to hooking a home up to natural gas that are avoided with full electrification.
Pivots: How many unbuilt lots? Any potential annexations? What application might you see in remodels? Would this have been a harder decision had there been more real estate involved?
Billick: We have about 60 unbuilt lots. Additionally, we have an affordable housing project involving 60-80 units coming online, which will be built to the new code. We have no annexations in the pipeline. Major renovations will trigger a requirement that buildings be electric ready. For me, the decision was not influenced by the number of units involved. There was a lot of talk at council about it being a bold decision, but I don’t see it that way. Not only is it what we need to do, but we have all the tools to do it cost effectively.
Pivots: Your law allows an exemption. Please explain.
Billick: We allow commercial kitchens to use natural gas for cooking.
Pivots: The Crested Butte News reported the major pushback was from those who urged a go-slower approach. For other towns considering following in the footsteps of Crested Butte, how would you describe that pushback? And why did the council reject that go-slower approach?
Billick: We had a working group analyzing this option through the spring, including holding a question and answer session for the public. The CB Town Council had a work session, as well as two public hearings. By the final public hearing while some disagreed with the policy, no new information was emerging, nor did council feel that it was missing any information. We had the information we needed to make a decision, so we moved forward.
Pivots: I was struck by the fact that the council was unanimous. Can you explain the unity on this? Does it extend to other decisions?
Billick: The council works very well together, but we don’t always agree. The council has been very clear, however, that climate action is a priority that is shared across the board.
Pivots: What repercussions beyond Crested Butte do you hope your town’s actions will have?
Billick: If we can make it work in an environment as extreme as Crested Butte, it is possible to make it work across the country.
Pivots: Christine, when do you think we will hear about the next local government in Colorado to limit or ban natural gas in homes and buildings?
Christine Brinker: Most likely in the next few months. While they may not outright prohibit natural gas, they will likely take steps to either gradually move away from it or at least reduce some of the negative impacts. For example, some local governments in the northwestern metro area are working together on a policy that would give builders a choice between either all-electric or, on the other hand, natural gas with extra energy efficiency.
Having said that, Crested Butte’s example will surely give these and other local governments the courage to take stronger climate action and take bolder steps toward all-electric new construction.
Pivots: Colorado has adopted several laws in the last two years that seek to reduce emissions from buildings. How would you describe the general approach?
Brinker: The approach has been to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis while at the same time trying to orchestrate the transition in a way that protects our workers and families. Recent bills had extensive negotiations and “stakeholdering” with builders, building owners, labor, local leaders, equity groups, and more, because ultimately, the policies need to be workable, practical, and impactful for as many Coloradans as possible.
From a policy standpoint, the original 2019 law set an overall emissions reduction goal 90% by 2050, and individual bills since then are going sector-by-sector to help reach those goals. That’s where these bills governing buildings fit.
Pivots: How does the law passed in May, HB22-1362, titled “Building Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” define the paths forward for local jurisdictions? Do you see various paths for different communities?
Brinker: That law sets the floor, the minimum, for resilient and energy-efficient construction when local governments update any other building codes. This is in recognition that many homebuyers and renters don’t have the ability to choose efficient and healthy homes – they have to “take what’s out there.” Better energy codes make sure homes and buildings are built right at the outset.
Notably, the law still allows natural gas — but requires that new construction at least include the wiring for future all-electric appliances like heat pumps. And it allows local governments like Crested Butte to go above the minimum if they want.
Pivots: Air-source heat pumps remain fairly expensive. Do you see this changing?
Brinker: The costs of the technology have fallen significantly in recent years while performance improved. The next stage of cost reduction will partly come from contractors here getting more familiar with the latest heat-pump technology, something being helped along by trainings from Xcel Energy and others.
Also, heat pumps have a new batch of incentives available because of how much they help our air quality and climate – including rebates from Xcel Energy and other utilities, a 10% tax credit from the state, and tax credits from the Inflation Reduction Act.
Pivots: As a former state senator, Mike, I would like your read on the political implications of this ban adopted by Crested Butte. Colorado’s policy so far has been a firm but still gentle squeeze of emissions, both methane and carbon dioxide, from buildings. The clean heat law, for example, stipulates that consumers will always retain choice.
Does the mandate by Crested Butte put the Polis administration into a place it would prefer not to be? Or are the numbers in Crested Butte just too small to be consequential?
Mike Foote: Local governments in Colorado have significant autonomy when it comes to their building codes. Crested Butte’s actions are consistent with that tradition of local control. Certainly some state actors and the oil-and-gas industry will take notice of it.
It is highly unlikely, even after this fall’s elections, that there will be a successful effort in the legislature to limit the ability of local governments to do what Crested Butte did. Some gas proponents have advocated for a statewide “energy choice” ballot measure that would prohibit localities from requiring non-fossil energy in their codes. This is sometimes called a “ban on bans.” At some point that effort could get more traction if the industry decides to fund a statewide campaign. The threat of the industry going to the ballot is always there, but it shouldn’t dissuade local governments from taking climate action in my opinion.
Pivots: New York Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed to pass a statewide law that would ban natural gas by 2027. Assuming Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is reelected this fall, can you envision him attempting to do the same? Why or why not?
Foote: We haven’t seen Governor Polis propose a policy like that during his first four years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some members of the General Assembly were thinking about it. The fact of the matter is new gas usage must be substantially curtailed within this decade for us to avoid the worst effects of climate change. There are not too many easy options left to achieve that, at least in Colorado.
To be very clear, this is the biggest energy story of the year in Colorado, in my read.
State legislators in 2021 adopted several laws that will, in various ways, begin squeezing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings.
Now comes the implementation as the three commissioners from the Public Utilities Commission do their required public engagement in meetings held in various locations in Colorado. All available evidence suggests to me that this will come close to fist-swinging before it’s all done, at least of the wordy type. From what I hear, it already has.
I attended the second of the six meetings, the one at Montbello Community Center in Denver. It was a bilingual meeting structure designed for consumption by people who had mostly never heard of the PUC much less clean heat plans.
SB 21-264, which we’ll call the clean-heat law, requires Colorado’s four privately owned natural gas utilities – Xcel Energy, Black Hills Energy, Atmos and Colorado Natural Gas – to reduce greenhouse gases 4% by 2025 and then 22% by 2030. This is compared to emissions of 2015.
How can they do this? The law provides four ways for the utilities to do so in the heat-clean plans they must submit:
1) Demand-side management programs, especially including improved energy efficiency.
2) Beneficial electrification, meaning that gas use in buildings for space and hot water heating is replaced by electricity. One way of doing that is through addition of air-source heat pumps or, in original construction, ground-source heat pumps.
3) Improved efforts to reduce methane leaks from the natural gas infrastructure.
3) Recovered methane, such as from landfills, to supplement the methane extracted from wells;
4) Green hydrogen, which means made from renewable resources and after (but not natural gas);
5) Pyrolysis of tires, the recycling of tires to extract heat and energy, as is being considered at Fort Morgan.
The latter two are likely more difficult than the first three.
The PUC commissioners have until December to draw up the rules governing the review of these clean-heat plans.
I see four very, very big issues here:
First, this is a lot of work in a short time. “A heavy lift for utilities,” John Gavan, the PUC commissioner who presided at the Montrose meeting, said.
A Black Hills representative at the Montrose meeting said that the required reduction coming on top of demand growth means that instead of a 4% reduction it’s more like a 25% reduction. Nigh on to impossible, said Mike Harrigan, the Black Hills rep.
Second, the gas utilities are being required to radically change their business models and, in the case of three of them, to essentially make themselves less relevant. Xcel Energy will sell more electricity as it sells less gas. For Black Hills, which sells both gas and electricity, the trade-off is not as easy. It sells gas in Aspen, for example, but not electricity.
One of the attendees at Montrose summarized it in this way: “Let me get this straight,” said David Combs, speaking to the Black Hills Energy representatives. “The products you sell, you make money on, you’re trying to reduce and you’re giving people money to use less of it?”
There always has been a strange tradeoff between regulated utilities. They enjoy monopolies in their service territory in return for regulation. This was once reliable money. Utilities are now being required to be far more inventive.
Third, builders and real estate developers have been enjoying a subsidy as they build new subdivisions, the gas lines that are laid being subsidized by existing natural gas customers. At the end of the day, this may be the defining issue. High-spirited filings with the PUC began in December 2021.
Fourth, there are equity issues here as we squeeze out natural gas, replacing it with electricity. Who will pay for the aging natural gas systems? Like so many things, it’s likely to be those who can least afford to pay.
I mentioned the Montbello meeting. It was designed to reach out to an area that met the definition of a disproportionately impacted community. I can’t disagree, but I must say that I felt very marginalized. I struggle to hear well normally, and the choice of room configuration left me with my back to the speakers and trying — and almost entirely failing — to hear the English translation of what was being said in Spanish. My impression was that the meeting was designed with the intent of honoring the law, and it did achieve that. But one meeting alone will not achieve the real purpose with this particular group.
A meeting in Grand Junction was somewhat boisterous, I heard, which did not surprise me. The first filings of opposition to clean-heat plans in the PUC docket in this case were submitted by real-estate agents and others from the Grand Valley and Montrose. Weeks later they started arriving from places like Aurora.
Again, as Gavan identified in the Montrose meeting, the key issue here is the subsidy for gas lines to homebuilders. Nobody likes to lose their subsidy.
Sandy Head, executive of the Montrose County Economic Development Corp. told the Press that the cost of extending a gas line to a new house was previously $250 to $300 but will now cost $800.
This led to charges that it would become too expensive to live in a place like Delta County – which, with the exception of now pricey Paonia, remains one of Colorado’s least expensive places to live west of I-25.
Also balled up into this issue is the high cost of natural gas and the failure of Xcel Energy to adequately prepare itself for what happened in February 2021. Xcel ended up paying $600 million extra for high-priced natural gas. But there’s also the issue of Texans going without power – which some people, apparently, still think can be blamed on the dependency on wind turbines. (It was a part of the problem, but only a small part).
“We’re not going to shut off fossil fuel generation in the form of gas overnight,” Gavan replied, as per the Montrose Press account. “No, our plan is to add another gigawatt of combustion technology to back up renewables. It’s a balancing mix. As we transition, the resource mix will change. It will become very different, more intelligent.”
Most of the $9-$10 billion that Xcel Energy will spend in the next few years will be spent on Colorado’s eastern plains. Why is this such a big deal for Colorado?
Colorado will soon embark on a change with few rivals in the last 100 years. Think of the dismantling of geography by construction of Interstate 70 through the tunnels, over Vail Pass, and through Glenwood Canyon. Think of Denver International Airport. Think of the arrival of electricity to farms and small towns in the 1930s and 1940s.
Within a decade, Xcel Energy, the state’s largest electrical utility, will retire all its coal plants, convert one to burn natural gas, and add massive amounts of wind on Colorado’s eastern plains and solar generation, some of it in the Western Slope’s Grand Valley, along with batteries nad perhaps other storage, as it pursues a mid-century goal of net-zero carbon. Combined with potentially 740 miles of new transmission lines looping around eastern Colorado, this investment in new generation could hit $9 billion to $10 billion. Xcel will likely get its final green light from state regulators in the next month, maybe two.
This has repercussions beyond Xcel Energy, which sells more than half the electricity in Colorado. It also delivers wholesale sales to some municipalities and cooperatives, including Holy Cross Energy, Yampa Valley Electric, and Grand Valley Power.
Is this money well spent? If you’re a climate hawk, as I am, convinced we must dramatically reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, this represents a giant step forward. We must immediately reduce emissions from electrical generation and also displace fossil fuels in transportation and buildings.
True, China’s emissions keep growing. But Colorado can lead the United States by example, and the United States can lead the world.
Some people, even champions of this transition, disagree with the precise pathway. For example, if demand were shaved through energy efficiency and other programs, will less investment in new generating resources be needed, says Western Resource Advocates, an environmental group.
From Colorado eastern plains, already dotted with wind turbines, come other complaints about cluttered skylines. This is not universal. Other plainsmen (and women) welcome the property taxes local governments will realize and the lease payments to land owners.
Nuclear power represents another question. Colorado’s lone experiment with nuclear power, at the St. Vrain plant near Greeley, went seriously awry. But now come efforts with presumably smaller and hence lower-risk modular reactors, such as are being planned in Idaho and also Wyoming. Cost, more than safety, is the fulcrum for the debate. Nuclear has had exorbitant cost overruns. Will this new technology be better?
Comanche 3, a coal plant in Pueblo, has become the symbol for this energy transition. It was approved 18 years ago by Colorado regulators, a $1 billion investment (in today’s dollars). Utilities had been building ever-bigger coal-fired coal plants, abetted by natural gas plants to meet peak demands, for a half-century. Few were willing to give credence to the vision of renewable energy. I remember in about 2008, a geologist in Meeker who still hoped for the dream of milking hydrocarbons from the oil shale of northwestern Colorado. “We can’t run a civilization on windmills,” he fumed.
We still can’t. And as somebody pointed out to me, even wind turbines need oil and grease and so forth. But we can do far, far more than Xcel or most others thought just 18 years ago.
This has come in increments. Almost simultaneous with approval of Comanche 3 came Colorado’s first renewable energy mandate. Xcel fought it. Then it set out to comply. Costs of wind tumbled dramatically, and then so did solar. Something of the same thing is now happening with lithium-ion batteries.
It’s not yet possible on a large scale to affordably eliminate all emissions. But also note this. In 2005, when Xcel began building Comanche 3, about two-thirds of its electricity came from coal plants. Within a decade, it will be close to zero. We’re moving fast, because we can and because we must.
Will there be adverse consequences beyond altered prairie vistas on the Great Plains? Quite possibly. With I-70, what once was close to a full-day journey from Grand Junction to Denver was shortened to a long morning. But the highway has made mountain valleys a little less lovely and far more noisy.
This course correction in our energy foundation may also prove to have flaws that may require further altering. And in 18 years we may look back and wonder if we should have held off just a little longer for a technological breakthrough instead of making Colorado’s eastern plains look like Paul Bunyan’s playground for Erector Set creations.
What we cannot afford is to do nothing. Given what we know today, about the cost of energy and the cost of climate change, this massive investment soon to happen looks to be the wisest path forward.
Colorado legislators in 2021 passed a suite of laws that in various ways give state agencies new marching orders that this energy transition will reconcile past wrongs and put people on an equal footing. But there’s a lot to sort through in this.
Now comes the part where the rhetoric about a just transition of the energy economy — paying special attention to disproportionately impacted communities and rectifying past wrongs with the word “equity” in mind — gets tested in the field.
In late July and early August, the three members of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission will take turns hosting six meetings from Lamar to Grand Junction, places selectively chosen because of evidence of disproportionate impacts from energy.
The meetings serve a dual purpose. The commissioners are gathering thoughts about how the state’s four regulated gas-distribution utilities will start changing how we heat buildings and water in order to reduce emissions. They are required to submit what are called clean-heat plans.
The four gas utilities —Xcel Energy, Black Hills Energy, Atmos Energy, and Colorado Natural Gas — must show how they will be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 4% by 2025 and 22% by 2030, based on a 2015 baseline.
But the commissioners are also very deliberately meeting in cities that have been identified by mapping tools as having, or being proximate to, disproportionately impacted communities.
Get accustomed to hearing that phrase, now used so often it has been reduced to an acronym in many documents: DIC. Among other things, the commissioners want to better understand how to define equity (as distinct from equality) and what constitutes a DIC community.
It’s an early milestone in Colorado’s difficult and still new process, one parallel to others underway in several states around the country.
Pushing their investigation are five laws passed by Colorado legislators in 2021 that collectively seek to put the hands of those communities on the steering wheel in ways that they have not before.
SB 21-272, “Modernize the Public Utilities Commission,” tells the PUC that it must adopt rules that “consider how best to provide equity, minimize impacts, and prioritize benefits to disproportionately impacted communities and address historical inequalities.”
What are disproportionately impacted communities? This law provides a glimpse:
“Certain communities, both in Colorado and internationally, have historically been forced to bear a disproportionate burden of adverse human health or environmental effects, as documented in numerous studies, while also facing systemic exclusion from environmental decision-making processes and enjoying fewer environmental benefits,” says SB21-272.
The law cites a 2021 report from the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. The project, called Mapping for Environmental Justice, attempted to paint a holistic picture of intersecting environmental, social, and health impacts in individual states, including Colorado.
The study found that “communities of color breathe nearly twice as much diesel pollution and are 1.5 times more likely to live near a Superfund site than white communities. The disparity holds across an array of environmental hazards: from wastewater releases to air toxins, Coloradoans of color are consistently exposed to more pollution.”
This same law, SB 21-272, instructs the PUC to “identify disproportionately impacted communities” and host meetings and in other ways invite input from them to ensure that they will have at least proportionate access to the benefits of retail customer programs, incentives and investments.”
The PUC must go through a rule-making process that governs how the PUC reviews plans by utilities —including not just energy utilities, but also transportation and other sectors it regulates.
The goal is to deliver equity – which will be defined later – in programs and incentives that serve low-income customers and disproportionately impacted communities.
The second law of relevance, SB 21-264, the “Clean Heat Bill,” requires Colorado’s four natural gas utilities to start figuring out how to reduce fossil fuel combustion from buildings. It gives the largest gas utilities, including Xcel, various ways to achieve a 22% reduction in emissions by 2030. They can, for example, help customers convert to electricity through use of air-source heat pumps. Utilities are required to submit clean-heat plans.
This clean-heat bill also has an environmental justice component. That law also calls out the “historic injustices that impact lower-income Coloradans and black, indigenous, and other people of color who have borne a disproportionate share of environmental risks while also enjoying fewer environmental benefits.”
As the PUC goes about creating the rules for evaluating clean-heat plans, it must hold at least two meetings in disproportionately impacted communities.
In planning six meetings, not just two, the PUC obviously aims for a robust compliance with the letter of the law. The PUC has gone a step beyond, and we’ll explain that later in this article.
Yet a third law, HB 21-1266, called the “Environmental Justice Act,” takes direct aim and, unlike the others, delivers more explicit instructions for the Air Quality Control Commission – an agency within the state’s health department – to engage with disproportionately impacted communities.
The law incorporates demographic factors but delegated to a new Environmental Justice Action Task Force the work of defining what exactly constitutes a disproportionately impacted community. The law also added transition to a more equitable clean energy economy to the mission of the Colorado Energy Office.
Two more laws deserve mention.
SB 21-246, Promote Beneficial Electrification, requires investor-owned utilities to file plans with the PUC that must include “programs targeted to low-income housing or disproportionately impacted communities with at least 20% of the total beneficial electrification program funding” directed to those communities and income levels.
HB21-1105 modified the eligibility standards for low-income programs.
Why did all of this come together in 2021?
Ean Tafoya, of GreenLatinos, who is co-chair of the new task force, says the thinking had been growing for years of the need to “redress” inequities.
In 2019, the first year that Democrats gained a majority in both chambers, as well as the governor’s mansion, the legislators who might have carried the bills were too new to the General Assembly to be effective.
Then came the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, spurring national protests, including in Denver. This was just months after the covid pandemic descended, hitting minority populations harder.
Those things “helped to galvanize the creation of a more formidable environmental justice coalition,” says Tafoya. This pressure seems to have created “more political room for the politicians to move forward.”
Tafoya also says that this powerful new environmental justice coalition wouldn’t settle for legislation that in early drafts didn’t initially include equity provisions.
In this, he refers to major bills driven by Sen. Chris Hansen of Denver and two Boulder County legislators, Sen. Steve Fenberg and Rep. Tracey Bernett, as well as Rep. Alex Valdez and Rep. Meg Froehlich.
A bill that started out as SB 200 was recreated in SB 1266 with Faith Winter as a primary author. She did not respond to several requests for an interview.
The Environmental Justice Act is sweeping. It requires the Air Quality Control Commission to adopt rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas operations. It also requires that commission to adopt rules to reduce emissions from the industrial and manufacturing sector in Colorado by at least 20% by 2030 relative to 2015 levels.
Environmental justice, though, is front and center in the law. It requires the Air Quality Control Commission to promote outreach to disproportionately impacted communities by creating new ways to gather input from communities across Colorado, using multiple languages and multiple formats.
The law also created the task force of which Tafoya is a member with the responsibility to make recommendations to legislators of “practical means to address environmental justice inequities” by Nov. 14.
That task force has met four times beginning in December, and it also has five subcommittees that meet monthly.
Pueblo’s Jamie Valdez, who is also on the task force, describes it as a “very difficult process.” But the goal is to avoid compromising as has occurred in the past.
Members have received much testimony “that there has not been enough consideration or responsiveness to community and too much to industry,” he says.
The table has been tilted heavily to a discussion between industry and regulators, to the exclusion of others, says Valdez, who is paid staff and a community organizer for southern Colorado on behalf of Mothers Outfront, a mothers-funded environmental justice organization whose mission is to work for a livable climate for all children.
Equity and equitable
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission has also been moving along. The commission held a workshop in February to get insights from participants about how to implement the environmental justice component of HB21-264, the law that requires the meetings in disproportionately impacted communities. In March, the PUC asked the states’ four natural gas utilities – Xcel, Black Hills Energy, Atmos, and Colorado Natural Gas – to identify three ideas for meeting locations.
Xcel identified Grand Junction, metro Denver, and Pueblo. Black Hills identified Montrose, Rocky Ford, and Yuma. Atmos Energy identified Greeley, Lamar, and Craig.
The utilities were advised to consult a data-rich mapping tool created by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment called EnviroScreen. This was a result of the Environmental Justice Bill. When I first looked at this a year ago, I found it primitive. It showed the Wildridge neighborhood north of Avon and the Singletree neighborhood of Edwards to be in an environmentally impacted tract. (That all of us should be so unfortunate as to live in such areas.)
A review for this article shows a sophisticated tool, if still not complete. A tutorial explains it was created “to help identify the relative health burdens and environmental risks facing different communities across Colorado.”
On June 1, the PUC hosted a session on equity initiatives. Kelly Crandell, of the PUC staff, explained the SB 21-272 requirement to promulgate rules that seek to “provide equity and minimize impacts and prioritizes benefits to disproportionately impacted communities that have experienced historical inequalities.”
During the next few months, she said, the PUC commissioners and staff will be focusing on learning things that can be used to shape these new rules, the ones being drawn up to govern how the PUC evaluates plans by utilities.
Crandell carefully distinguished between equality and equity. With the equality, the idea is to provide something to everyone equally. So, your residential rates for electricity will be the same as your neighbors’.
Equity as Crandell explained it has a historical dimension. It recognizes that things may need to change so that others can participate, that actions of the past such as redlining must be acknowledged to properly rectify going forward.
“It’s challenging to an agency such as ours because conversations more traditionally operated in the vein of equality,” she said.
The legislation, she explained, had three dimensions: 1) recognize why certain communities have suffered, such as because of redlining practices; 2) procedural inequalities. How can the PUC make its process more accessible to the public; and 3) broadly prioritizing the benefits of new energy programs to disproportionately impacted communities.
Different sorts of meetings
Most interesting of these meetings may be at Montbello, located in northeastern Denver on the north side of I-70. It will use a new format of outreach.
There, community members will be paid to attend and share their thoughts. The meeting will be led by the Denver Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency. That municipal agency has been hosting community meetings. In this case two community-based organizations have been enlisted to put it together.
“The event will include a listening session on energy priorities within these neighborhoods in addition to a discussion about clean heat plans,” the decision notice issued by the PUC on July 6 says. The event will be presented in both English and Spanish.
Ah yes – the clean heat plans. The natural gas utilities must figure out how to reduce emissions from buildings. A small bit of this can be accomplished by augmenting supplies of methane distributed to homes for heating and cooking with what is called renewable natural gas, such as that harvested from landfills. But there are many other tools – including beneficial electrification, including the use of air source heat pumps to displace or at least augment natural gas furnaces. They’re still relatively expensive, though, with a payback that in most cases will take at least several years.
Tafoya observes that focus groups have already found that tax credits won’t work for lower-income residents. “It’s clear that people want down-payment assistance, not just tax credits.”
Colorado is far from alone in trying to look at utility decisions through the new lenses of equity. A report called “Advancing Equity in Utility Regulation” issued in November 2021 by Berkeley National Laboratory notes an effort in California in 2020 requiring “environmental justice” to be part of the state’s mission. New York and Washington also adopted legislation in 2019, the latter state charging the utilities commission with “ensuring that all customers are benefiting from the transition to clean energy.”
In 2021, Massachusetts, Oregon, Illinois, and Maine all passed somewhat parallel legislation along with Colorado.
July 21: Greeley, Greeley Recreation Center, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
July 21: Denver, Montebello Recreation Center, 5-7:30 p.m.
July 27: Grand Junction, Colorado Mesa University Center, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
July 28: Montrose, Montrose Event Center, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
Aug. 4: Pueblo, Bessemer Community Room at Steelworks Center for the West, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
Aug. 4: Lamar Cultural Events Center, 4:30-6 p.m.
The 5 bills: SB21-272 “Measures to Modernize the Public Utilities Commission.” Requires PUC to identify disproportionately impacted communities (DICs) and to reach out to let them help create new rules.
SB 21-264, “Clean Heat Bill.” Requires natural gas utilities to begin decarbonizing gas distributed to buildings. Requires PUC to hold at least two meetings in DICs.
HB 21-1266 “Environmental Justice Act.” Instructions specifically to Air Quality Control Commission.
SB 21-246, “Promote Beneficial Electrification.” Requires 20% of program funds be used for low-income households or disproportionately impacted communities.
HB21-1105, modifies eligibility standards for low-income programs.
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Click the link to go to the NASA website for all the inside skinny and to use the interactive map:
LATEST MEASUREMENT: June 2022
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important heat-trapping gas, or greenhouse gas, that comes from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels (such as coal, oil, and natural gas), from wildfires, and from natural processes like volcanic eruptions. The first graph shows atmospheric CO2 levels measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, in recent years, with natural, seasonal changes removed. The second graph shows CO2 levels during Earth’s last three glacial cycles, as captured by air bubbles trapped in ice sheets and glaciers.
Since the beginning of industrial times (in the 18th century), human activities have raised atmospheric CO2 by 50% – meaning the amount of CO2 is now 150% of its value in 1750. This is greater than what naturally happened at the end of the last ice age 20,000 years ago.
The animated map shows how global carbon dioxide has changed over time. Note how the map changes colors as the amount of CO2 rises from 365 parts per million (ppm) in 2002 to over 400 ppm currently. (“Parts per million” refers to the number of carbon dioxide molecules per million molecules of dry air.) These measurements are from the mid-troposphere, the layer of Earth’s atmosphere that is 8 to 12 kilometers (about 5 to 7 miles) above the ground.
Over the last year and a half, I’ve dissected every remark I could find in the press from Senator Joe Manchin on climate change. With the fate of our planet hanging in the balance, his every utterance was of global significance. But his statements have been like a weather vane, blowing in every direction. It’s now clear that Mr. Manchin has wasted what little time this Congress had left to make real progress on the climate crisis.
Since early 2021, congressional Democrats and President Biden have worked relentlessly to negotiate a climate policy package. When Build Back Better passed the House last fall, it included $555 billion in clean energy and climate investments. After four decades of gridlock in Congress, the Democrats were poised to finally pass a major climate bill, with agreement from 49 senators. But yesterday, one man torched the deal, and with it the climate: Mr. Manchin.
By stringing his colleagues along, Mr. Manchin didn’t just waste legislators’ time. He also delayed crucial regulations that would cut carbon pollution. Wary of upsetting the delicate negotiations, the Biden administration has held back on using the full force of its executive authority on climate over the past 18 months, likely in hopes of securing legislation first.
The stakes of delay could not be higher. Last summer, while the climate negotiations dragged on, record-breaking heat waves killed hundreds of Americans. Hurricanes, wildfires and floods pummeled the country from coast to coast. Over the last 10 years, the largest climate and weather disasters have cost Americans more than a trillion dollars — far more than the Democrats had hoped to spend to stop the climate crisis. With each year we delay, the climate impacts keep growing. We do not have another month, let alone another year or decade, to wait for Mr. Manchin to negotiate in good faith.
The climate investments in the bill ranged from incentives for clean power like wind and solar, to support for electric vehicles. They were essential to meeting President Biden’s goal of cutting carbon pollution in half from its 2005 levels by 2030 — the United States’ contribution to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Congress’s failure to act means that, under the best case scenario with the policies we already have in place, we will only get 70 percent of the way there.
After months of stop-and-start discussions, with Mr. Manchin repeatedly walking away from the negotiations, Congress has largely run out of time. Democrats need to pass their reconciliation package this summer, and despite weeks of round-the-clock effort from Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, and his team, Mr. Manchin has now refused to agree to vote for spending on climate. While he claimed on a West Virginia talk show on Friday that it wasn’t over, that “we’ve had good conversations, we’ve had good negotiations,” this is doublespeak; he simply doesn’t want to be held accountable for his actions. He has consistently said one thing and done another.
Mr. Manchin’s refusal to agree to climate investments will hurt the economy he claims he wants to protect. The package would have built domestic manufacturing, supporting more than 750,000 climate jobs annually. It would have also fought inflation, helping to make energy bills more affordable for everyday Americans. This is particularly ironic since Mr. Manchin said inflation was the chief reason he was uncomfortable with supporting tax incentives for clean energy right now.
Over the past year, Mr. Manchin has taken more money from the oil and gas industry than any other member of Congress — including every Republican — according to federal filings. A Times investigation found that he also personally profited from coal, making roughly $5 million between 2010 and 2020 — about three times his Senate salary. Coal has made Mr. Manchin a millionaire, even as it has poisoned the air his own constituents in West Virginia breathe.
As Upton Sinclair put it: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
But one thing I have never understood about Mr. Manchin is how he looks his grandchildren in the eye. While he may leave his descendants plenty of money, they will also inherit a broken planet. Like other young people, Mr. Manchin’s grandchildren will grow up knowing that his legacy is climate destruction.
Today, Colorado Governor Jared Polis urged the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and other state agencies to take additional steps to improve air quality for Coloradans.
In a letter to key leaders within his administration at the agency level, the Governor wrote: “Clean air is critical to the Colorado way of life. We value protecting our environment, ensuring environmental justice, and promoting better health for all Coloradans. This past legislative session we made substantial progress toward improving our air, including:
A significant investment over three years to increase resources available to our Air Pollution Control Division (APCD) to right size and modernize the Division. Recent expansion in core responsibilities specifically related to the EPA Ozone non-attainment did not come with adequate resources. These investments now empower the Division to expand monitoring and emissions work, accelerate the transition to cleaner technologies across various industries, and to more thoroughly engage with communities across the state, particularly those most affected by air pollution.
Hundreds of millions of dollars of state money to clean up our transportation system, including resources to position Colorado as a national leader in the electrification of our school bus fleet; substantial resources to decarbonize the industrial and aviation sectors above and beyond current and future greenhouse gas emissions rules; saving people money on transit with free and reduced-cost fares, and significant investments to reduce pollution from the buildings sector.
Expanded capabilities across the State to mitigate, prepare for, and respond to disasters such as wildfires, mudslides and flooding and other devastating impacts of climate change.”
The Governor acknowledged that CDPHE and the Air Quality Control Commission have an ambitious agenda over the next 12 months to establish new plans, and standards to improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas pollution, and reduce paperwork for Colorado businesses.
The Governor also urged CDPHE and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to take steps to improve air permit modeling, the permitting process, and oil and gas emissions reporting, evaluate cumulative impacts, reduce emissions from heavy duty off-road engines, improve collaboration between COGCC and APCD, and provide greater access to air quality information for the public.
Federal, state action needed to implement policies
Colorado leaders say the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last week to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants further demonstrates the urgency to enact federal and statewide policies that curb greenhouse gas emissions. The ruling means the EPA needs authorization from Congress to regulate the carbon emissions from power plants. The decision raises questions about how much the federal government can do to fight climate change and the extent that federal agencies can impose regulations. Though the ruling will not affect Colorado’s ability to address climate change on a state level, environmental policy experts say it illuminates the need to find ways to make policy to address the climate crisis facing the state. With the EPA having more limitations to its powers, the court’s decision underscores the importance for states to recognize the threat that climate change poses through policymaking…
Colorado Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet expressed a sense of urgency for Congress to take steps to address climate change…
“The bipartisan Clean Air Act has a 50-year track record of effectively protecting public health, curbing air pollution, and safeguarding our environment,” Bennet wrote in a news release. “This decision ignores the clear authority the Act gives EPA to keep our communities healthy and safe. With climate change bearing down on the American West, now is the time to strengthen protections for cleaning up air and water and for cutting climate pollution, not weaken them.”
[Alex] DeGolia said Colorado has made good efforts to address climate change through policy, such as the passage of House Bill 1261 in the state Legislature in 2019. The bill established statewide goals for reducing emissions over the next 30 years by 90% compared with 2005 levels. However, he said a big thing Colorado can do would be for the Air Quality Control Commission to evaluate the progress the state is making in reaching those targets as a result of the new policies being implemented. Doing that, he said, will help evaluate any gaps between the targets and the projections and eventually establish new regulations to help ensure the targets are met.
“States like Colorado have broad authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “We just need to double down on our work at the state level and elsewhere, in order to make sure that we are reducing emissions as fast as we can.
The Biden administration is set to approve another key permit for a new railroad in Utah that is expected to drastically increase the amount of crude oil hauled through Colorado by rail, dismissing objections from environmental groups and Colorado communities along the impacted route.
Officials with the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday rejected a challenge to its decision to allow part of the proposed 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway to cross a protected roadless area in the Ashley National Forest. Securing the right-of-way is a critical step for the project, which is backed by a public-private partnership between seven Utah county governments, Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners and the Rio Grande Pacific railroad company.
Utah’s oil and gas industry has eagerly supported the proposed rail line, which is projected to significantly increase oil production in the Uinta Basin by connecting the region to the national rail network, allowing crude oil to be transported over the Rocky Mountains to refineries along the Gulf Coast. An environmental impact statement prepared by federal regulators estimated that the increased production from the Uinta Basin alone could increase total annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 1%, at a time when scientists are urging drastic global emissions cuts to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
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“President Biden should be doing everything in his power to respond to the climate emergency, but he’s about to light one of the nation’s biggest carbon bombs,” Deeda Seed, a senior campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “This is pouring another 5 billion gallons of oil on the fire every year and bulldozing a national forest in the process. It’s a horrifying step in the wrong direction.”
Much of the additional crude oil produced as a result of the Uinta Basin Railway would be hauled through Colorado on a route that passes through Glenwood Canyon along the Colorado River, then through the Moffat Tunnel and central Denver. Up to 10 two-mile-long trains would travel the route daily, and because the Uinta Basin produces a type of oil known as “waxy” crude, the tank cars used to transport it need to be heated, creating additional safety and environmental risks.
Dozens of cities, counties and water districts along the route have voiced opposition to the project, including Glenwood Springs, where city officials worry about potential impacts to the Colorado River Basin, and Eagle County, which has joined environmental groups in suing the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in a federal appeals court over its 4-1 vote to approve the project as a whole in December.
This is pouring another 5 billion gallons of oil on the fire every year and bulldozing a national forest in the process. It’s a horrifying step in the wrong direction.
– Deeda Seed, a senior campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity
At least 21 oil train derailments have occurred in the U.S. and Canada since 2013, according to a 2021 report from the nonprofit Sightline Institute. Such incidents frequently result in fires and spills, including the 2016 derailment of an oil train in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, in which an estimated 42,000 gallons of crude oil were spilled.
The partnership behind the railway project says it’s “committed to minimizing and mitigating environmental impacts where possible,” and will comply with “all federal, state, and local environmental regulations.”
In a notice sent on Tuesday, Forest Service officials rejected the Center for Biological Diversity’s challenge to the Ashley National Forest right-of-way permit, writing that despite some “concerns” about the environmental impact statement prepared by the Surface Transportation Board, the agency believes the analysis “supports permit issuance.”
“There is nothing in the proposal that would suggest that the Forest Service must reject the proposal or deny the application,” wrote Deb Oakeson, deputy regional forester for the USFS Intermountain Region. “Analysis in the (environmental impact statement) has led to certain protective measures and mitigations that would be stipulated conditions of any potential special use permit.”
Backers say the $1.5 billion Uinta Basin Railway would be the largest new railroad project in the United States in nearly 50 years. Construction could begin as early as next year.
Opponents, however, still hope to prevail in several legal challenges, including Eagle County’s suit against the Surface Transportation Board and a separate complaint alleging misuse of state funds in connection with the project’s financing. Eagle County and other petitioners in the federal lawsuit are scheduled to file opening briefs in the case by Aug. 4.
In a letter sent earlier this year, more than 50 Colorado city and county governments urged Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper to speak out in opposition to the project. Both senators have said that they share Colorado communities’ “concerns” about the proposal.
Meanwhile, more than 100 environmental groups from Colorado, Utah and other Western states have voiced their opposition, objecting to the railway’s potential to do “tremendous harm to the environment.”
“This area is already facing water and air quality issues,” Jonny Vasic, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said in a statement Wednesday. “The railway will quadruple production of oil in the Uinta Basin, resulting in dire consequences for air quality, public lands, water, public safety and the climate.”
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Colorado’s largest electrical utility has halved its coal generation since 2005 and will achieve effectively zero by 2030. Surely this investment ranks as among the biggest, most important of the last century
A cliché seems like a terrible way to begin a story that strives for deeper analysis of this milestone in Colorado history, but I’m not clever enough to come up with my own simile or metaphor, so here goes:
Colorado’s reinvention of its energy system is like trying to rebuild an airplane in mid-air. Plans by Xcel Energy, by far the state’s largest utility, to revamp its electrical generation constitute the most compelling exhibit.
Colorado has been flying a plane using technology and infrastructure from the 1970-1990s. The rebuilding has been underway for awhile now, particularly since 2016, after prices of wind, in particular, had plummeted, and utilities satisfied themselves that they could integrate renewables without endangering reliability.
Now comes the giant stride. This coupled with new transmission could yield investment of up to $10 billion.
I’d suggest that Colorado has had few singular rivals in the last 100 years in terms of investment in public and quasi-public infrastructure. The splurge of roadbuilding unleashed by the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 certainly surpasses this. I’d single out the Colorado-Big Thompson water diversion project of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Arguably construction of DIA, too. Buy me a beer, and we can chew through this at length.
But by whatever yardstick you choose, this is – and you knew I had to say this – a Big Pivot. This represents Colorado’s most muscular turn yet from centralized power generation from fossil fuel sources to more dispersed renewables.
The landscape of eastern Colorado can be expected to look substantially different by the end of 2025. The plans — approved conceptually in a series of meetings during recent weeks by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission —will yield thousands and thousands of new wind turbines during the next few years scattered across eastern Colorado, likely massive amounts of solar, and game-changing amounts of storage. I can’t cite precise numbers, because they are yet to be worked out.
More clear is the transmission needed for this farm-to-market delivery of renewable energy: up to 650 miles of high-strung wires looping around eastern Colorado in a project called Power Pathway. Also possible is a 90-mile extension from a substation north of Lamar to the Springfield area.
Driving this hurried, gold rush-type of development in Colorado’s wind-rich regions is the state’s determination to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electrical generation during this decade. It aims to do this even as it displaces use of fossil fuels in transportation and for space and water heating in buildings.
A hard deadline is imposed by the expiration of federal tax credits for wind and solar at the end of 2025.
An Xcel representative, Amanda King, had testified to the importance of completing the first two Power Pathway transmission segments sooner rather than later. The PUC commissioners cited that testimony in their June 2 decision approving the transmission lines:
“The company asserts that by having these segments in-service by the end of 2025, wind and solar developers will be able to interconnect resources prior to the expiration of the production tax credit and step-down of the investment tax credit, which would represent cost savings of approximately $300 million per (gigawatt) of interconnected wind capacity and $100 million per (gigawatt) of interconnected solar capacity, in net present value, to customers,” the decision said.
“It’s a pretty amazing amount of infrastructure that needs to go into the ground in a really short time,” says one individual, a stakeholder in the PUC process, speaking on condition of confidentiality.
Because of that exigency, a written decision is likely in July, no later than August. Appeals by Xcel or other stakeholders could delay the actual green light, but not for long.
For some, this represents a triumph of arguments going back almost two decades.
“It helps unleash the innovation we need to build the 21st century electrical system,” said Leslie Glustrom, who wears various hats but was speaking as a representative of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society the day I talked with her.
She uses the metaphor of inheritance vs. income. In this case, fossil fuels are the inheritance. In the future we must live off the income of renewables.
“If you were lucky enough to have a big inheritance you could buy three houses and five condos,” she said. Living off income poses a major challenge, she says, especially if you haven’t acquired the skills you need.
“We can do it,” she adds, “especially if we are better at matching our demands to the times when we have an abundance of wind and solar.”
Risk is inherent in this process of transition. But risk cuts both ways, as pointed out by Gwen Farnsworth, senior policy advisor for Western Resource Advocates. The PUC deliberations are focused on how to evaluate those risks of relying upon fossil fuel generation in terms of system reliability and climate change. The commission, she says, is “pushing Xcel so that its future resources are cleaner, more flexible and more reliable.”
With this triumph also comes anxiety. The three commissioners used the word “uncertainty” maybe a dozen times when they deliberated during a long afternoon on June 10.
“We are making decisions about billions of dollars of investments under conditions that may have unprecedented uncertainty,” said Eric Blank, the chair, while mentioning climate change, inflationary pressures, rising labor costs, and supply chain disruptions.
Renewables won’t be the steal they were in 2018. Demand has grown. This is the gold rush. California alone wants to add 8,000 megawatts of renewable generation.
Closely related is the growing concern about “resource adequacy” mentioned by Commissioner Megan Gilman and also Commissioner John Gavan. Can Xcel keep the air conditioners on during a really, really hot day—or, as in February 2021, on a very cold day?
After, I talked with Jeffrey Ackermann, the chair of the PUC for four years prior to Blank, to get his big-picture assessment of what this represents.
“I think everyone – regulators and utilities, but stakeholders, too – are eager to move forward while also realizing that you can’t get it mostly right. It has to be 100% right.”
Ackermann was referring to the greater complexity of the electrical grid being assembled with its more diverse resources and greater interplay between utilities and consumers. The stakes have also elevated.
Overlay that onto the burgeoning Western markets that are still taking shape, which provokes new questions about resource adequacy and reserve margins. What if the interconnected utilities from Montana to New Mexico get struck by a heat wave at the same time?
In the PUC handling of this complex case, Ackermann commends his successor, Blank.
“I like how this chairman has sequenced the conversation,” he said. “It affirms the complexity of this and also the uncertainty. At the same time it doesn’t shy away from realizing that some tough decisions need to be made now if you want to achieve 2030 goals and beyond. It’s a tough balance.”
Ron Lehr, who chaired the PUC beginning in 1983, concedes the complexity, acknowledges the uncertainty – although pointing out that in 1983, interest rates stood at 18%. (I can confirm; I was suffocating that year, paying 21% interest on my loan for a purchase of a trailer in Granby).
Colorado’s planning process, says Lehr, deserves credit. For outsiders, it’s maddeningly complex and anything but transparent. Even those deeply engaged in the process sometimes get frustrated with the filing system at the PUC. Joe “Schmo,” public citizen? Fuggedaboutit.
Despite these shortcomings, Lehr argues the process itself has been very effective and has improved over time. It creates a forum for diverse voices to exchange ideas.
That process yields some crackpot ideas, he said, “but you weed through them. Then you can diversify your thinking and create a lower-risk template that can attract investment from the private sector.”
Colorado’s process, he added, has drawn national attention for yielding lots of bids for electrical generation — and lower prices.
“The more inclusive and integrated our planning and the more far-sighted the planning, the better we can handle the uncertainty,” he told me.
The story about moving on from coal is the easy story here, but Lehr thinks a side story – about the impacts of Winter Storm Uri on natural gas prices in Colorado — will move the needle past natural gas, too.
“Gas is a bankrupt long-term strategy. You don’t have it when you need it.”
Back to the metaphor of rebuilding the airplane in mid-flight. It was given to me by Mike Kruger, the chief executive of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, and in a far more colorful way than I’ve articulated here.
We wouldn’t be remodeling this plane in flight if it wasn’t necessary, he says. Yes, uncertainties exist, and likely new uncertainties will become apparent. But the status quo of centralized fossil fuel generation isn’t working.
“We have to try something.”
Despite its cumbersome aspect, he believes Colorado’s legal structure and the stakeholders – Xcel but also the business, consumer, environmental, government, and other groups – have enough flexibility to respond rapidly if necessary.
“If in two and a half years we find we missed the mark on something, I would be surprised if the industry and the environmental and labor groups and Xcel would not be able to figure how to correct it quickly.”
That brings up Colorado’s newest coal plant, not quite a dozen years old, and also its largest, at 750 megawatts: Comanche 3.
(Some refuse to call it by that name in the belief that it besmirches tribal people. I couldn’t help note that almost invariably in the PUC discussions it was referred to as unit 3 or Pueblo unit 3.” Maybe Leslie Glustrom’s rants on this are being heard).
When the plant was formally approved in 2005, Colorado’s first major wind farm, Colorado Green, located near Lamar, had just begun producing electricity. It was the future, not coal, but most utilities had not yet gotten that memo. Tri-State was about to start spending $100 million on a humongous coal plant downstream along the Arkansas River in Kansas—a decision from which it has not fully recovered. And, of course, Comanche 3 cost upwards of $1 billion in today’s dollars. Xcel still had humongous debt, a central issue in how soon it is retired.
Coal’s rapid fall from favor and competitiveness is told in these numbers. The fuel produced 66% of Xcel’s electricity for Colorado retail and wholesale customers in 2005. Last year It had fallen by more than half, to 32%. It should be close to zero by 2030. (Xcel may still buy some power from the market that will come from coal plants).
As Noah Long of the Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out in a May 25 posting, this electric resource plan being approved could put Xcel on track to achieve approximately 90% carbon emissions’ reductions as compared to 2005 when Comanche closes, no later than New Year’s Eve of 2030.
Actually, the plant will likely close before then, perhaps long before.
Operations of Comanche will be determined, in part, by a new filter, the social cost of carbon, as specified by new Colorado laws in the last several years.
Another element of the plan being approved by the PUC will create a performance-incentive mechanism (PIM, in the acronym-heavy soup of PUC discussions) to give Xcel financial incentives to steer the plant with decarbonization goals in mind.
The PUC commissioners are going beyond the settlement agreement submitted to them in May by Xcel and the various stakeholder groups. At the suggestion of Blank, the commissioners plan to adopt an additional review governing operations and management that is to be tripped if another major investment is needed to continue operations of the plant.
At issue is how much money will be poured into propping up what one person close to these proceedings described as a “dog.” The analogy is to a car. At what point do you just walk away from it?
“Five years down the road we may have another turbine-bearing outage, and it just isn’t worth it,” said Commissioner Gavan, alluding to the cause of the most recent outage that has had “Pueblo unit 3” off-line for most of 2022 (it’s back in operation now). It was also off-line for most of 2020.
It seemingly has been cursed with problems since it began operations in the summer of 2010. The latest evidence was the deaths of two men in a slide of coal outside the plant on June 5. Their bodies were found under about 60 feet of coal.
A sharper definition of the closing should come into view during a “Just Transition” proceeding that begins in 2024. That proceeding will consider another round of new generation, presumably renewables, likely with a preference for those that can be added to property tax rolls in Pueblo County, to compensate for the loss of property tax there as the coal plants get retired.
In all this, the PUC has much balancing to do. Xcel is ultimately responsible for reliability of electricity, the PUC in protecting the interests of ratepayers. At least in theory – and I believe in practice – both have an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while Xcel has the additional motivation of delivering profits to investors.
This gets into a complex area of cost-recovery. As Glustrom points out, “these are not insignificant numbers.” The Colorado Renewable Energy Society documented undepreciated assets of the Hayden coal units of somewhere around $70 million, the Pawnee plant at Brush of $170 million, Comanche 3 even more.
Glustrom has long argued that state regulators allow Xcel and its investors unreasonably large returns on their investments. The authorized rate of return is 9.3%. If the utility’s decisions are risk free, then the return on equity should be below 5%, she says. Most everybody else is inclined to be more generous to Xcel than Glustrom.
What almost certainly will come into play is a concept called securitization. It’s fundamentally a way for an investor-owned utility to shuffle its debt into lower-interest long-term bonds. This will be part of the process going forward and, once again, could alter the retirement date of Comanche 3.
This area of cost recovery, almost certainly will be controversial – and might trigger an appeal by Xcel.
Three of the many additional elements of this deserve mention.
One is the idea advanced by Blank to give Xcel some leeway to begin planning and incurring expenses for gas-fired generation, but also wind, solar, and storage – with the expectation that the company will be able to recoup costs short of actual commissioning construction of the assets. It’s called “pre-construction development assets.”
This provision reflects the concern about the uncertainties and fluidities that Blank talked about in the June 10 meeting. This gives the company some rope to move forward but only so far.
Status of water
Another new element never seen before in Colorado – and perhaps no other state, either – is a provision that Xcel must report the status of its water rights associated with its retiring coal plants. Think particularly of Hayden, although Xcel has an interest in the coal plants at Craig, too. And then there is Comanche 3.
At first glance, this seems like a strange requirement. After all, Colorado state government already has a Division of Water Resources. Why does the PUC need to poke its nose into water?
That was essentially Xcel’s argument. The PUC commissioners, though, hesitated not at all in embracing this requirement
The idea had been advanced by Western Resource Advocates. WRA’s Ellen Howard Kutzer explains the expansive view here: Water is an essential component of the coal-fired steam plants built by the monopoly to create a public good, the production of electricity. As the coal plants go, the PUC should have some purview over the disposition of those assets. And Xcel has the staff that can provide the essential information in a way that is understandable to PUC staff.
True, the state water agency gets the same information. But the water world gets weirdly wonky at times. So, Xcel’s water staff can translate it for non-water-wonks. It won’t be a major imposition.
But why does this information matter?
Xcel likely has not decided, and certainly has not disclosed, what it will do at Hayden. It has talked about molten salt but has not dismissed the possibility for green hydrogen or other technologies that may – or may not – be ready for prime time. They can involve water.
The way Western Resource Advocates sees the water, it should be considered as part of the just transition process for Yampa Valley communities. The water that is kept there will most benefit the local communities.
The fear here is of water export, particularly to the Front Range. I dove deeply into this in late 2019 and early 2020 on behalf of Aspen Journalism. Geography matters entirely here. Exporting the water would require pumping it over two mountain ranges. That’s a big lift. That said, money has surfaced recently to reanimate the even bigger stretch of exporting water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to the Front Range, so who knows.
Just how much water is involved in water for the coal plants? I forget the precise volumes, but they are not as much as you might think, but neither were they insignificant. Importantly, they have relatively high seniority.
WRA’s position, Howard Kutzer said, is that it’s not right to leave the utility to do with the water entirely what it pleases.
“They used these public resources to create a public good, so ultimately — not now, but in the future — the PUC should be able to say whether transferring those water rights is in the public interest.”
Level playing field for storage
Finally, the PUC affirmed their support for the treatment of storage proposed by Colorado Solar and Storage.
“Storage will be a critical path to getting the grid of the future that we want,” said Gilman at the June 10 meeting of the commissioners in endorsing the recommendation of the trade group.
The critical issues here are of the value assigned to storage and the role of private operators in providing that storage as opposed to company-owned storage. The limitations of storage are well known. Lithium-ion batteries currently can store reserves for about four hours. Because of that, Xcel Energy wanted to assign a lower value, but others wanted a higher value. This outcome favors higher value and hence greater incentive for private developers to propose projects.