Proposal Outlines Constructive Approach to Achieve Necessary Water Use Reductions through 2026 to Protect Critical Infrastructure, Prioritize Public Health and Safety
California water agencies that rely on the Colorado River today proposed a modeling framework for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to evaluate as it considers actions to help stabilize reservoir elevations and protect critical infrastructure to ensure the Colorado River system can continue to support 40 million people, nearly 6 million acres of agriculture, and Tribes across seven states and portions of Mexico.
The modeling framework outlines a constructive approach to achieve additional water use reductions while protecting infrastructure, prioritizing public health and safety, and upholding the existing body of laws, compacts, decrees, and agreements that govern Colorado River operations (known collectively as the Law of the River). The approach builds on the California agencies’ commitments announced last fall to voluntarily conserve an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water each year through 2026 to protect storage in Lake Mead and help stabilize the Colorado River reservoir system.
California’s proposed framework seeks to protect Lake Mead elevation of 1,000 feet and Lake Powell elevation of 3,500 feet by modifying some parameters governing reservoir operations, maximizing the impact of existing plans and voluntary conservation actions, and increasing cutbacks if Lake Mead elevations decline. It also protects baseline water needs of communities across the West by prioritizing water supplies for human health and safety. The proposal was carefully developed to enable workable phased water use reductions and ensures protection of adequate water volumes in Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
“The alternative provides a realistic and implementable framework to address reduced inflows and declining reservoir elevations by building on voluntary agreements and past collaborative efforts in order to minimize implementation delays. California’s alternative protects critical elevations and uses adaptive management to protect critical reservoir elevations through the interim period,” — JB Hamby, chair of Colorado River Board of California and California’s Colorado River Commissioner, wrote in a transmittal letter to Reclamation.
The approach differs from a modeling proposal submitted to Reclamation on January 30 by the six other basin states. The six-state proposal would direct the majority of water use reductions needed in the Lower Basin to California water users through a new apportionment method based on “system and evaporative losses.” The proposal directly conflicts with the existing Law of the River and the current water rights system and mandates cutback without providing tools to manage reductions.
For the past several months, California water users have sought a timely, practical and implementable solution with other Lower Basin users that can be implemented over the next three years to protect critical elevations in Lake Mead while longer-term changes are negotiated to update 2007 Interim Guidelines that will expire at the end of 2026. Suggestions to fundamentally change the Law of River are appropriately addressed through this shared process to update the guidelines.
California’s water agencies remain committed to working with all Colorado River basin states to take urgent, fair, and achievable action now to avoid unacceptable risks to communities, farms and economies in California and the rest of the basin.
For decades, California has been a leader in managing its Colorado River water resources and collaborating in basin-wide efforts to more effectively operate and manage the reservoir system and to incentivize water conservation as demands have increased in the face of shrinking supplies due to climate change.
In 2003, California permanently reduced its use of Colorado River water from about 5.2 million acre-feet annually to its basic apportionment of 4.4 million acre-feet, a permanent annual reduction in water use of about 800,000 acre-feet. The reduction in use resulted from implementing a combination of agricultural and urban conservation activities. Since 2003, water users in California have taken significant actions to conserve Colorado River water, adding over 1.5 million acre-feet and 20 feet of elevation of conserved water to Lake Mead since 2007. California water users committed to further conservation to bolster storage in Lake Mead through the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. California has invested billions of dollars in urban and agricultural conservation across Southern California, through programs that reach virtually every Colorado River water user in the state.
“Twenty years ago, California adopted the largest water conservation-and-transfer agreement in U.S. history that not only supports the bulk of our nation’s food system but also sustains the environment. This multi-billion-dollar conservation-focused framework – the Quantification Settlement Agreement – is the blueprint for other states to follow. California has done its part and is willing to do more, but it’s time for the other states to step up and create their own conservation programs that sustain the quality of life in their communities,” said Jim Madaffer, vice chair of the Colorado River Board of California, representing the San Diego County Water Authority.
“For over 20 years, Metropolitan has met the challenge of reducing our use of Colorado River water, and we are committed to doing more now. But we must do it in a way that does not harm half of the people who rely on the river – the 19 million people of Southern California. We must do it in a way that does not devastate our $1.6 trillion economy, an economic engine for the entire United States. We must do it in a way that can be quickly implemented, adding water to lakes Mead and Powell without getting mired in lengthy legal battles. We must do it in a way that maintains and strengthens partnerships on the river, allowing us to work together to build longer term solutions. The proposal presented today by California does all of this by equitably sharing the risk among Basin states without adversely affecting any one agency or state. The plan presented yesterday, which shut out California, does not. California knows how to permanently reduce use of the river – we have done it over the past 20 years, through billions of dollars in investments and hard-earned partnerships. We can help the entire Southwest do it again as we move forward,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
“The Colorado River – Imperial Valley’s only source of water – supports far more than our rural disadvantaged community as it provides for a robust agricultural industry that feeds millions of people and provides food security for this nation. California, and particularly the Imperial Irrigation District, is working to be part of the solution, however we also believe in upholding the Law of the River and not shouldering the burden of supply limitations for states and agencies that have outgrown their water rights. California has spent the past two decades successfully working together to resolve intra-state supply and demand imbalances to sustain the Colorado River. Since the signing of the Quantification Settlement Agreement, the largest ag-to-urban water conservation and transfer agreement in U.S. history, IID’s water management programs have generated over 7.2 million acre-feet in support of the Colorado River system. Today, IID and its California partners have proposed a balanced and implementable plan that begins to address the monumental challenges we face with the ongoing Colorado River drought,” said Henry Martinez, general manager, Imperial Irrigation District.
“Historically, CVWD and our agricultural community have invested heavily in its irrigation delivery system to minimize water loss, including canal lining projects, a closed pipe irrigation distribution system and installing drip irrigation. We have prioritized the efficient use of Colorado River water over the long term. We also took action last year with other California agencies to voluntarily identify a collection of Colorado River water conservation and reduction actions to save 400,000 acre-feet annually through 2026. We support our California partners and are committed to reaching a 7-basin state consensus on a framework for additional water use reductions through 2026,” said Jim Barrett, general manager, Coachella Valley Water District.
“One-hundred and forty-six years ago, the original developers of our Palo Verde Valley filed and were granted the very first water rights to Colorado River water. Secured by those rights, farmers and farm workers have invested multiple generations of farm loans and hard work to produce food and fiber for consumers. Surrounding our agriculture are small rural cities that depend exclusively upon Colorado River water for their domestic supply. Farmers and landowners in Palo Verde Irrigation District want to be part of a solution to the current mismatch of supply and demand on the River in a manner that honors existing Public Law, and Administrative Law,” said Bart Fisher, president, Palo Verde Irrigation District Board of Trustees.
“The Colorado River has been the lifeblood of the Quechan people since time immemorial, and we have a deep and abiding responsibility to be good stewards of the River – for the Tribe and its members, for the species and ecosystems that it sustains, and for the benefit of our fellow tribes and non-Indian neighbors throughout the Basin. It is why we have always fought for and will continue to defend our water. The modeling proposal submitted by the State of California to the Bureau of Reclamation for inclusion as part of its development of the SEIS reflects a meaningful effort to address the hydrologic challenges facing the Basin while respecting the senior water rights of the Tribe and others and ensuring that the Colorado can continue to exist as a living river,” said Quechan Tribal Council President Jordan Joaquin.
Click the link to read the article on the AZCentral.com website (Brandon Loomis). Click through for the photo gallery, here’s an excerpt:
Late last year, the federal government asked the seven states that share the Colorado River’s water to submit a plan by the end of January to rapidly cut their use of water or face mandatory cuts. Six of them found a consensus proposal andsubmitted their idea on Tuesday. The seventh — California — is an ominous exclusion, given that it is the largest water user on the river and could thwart efforts to preserve the system if it presses its rights in court. Even so, water policy experts found it encouraging that six states could come together to present the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation with a state-driven option, one that fast-forwards through a plan devised 15 years ago…One of the proposal’s authors, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger, said talks with California would continue.
“We absolutely intend to continue to work in good faith with California,” he told The Arizona Republic. “I don’t see the fact that that six states submitted a letter as any sort of declaration of failure.”
Reclamation officials have said river users must cut between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet to stabilize the system. Officials from the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — believe their plan will save 3.3 million. Each acre-foot contains about 326,000 gallons and is enough to supply two or three households, though roughly 80% of the river’s water is applied on farms…
“You’re just rolling the dice on an extremely high-percentage chance that these reservoirs are going to continue to decline and you could go below minimum-power pool at Lake Powell and dead pool at Lake Mead,” he said.
“This is what climate change + an out-dated law of the river looks like: ‘There’s a problem of aridification. But on top of that, there’s a problem with the rules…The rules governing the system are not sustainable.’ — Jonathan Overpack via Twitter
The river’s biggest water user, California, didn’t join six states in a proposal to cut some 2 million acre feet of usage
For the second time in six months, states that depend on the Colorado River to sustain their farms and cities appear to have failed to reach an agreement on restricting water usage, setting up the prospect that the federal government will make unilateral cuts this year…
“Obviously, it’s not going swimmingly,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the former general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a water provider that is a major player in the talks. “It’s pretty tough right now.”
The proposal by the six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — seeks to protect the major reservoirs in Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling below critical levels, such as when the dams would no longer be able to generate electricity or at “dead pool,” when water would effectively be blocked from flowing out of these lakes. Before above-average snows in recent weeks, the Bureau of Reclamation was projecting that Lake Powell could start to reach such thresholds by this summer.
One of the central tensions of these complicated negotiations is how to balance cuts between farming regions against those in cities, including major population centers. Agriculture uses some 80 percent of the river’s water and also tends to have the most senior rights, some dating back to the 19th century. The way this “priority system” works, residents of Phoenix would lose water before vegetable farmers in Yuma. Those who grow alfalfa in Southern California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys would keep their water before people in parts of Los Angeles.
Kightlinger, along with many other water experts and officials, says cuts of this magnitude and severity have to be shared, rather than doled out according to seniority.
“They can’t follow the priority system. That would be a disaster. That would be: We’re basically going to put all the cuts on the major share of the economy. That just simply can’t be reality,” he said.
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:
Six of the seven states that use water from the Colorado River have agreed on a proposal to leave more water in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir. California, which has the largest and oldest water rights in the region, was the lone holdout. The proposal was sent to the Bureau of Reclamation as the federal agency considers adjusting the amount of water released from Lake Mead and Lake Powell each year…
“I think the fact that six states are willing to issue this letter without California being on board shows the gravity of the situation for them,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “I’m sure they all would have preferred to have California be a cosigner of this, and it just shows how seriously they’re all taking this.”
The six-state proposal, branded as the “Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative” would add about 1.5 million acre-feet to Lake Mead in each of the next two years. That’s roughly the same amount of water that is lost each year due to evaporation and inefficient infrastructure. The plan attempts to correct an accounting problem. Each year, some water users in Nevada, Arizona and California are legally entitled to water in Lake Mead that does not physically exist, because it evaporates off of the reservoir’s surface before it ever has a chance to flow downstream. The total amount of evaporated water varies each year depending on reservoir levels and weather. Accounting for that quantity of lost water could get the basin’s users closer to the needed conservation to slow the decline of water levels at Lake Mead. Without changes, federal scientists say the reservoir will continue dropping towards “minimum power pool,” the level at which hydropower generation within the Hoover Dam becomes impossible, and “deadpool,” the level at which water is too low to flow through the dam at all…
California released details of its own proposal to Reclamation late Tuesday. The state suggested the adoption of a water-saving plan it first outlined last October. Under that plan, the state would voluntarily cut back on its water use from the Colorado River use by 400,000 acre-feet – about 9% of its total annual use – each year until 2026. In a press release, the state’s Colorado River board wrote that its proposal would reduce water use while “protecting infrastructure, prioritizing public health and safety, and upholding the existing body of laws, compacts, decrees, and agreements that govern Colorado River operations.” California’s proposal emphasizes the state’s desire to follow existing legal structures for river management, and says further steps could be taken if water levels at Lake Mead dip below 1,000 feet above sea level.
Click the link to read the article on the Arizona Department of Water Resources website:
January 30, 2023 – Today, states sharing the Colorado River submitted a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) that outlines a Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative for Reclamation to evaluate and incorporate into its development of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to revise current Operating Guidelines (’07 Guidelines) for Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell and Hoover Dam at Lake Mead.
Revisions to the ’07 Guidelines are necessary to protect critical elevations and infrastructure within the two reservoirs to ensure the Colorado River system – which has been significantly impacted by more than two decades of prolonged drought exacerbated by clime change and depleted storage – can continue to serve more than 40 million people, approximately 5.5 million acres of irrigated farmland, Basin Tribes, environmental resources, and power production across seven states and portions of Mexico.
The states of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming jointly submitted the Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative, and the states remain committed to working cooperatively with their local water users, the federal government, other Basin States, Basin Tribes, non-governmental organizations and stakeholders throughout Reclamation’s environmental review and in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
While the Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative is not a formal agreement between the Colorado River Basin States, it serves as an alternative framework for Reclamation to analyze in its SEIS process. It provides an approach to help protect Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam infrastructure, water deliveries, and power production to mitigate the risk of either Lake Powell or Lake Mead reaching dead pool.
The Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative includes, but is not limited to, the following modeling criteria for Reclamation to consider and analyze:
Adjustments to the existing ‘07 Guidelines, including reduced releases from Lake Powell and Lake Mead to ensure the deliverability of water downstream and power production.
Adjustments to Lower Basin contributions required under Drought Contingency Plan.
Accounting for more than 1.5 million acre-feet of losses within the Lower Basin that arenecessary to protect infrastructure.
Additional combined reductions of 250,000 acre-feet to Arizona, California and Nevada at LakeMead elevation 1,030 feet and below.
Additional combined reductions of 200,000 acre-feet to Arizona, California and Nevada at LakeMead elevation 1,020 feet and below, as well as additional reductions necessary to protect LakeMead elevation 1,000 feet.
Actions outlined within the Upper Basin State’s Drought Response Operations Agreement.
Additional voluntary conservation measures that take into account hydrologic shortage in theUpper Division States.
“This modeling proposal is a key step in the ongoing dialogue among the Seven Basin States as we continue to seek a collaborative solution to stabilize the Colorado River system,” said Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
“The CBMA includes the significant and necessary step of assessing evaporation and transit losses against Lower Basin uses. The Lower Basin actions operate in coordination with additional actions in the Upper Basin. We can only save the Colorado River system if we act together. The CBMA approach appropriately distributes the burden across the Basin and provides safeguards for the Tribes, water users, and environmental values in the Upper Basin,” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado Commissioner, Upper Colorado River Commission and Director Colorado Water Conservation Board of the Colorado River Department of Natural Resources.
“The CBMA is a vital step forward as Reclamation considers new additional actions to operate the Colorado River system for the next few years. We recognize that the process to prepare a proposal in such a short timeframe was imperfect. We need to continue discussions among all 7 Basin States and to engage directly with tribal leaders and others as we prepare to move forward with the components of the CBMA across the Upper and Lower Basin. We have much more to do, but the CBMA is a tremendous step in the right direction.” said Estevan Lopez, New Mexico Colorado River Commissioner.
“The challenge we continue to face is dry hydrology and depleted storage across the Colorado River Basin. The CBMA provides a path forward so that every state can contribute to finding a solution in close collaboration with our Tribes and water users,” said Gene Shawcroft P.E, Utah Colorado River Commissioner.
“The concepts identified in the CBMA are a significant step toward building the consensus necessary to take incredibly challenging but vital actions to address the crisis on the River. We look forward to continuing to work with all the States to build on the CBMA concepts and move forward together,” said Brandon Gebhart, Wyoming State Engineer.
A copy of the Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative is linked here.
Media Contacts: Arizona Department of Water Resources:
Douglas MacEachern, firstname.lastname@example.org, 602-771-8507
Colorado Department of Natural Resources
Chris Arend, email@example.com, 303-264-8615
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:
The federal government has asked them to weigh in on tweaks to how the river is managed, and could force water cutbacks if states can’t come up with their own plan to reduce demand before February. That’s no small task for states deadlocked in a years-long standoff over how to cut back demand on a river that supplies 40 million people and a multibillion-dollar agricultural sector. Each of those states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California — each bring a varied set of interests and motivations to the negotiating table to ensure any cutbacks don’t hit them harder than the rest…The Bureau of Reclamation will investigate plans for future releases regardless of whether the states agree on their own plan for cutbacks, and says the states “imposed an unofficial deadline on themselves for January 31, 2023, to ensure that their ideas were included in the draft SEIS process.”
“The notion of a certain date for states to submit their plans was the result of the states’ own recognition of the timing constraints of the supplemental process,” wrote Tyler Cherry, a Department of Interior spokesperson, in an email to KUNC. “States’ contributions to the process began during the scoping period and will continue throughout the comment period.”
Sources tell KUNC that delegates from the seven states have met in Colorado in recent days to hash out a deal, but the details of that meeting have been kept behind closed doors, and experts don’t see an obvious outcome. Negotiations are difficult — and have been for decades — because of the river’s diverse user base and complex, multi-layered governance system. While the river supplies major cities such as Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, 80% of its water is used for agriculture. Farmers in southern California have some of the oldest, and most protected water rights in the Colorado River Basin.
“What you’re talking about are people’s livelihoods and farmers’ livelihoods,” said John Berggren, a water policy analyst at the conservation group Western Resource Advocates. “If you’re an irrigator or a rancher or a farmer, your water is your most important asset.”
While we eagerly await whatever it is that might happen this week as the Colorado River basin states struggle to come up with a short term plan to use less water…
It’s a crazy time, and I worry about our collective capacity, but the river can’t wait, so buckle up!
A brief refresher is perhaps in order
THE SUPPLEMENTAL EIS
I emerged from the writing cave (new book underway about the Rio Grande, which is a mostly a different river entirely) to share my thoughts about this week’s “deadline” (which as I explained isn’t really a “deadline”) for the seven Colorado River basin states to come up with a plan for managing the river for the next several years. This is a short-term effort, an attempt to limp through the 2025-26 time frame without breaking things. It requires temporary rules to reduce water use as needed in the Lower Basin, maybe some water use reductions in the Upper Basin, and tweaks to the reservoir operations rules to keep from breaking Glen Canyon Dam.
“EIS” here stands for “Environmental Impact Statement”, the process by which Reclamation will analyze our choices before picking one.
The key words here are short term.
THE REAL EIS
Post-2026, we need a much more robust and long-lasting framework for using less water and not breaking the dams and trying to respect tribal sovereignty and our evolving societal values around respect for the environment in the face of climate change stealing a bunch of our water.
In that regard, Reclamation has launched an expansive effort to help us collectively, as a society, think through these options.
A bunch of us wrote them letters last year telling them what we thought they should think about. They’ve summarized them nicely (pdf here). My favorite part is the people from Costa Rica and the UK who weighed in. This is a far-reaching issue.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN THE SUPPLEMENTAL EIS AND THE REAL EIS
One of the difficulties in sorting out the near-term plans is that everyone’s angling for the high ground in the long-term plans. There’s a fear among water managers that if in the short term they demonstrate that they’re able to get by with less water, they’ll get screwed long term. A lot of what we figure out in the short term will echo into the long term.
In season one of the Simpson’s, there’s a great episode called “Homer’s Odyssey” where Homer Simpson gets fired from the nuclear power plant and then becomes a citizen safety advocate who gets speed bumps and stop signs installed in Springfield, and Homer becomes a revered community leader, and Mr. Burns hires him back to become the chief safety officer at the nuclear power plant.
You didn’t think I meant reciting the entire Homeric epic, did you? I fear one episode of the Simpsons is the most we can hope for right now.
Click the link to read the article on the Associated Press website (Kathleen Ronayne and Felicia Fonseca). Here’s an excerpt:
Competing priorities, outsized demands and the federal government’s retreat from a threatened deadline stymied a deal last summer on how to drastically reduce water use from the parched Colorado River, emails obtained by The Associated Press show…
“We are out of time and out of any cushion to allow for a voluntary plan,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told a Bureau of Reclamation official in a July 18 email…
As 2023 begins, fresh incentives make the states more likely to give up water. The federal government has put up $4 billion for drought relief, and Colorado River users have submitted proposals to get some of that money through actions like leaving fields unplanted. Some cities are ripping up thirsty decorative grass, and tribes and major water agencieshave left some water in key reservoirs — either voluntarily or by mandate. Reclamation also has agreed to spend $250 million mitigating hazards at a drying California lake bed, a condition of the state’s water users agreeing to cut their use by 400,000 acre feet in a proposal released in October. The Interior Department is still evaluating proposals for a slice of the $4 billion and can’t say how much savings it will generate, Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said in an interview…
Figuring out who absorbs additional water cuts has been contentious, with allegations of drought profiteering, reneging on commitments, too many negotiators in the room and an unsteady hand from the federal government, the emails and follow-up interviews showed. California says it’s a partner willing to sacrifice, but other states see it as a reluctant participant clinging to a water priority system where it ranks near the top. Arizona and Nevada have long felt they’re unfairly forced to bear the brunt of cuts because of a water rights system developed long ago, a simmering frustration that reared its head during talks…But state officials said when it became clear the federal government wouldn’t act unilaterally, it created a “chilling effect” that removed the urgency from the talks because water users with higher-priority water rights were no longer at risk of harsh cuts, Arizona’s Buschatzke said in an interview…
Reclamation is now focused on weighing the latest round of comments from states on how to save the river. Nevada wants to count water lost to evaporation and transportation in water allocations — a move that could mean the biggest volume of cuts for California — and some Arizona water managers agree, comment letters obtained by the AP show. But disputes remain over how to determine what level of cuts are fair and legal. California’s goal remains protecting its status while other states and tribes want more than old water rights taken into account — such as whether users have access to other water sources, and the effects of cuts on disadvantaged communities and food security. Reclamation’s goal is to get a draft of proposed cuts out by early March, then a final decision before mid-August, when Reclamation regularly announces how much — or how little — river water is available for the next year.
“Think of the Colorado River Basin as a slow-motion disaster,” said Kevin Moran, who directs state and federal water policy advocacy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re really at a moment of reckoning.”
Negotiators say the odds of a voluntary agreement appear slim. It would be the second time in six months that the Colorado River states, which also include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, have missed a deadline for consensus on cuts sought by the Biden administration to avoid a catastrophic failure of the river system. Without a deal, the Interior Department, which manages flows on the river, must impose the cuts. That would break from the century-long tradition of states determining how to share the river’s water. And it would all but ensure that the administration’s increasingly urgent efforts to save the Colorado get caught up in lengthy legal challenges. The crisis over the Colorado River is the latest example of how climate change is overwhelming the foundations of American life — not only physical infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, but also the legal underpinnings that have made those systems work.
A century’s worth of laws, which assign different priorities to Colorado River users based on how long they’ve used the water, is facing off against a competing philosophy that says, as the climate changes, water cuts should be apportioned based on what’s practical. The outcome of that dispute will shape the future of the southwestern United States.
“We’re using more water than nature is going to provide,” said Eric Kuhn, who worked on previous water agreements as general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Someone is going to have to cut back very significantly.”
The rules that determine who gets water from the Colorado River, and how much, were always based, to a degree, on magical thinking…But the premise that the river’s flow would average 17.5 million acre-feet each year turned out to be faulty. Over the past century, the river’s actual flow has averaged less than 15 million acre-feet each year. For decades, that gap was obscured by the fact that some of the river’s users, including Arizona and some Native American tribes, lacked the canals and other infrastructure to employ their full allotment. But as that infrastructure increased, so did the demand on the river. Then, the drought hit. From 2000 through 2022, the river’s annual flow averaged just over 12 million acre-feet; in each of the past three years, the total flow was less than 10 million.
Another deadline to establish new cutbacks in water use in the seven-state Colorado River Basin is quickly approaching on January 31, 2023, as states continue their talks, as ordered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
In addition to the cutbacks, several other key decisions also lie ahead in the coming weeks, including how a $125 million, broad-based water conservation pilot program would operate, whether a permanent water conservation program known as demand management could work among the Upper Basin states, and how the third-year of an emergency drought plan, known as the Drought Response Operations Agreement, will function this spring and summer.
All are tied to reducing short-term and long-term demands on the drought-strapped river as part of a five-point plan put forward by the Upper Basin states last summer. In releasing that plan, the Upper Basin recognized its effectiveness would hinge on additional actions to reduce use in the Lower Basin.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation late last year had given the seven basin states until Jan. 31 to come up with a new agreement on water reductions, after an August deadline had passed.
Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said talks were continuing but that more work and specific plans from California, Arizona and Nevada would be necessary to reach an agreement and take action.
“The basin states, the federal government, and the tribes have been working collaboratively and tirelessly to find potential points of consensus on short-term actions to protect lakes Powell and Mead,” Mitchell said Monday at a meeting of the Colorado Water Conservation Board in Aurora.
“I continue to believe strongly that the Lower Basin states must take action to reduce their demands out of Lake Mead.
“We are moving forward on our commitments, but it is important to recognize that those commitments and that work alone mean nothing if the Lower Basin use continues as it has been,” she said. She also stressed the importance of considering what must occur in the Lower Basin before Colorado moves forward with widespread participation in the System Conservation Pilot Program.
The basin is divided into two regions. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, while the Lower Basin covers Arizona, California and Nevada.
Last summer U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered the states to figure out how to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet by August, but no agreements have been reached. Now the states, along with tribal leaders and the feds are aiming to agree to cuts by Jan. 31. If no consensus is reached next week, it leaves the possibility that the federal government will decide how to make the cuts in the coming weeks.
As lakes Powell and Mead have dwindled, all seven states have had to get by with less water and federal forecasts indicate that is likely to be the case for several more years.
Since December, the water forecast has improved slightly thanks to heavy mountain snows in Utah and Colorado, according to Michelle Garrison, a water resources specialist at the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“Snowpack and runoff in all of western Colorado and Utah is quite a bit above average … but from here on, it could get really dry just like it did last year. So folks need to be prepared to plan for a continued wet or a sudden drop to really dry or anything in between as they’re looking forward,” Garrison told the board.
Now 23 years into a megadrought widely believed to be the worst in 1,800 years, the highly developed river system is on the brink of collapse, with lakes Powell and Mead falling dangerously close to dead pool, a water level so low that, if it is reached, Powell won’t be able to produce hydropower and Mead won’t be able to serve the millions of people in the Lower Basin who rely on the river.
The river begins in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains, high in Rocky Mountain National Park. It gathers water from major tributaries in Colorado, such as the Yampa and Gunnison rivers, and throughout the Upper Basin, accumulating some 90% of the streamflow that it will provide throughout the seven-state river system thanks to the runoff from the Upper Basin’s deep mountain snows.
But since 2002, those mountain snowpacks have been shrinking, crushed by warming temperatures and fewer snow days.
Beginning in July of 2021, the U.S. Department of the Interior ordered, for the first time, emergency releases from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs. But that has done little to restore levels, although the releases are credited with providing some protection to the power supply.
While Lower Basin states have been forced to begin cutting back water use under a special set of operating guidelines and drought plans approved respectively in 2007 and 2019, negotiations in recent months have failed to achieve the federally ordered cutbacks. Upper Basin states are considering new programs and actions to further cut Upper Basin water use, but are hoping for additional Lower Basin commitments before taking additional water use reductions of their own.
At the same time, the drought has continued, and this winter could be dry once again, particularly in the Lower Basin. In response, last week, the federal government announced it would expedite negotiations on a new set of operating guidelines designed to protect lakes Powell and Mead to help restore the river.
Under the terms of the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the river’s supplies are divided equally between the Upper and Lower basins. But because the Upper Basin states have smaller and fewer reservoirs than the Lower Basin, users here have had to cut back their water use as the drought has continued. At the same time, Lower Basin users have been able to rely on stored supplies in Powell and Mead, at least until now.
Looking ahead, Jessica Brody, who represents the Metro Basin on the CWCB Board of Directors, said she would like to see more time taken before critical Upper Basin decisions are made, including participation in the $125 million System Conservation Pilot Program, which is accepting applications through Feb. 1.
“I’m a little bit concerned about the Feb. 1 deadline when we don’t yet know whether the Lower Basin will be able to come to the table in terms of reducing the demands in the Lower Basin,” Brody said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Today, the water stored behind them is so diminished that the federal government has warned of “system collapse.” The two reservoirs are dangerously close to dead pool, the point at which the water level sinks below the dams’ intakes. At risk are the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River water supply and a substantial share of the U.S. agricultural economy, not to mention the hundreds of bird species and every other living thing that depends on the basin’s rivers as habitat.
How did this happen? The river is legally overallocated, the basin is experiencing extended drought conditions, and climate warming is exacerbating the drought. Perhaps most significantly, consumptive water uses in the past 20 years have exceeded supply. Rather than reducing water uses a little bit year over year, those who control the river (water users, state and federal agencies) largely sustained consumptive uses by draining those reservoirs. Now that they are nearly emptied, that strategy won’t work anymore, and the region is in for a rough transition.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has initiated a process to substantially reduce water releases from Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams as soon as next year (see “Notice of Intent to Prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the December 2007 Record of Decision Entitled Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations For Lake Powell and Lake Mead” as published in Federal Register Notice – 87 FR 69042 on November 17, 2022). This will allow Reclamation to change Colorado River operations in the near-term without having to enact “emergency measures” (read: not subject to environmental review) as they did in 2022. This is taking place at the same time that Reclamation is working with stakeholders on a longer-term process to revise Colorado River operating rules post-2026.
In response to Reclamation’s most recent request for public comment regarding near-term changes to Colorado River operations, Audubon submitted a letter asking for considerations for birds and other living things that depend on the river. We expect to comment again once Reclamation issues a draft plan, likely in March.
Today [January 23, 2023], Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper urged the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to consider allocating additional funding from the recent omnibus funding bill for Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23) or the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) for the Arkansas Valley Conduit (AVC).
The AVC is a planned 130-mile water-delivery system from the Pueblo Reservoir to communities in Bent, Crowley, Kiowa, Otero, Prowers, and Pueblo counties. The Conduit is the final phase of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which Congress authorized in 1962.
“[T]he Conduit has been one of Colorado’s top priorities for nearly six decades,” wrote the senators. “Continuing to invest in this project will allow the project’s stakeholders to plan for more effective construction and delivery of clean drinking water throughout Southeast Colorado.”
In the letter, the senators highlight the $60 million allocated for the construction of the AVC from the BIL last fall, and ask BOR to allocate additional funds, which could be immediately applied to help advance different components of the AVC.
“For years, this project languished due to insufficient funding and a prohibitive cost-share agreement,” continued the senators. “Congressional appropriations over the past decade coupled with BOR’s recent $60 million award will finally enable the construction of this long-promised project. More investment, from the FY23 omnibus or future BIL awards, would accelerate the construction timeline and improve planning efficiency.”
Bennet and Hickenlooper have consistently advocated for increased funding for the AVC. The FY23 omnibus spending bill, which was signed into law in December, included $10.1 million for the Conduit after Bennet and Hickenlooper urged the Senate Appropriations Committee to continue to fund the project last May. In October, the senators visited Pueblo to celebrate the announcement of $60 million in BIL funds for the Conduit. The senators and U.S. Representative Ken Buck (R-Colo.) urged the OMB and BOR in July to allocate these funds. In March, Bennet and Hickenlooper secured $12 million for the Conduit from the FY22 omnibus bill. Prior to FY22, Bennet helped secure more than $70 million for the AVC. Bennet and Hickenlooper will continue working in Washington to ensure Colorado has the resources needed to complete this vital project for the region.
In 2009, Congress passed legislation Bennet worked on with former U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) to authorize a federal cost share for the construction of the Arkansas Valley Conduit. In 2013, Bennet and his colleagues sent a letter to the BOR to quickly approve the Conduit’s Environmental Impact Study (EIS) in order to expedite the project’s pre-construction process. In 2014, following Bennet and Udall’s efforts to urge the BOR to quickly approve the Conduit’s EIS, the Record of Decision was signed in February. Bennet joined the groundbreaking for the project in October 2020.
The text of the letter is available HERE and below.
The 1956 Colorado River Storage Project Act has had a significant impact on the development and management of water in the Upper Colorado River Basin. The 1956 act authorized construction of the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) which allowed for comprehensive development of the water resources of the Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) by providing for long-term regulatory storage of water for purposes including, regulating the Colorado River, storing water for beneficial use, allowing Upper Basin States to utilize their Colorado River Compact apportionments, providing for the reclamation of arid lands, control of floods and generation of hydroelectric power. The Colorado River Storage Project is one of the most complex and extensive river resource developments in the world.
There are four initial storage units built as part of the CRSP:
and a number participating projects (16 of which have been completed or are in process of completion). The purposes of the CRSP identified in the 1956 act include regulating the flow of the Colorado River, storing water for beneficial consumptive use, providing for reclamation of arid and semi-arid lands, providing flood control, and generating hydropower. The CRSP also provides for recreation and improves conditions for fish and wildlife.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, public concern over the environment resulted in new federal environmental laws. The enactment of the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and the 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act outlined new requirements for the protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife, and the environment. Administration of these laws has modified the operation of CRSP facilities.
The dams of the CRSP main storage units have a combined live storage capacity of 30.6 million acre-feet and power generation capabilities to provide over five billion kilowatt-hours of energy annually. Glen Canyon Dam is the largest of the CRSP facilities and is the key unit for controlling water releases to the Lower Basin. In 1970, the Criteria for Coordinated Long-Range Operation of Colorado River Reservoirs (Operating Criteria) was established to provide for the coordinated operation of reservoirs in the Upper and Lower basins and set conditions for water releases from Lake Powell and Lake Mead. In accordance with the Operating Criteria, an objective release of 8.23 million acre-feet per year is targeted for downstream delivery.
The multipurpose CRSP has not only been integral to the development of the arid West, it has also played a vital sustaining role through extended periods of drought. The many benefits provided by the CRSP are essential to life in the West today.
Reclamation crews at Glen Canyon Dam recently completed a new water intake connection to accommodate the low water levels at Lake Powell. These efforts ensure water will be delivered to the city of Page, Arizona, and the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation even if Lake Powell drops to 3,370 feet. Elevation 3,370 feet is known as “dead pool” and is the point at which no “excess” water can be passed through the dam, only the volume of water that enters the reservoir will be able to be delivered downstream.
Lake Powell’s elevation is expected to drop to a post-filled, all-time low (below 3,522.24) before the end of the month and projections show that this year it is at risk of dropping below minimum power pool (elevation 3,490 feet), which is the lowest point the dam can currently generate hydropower. The increased risk to Lake Powell’s water level also raised concern about the stability of the local water supply.
The city of Page was first established in 1957 for workers who were constructing Glen Canyon Dam.& In 1975, Page became a municipality, which prompted an agreement with Reclamation to deliver raw water from Lake Powell to their municipal water system, which now delivers treated water to the area’s 7,500 residents, the Navajo Nation community of LeChee, and the local businesses that serve an estimated 3 million tourists each year.
With the completion of this project, the water delivery system can now draw water from Lake Powell at three different elevations: (1) the main intake at a reservoir elevation of 3,480 feet, (2) the backup which taps into two penstocks and can access water at elevation 3,462 feet, and (3) the latest and lowest intake which taps into two bypass tubes (also referred to as river outlet works) and can access water as low as elevation 3,362 feet.
“Working with personnel from the city of Page and the LeChee Chapter, we started looking for solutions,” said Reclamation Upper Colorado Basin Region Deputy Power Manager Bob Martin. “Our engineers and mechanical crews explored a number of possible options, and we came up with a relatively easy solution to a potentially large problem for the people who rely on this water source.”
This latest intake was made possible through an extension of the original water agreement with the city of Page. Crews at Glen Canyon Dam started construction in October and completed the project in December of 2022. The city provided the supplies and paid for the labor.
“The design and construction of this project is proof of Reclamation’s commitment to addressing prolonged drought and critically low reservoir levels,” said UCB Regional Director Wayne Pullan. “We face the impacts of aridification together. The lower water intake at Glen Canyon Dam provides additional water security—the promise of a continued dependable and reliable water supply.”
As Lake Mead continues to decline toward dead pool, federal officials are requesting the Colorado River states to offer major cuts in water usage.
Nevada has responded with a detailed and innovative plan set forth in a December 20, 2022 letter to the Bureau of Reclamation, calling for basic reform of water management throughout the entire Colorado River system. It is centered on protecting water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead with new rules for apportioning reduced water deliveries throughout the system.
The plan assures that water levels behind Glen Canyon Dam in the upper basin will not fall below a level necessary to protect hydropower production and the structure of the dam itself.
For Lake Mead in the lower basin the plan would set rules assuring that water levels cannot fall below a new “Lake Mead Protection Level” sufficient to provide an 18 month reserve for “public, health and safety” of municipal users.
The plan calls on the three lower Basin states, Arizona, California and Nevada, to offer a million and a half acre feet of reductions, in addition to cuts previously agreed upon in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). This new round of cuts calls for “equitable sharing of evaporation and system losses” among the three states in proportion to their “average annual consumptive use for the period 2019 to 2021.”
Reaching consensus on such an inventive, far reaching proposal, will take time. The seven basin states and the Interior Department have until 2026, when current regulations expire, to reach agreement on new rules.
However, one critical provision—the 1.5 million acre feet reduction in diversions from Lake Mead—cannot wait that long. It must be agreed upon and implemented immediately to avoid disaster.
Arizona and California have not responded in public. They remain on the sidelines, unable to summon the political will to either agree or to propose an alternative.
The reason Arizona and California are internally deadlocked can be summed up in one word: agriculture. Irrigated agriculture uses more than 70 percent of the water allocated to the two states from Lake Mead. A fair settlement will not be possible unless agriculture takes its share of the cuts.
Agricultural Irrigation districts in Arizona and California resist offering cuts, claiming an absolute priority under century-old legal doctrines. They claim an unqualified priority right to continue growing alfalfa for cattle feed that comes ahead of an adequate water supply for Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego and Los Angeles.
The Interior Department has the power to break this deadlock. The department, as water master of the lower Colorado River, has broad authority over water allocation and management. A federal regulation, known as Section 417, gives the department authority to limit agricultural water deliveries to that amount “reasonably required for beneficial use.”
What is reasonably required is a judgment that can take into account many factors, including the needs of cities, towns, power plants, mineral extraction, recreation, and more. And what is reasonable for irrigation allocations in normal years may be entirely unreasonable when Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon Dam and the entire Colorado River system are at risk of collapse.
It is now time for the Interior to use its Section 417 authority for an expansive review of all agricultural use contracts and to reduce allocations to reflect a fair measure of burden sharing. This review should begin in an open and transparent process without further delay.
Bruce Edward Babbitt is an attorney and politician from the state of Arizona. A member of the Democratic Party, Babbitt served as the 16th governor of Arizona from 1978 to 1987, and as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of the interior from 1993 to 2001.
That fabled Hassayampa is in the news these days, down in Arizona. The Hassayampa River does exist, by the way: an intermittent stream that flows off the south slopes of the Colorado Plateau, and down through a desert valley west of the sprawling phenomenon of Phoenix, where it joins the Gila River, which in turn joins the Colorado River down near Yuma and the Mexican border.
A new development has been proposed for the lower Hassayampa Valley, catering to those trying to stay out ahead of the sprawl: the Howard Hughes Corporation wants to turn 37,000 acres of Sonoran desert land there, just west of the White Tank Mountains, into a new development, Teravalis, with 100,000 homes for maybe 300,000 people, and 55 million square feet of commercial space. According to a story in the New York Times, ‘Teravalis is seen by local and state leaders as a crowning achievement in a booming real estate market.’
Truly someone has been drinking from the fabled Hassayampa. Teravalis, in fact, plans to tap an aquifer under the Hassayampa Basin for a water supply for this massive development; they will all be drinking from the Hassayampa. Some Arizonans have, however, looked at the naked facts about water supplies in the desert, and the Phoenix area has a law in effect stating that every development has to show evidence that it has a 100-year water supply, and can replace groundwater it consumes. This law was mandated back in 1980 by the Interior Department, as a condition for funding and constructing the Central Arizona Project that brings water 300 miles from the Colorado River to the Phoenix-Tucson corridor. (The law, it should be noted, only applies to urban ‘Active Management Areas,’ and does not apply to the non-urban parts of the state where agriculture consumes a much larger share of the state’s water.)
Teravalis is on hold for now, under that law, until a believable estimate is made of how much water the Hassayampa aquifer actually contains. But – this is only one of several new developments proposed for the Phoenix area alone; remember that Arizona is one of the seven Colorado River states that have been told by the Interior Department that they must collectively cut their water consumption by maybe as much as a third, to prevent a collapse of the region’s water supply system, centered on storage in Mead and Powell Reservoirs.
Yet the Teravalis story is replicated in all seven of those states to some extent; each state has at least one metropolitan area that continues to spread like a cowflop on a flat rock, ever outward into dry lands. We have one right here in the little City of Gunnison where I live, spreading out into our pastureland, that is just completing its infrastructure of pipes and wires. We are a very small ‘city’ of five or six thousand that will never be considered a metropolis or even a micropolis (he bravely projects, back here in 2023), but when our ‘Teravalis’ is built out, mid-century, our current population will have increased by 30 percent, plus or minus.
We seem to be oriented to grow even when we sense that it might be unwise. American historian Richard White commented on this in his history of the West, It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own. Parsing what he saw as the post-World War II ‘rise of the metropolitan West,’ he credited it mostly to a cycle of planning based on growth, created by ‘what scholars have called growth networks – that is, alliances of bankers, corporate executives, real estate interests, politicians, and labor leaders… [which] gained popular support by arguing that growth equals prosperity.’ We are, in short, culturally and economically organized for growth; it is who and what we are: the growth network creates new jobs for newcomers in the growth industries, building Tervalises for another wave of newcomers who will be employed by the growth industries in building ever newer Teravalises for et cetera et cetera….
Most of the West’s SMAs (Statistical Metropolitan Areas) today boast about the fact that, despite major increases in population, they are actually distributing about the same amount of water they were distributing around 1970. This means that people are using significantly less per capita than they were around 1970 – which is to say: they are conserving water, or using what they use in more efficient fixtures, or both. But this does not necessarily improve their situation. It just ensures enough water for more people to move to their SMA, which (even with sprawl) increases the general density of humanity in the SMA, which causes more traffic congestion, more people in the parks and pools, more queues for restaurants and DMVs, and generally a diminishing quality of life. Conservation loses some of the romantic radiance of civic virtue when the citizen realizes conservation functions mostly to make things available for ever more people.
The development plans do get better and more resource conscious – more ‘watersmart,’ to use a popular buzzword. But they are still intended to fill up with new people who will be using a water resource that we now know is not just limited, but is diminishing. Five or six percent more of it just disappears back to the atmosphere with every degree we increase the ambient temperature – a relentless process of increase that will be facilitated by our development here in the Upper Gunnison, as well as Phoenix’s and everyone else’s. This is not just the usual dire and depressing predictions by scientists; it is what we are already seeing in the diminishing Colorado River water supply – down 20 percent over the last 40 years (faster even than predicted by prescient scientists).
One wants to ask, about that ‘naked fact’ cited in scores of articles about the river just this year: why are there 40 million of us are living in the driest parts of the continent, with more of us coming all the time to fill up these developments? The short answer to that question: we have become a swarming species on the planet – the biologist’s descriptor for a species over which natural ecosystemic processes have lost control. We have been, over the past 10,000 years, a remarkably adaptive species, able to fit into practically every land-based environment, and we have become the dominant species in all of those environments, thriving and increasing at the expense of most of their other animal and plant inhabitants. The deserts are not the only place where there are so many of us; nearly everywhere we go – there we are, lots of us, and more coming all the time.
Through the romantic prisms of what we call civilization, we have been a remarkable success, and all indications are that we plan to become even more successful. It is clear that there is no public will for trying to rein in the swarm, to put limits on our population expansion. When nature tries to control us, bring us back into some degree of balance with the rest of creation, we declare open war on nature and its controls – no COVID or cancer will have its way with us! We fight on all fronts for a world in which people do not die of diseases or malfunctioning parts, a world in which no children die before they are grown, in which everyone can live to be 100, 110, 140, or maybe someday forever.
In other words, we demonstrate through our works and our wars, that we are not going to limit or control ourselves – the first species with the capacity to successfully challenge the often harsh natural systems that restore balance in species swarms. Therefore – so it seems to me – we give ourselves no choice but to make the planet ever more human-centered, to direct ever more of its resources and systems to the meeting of our ever-expanding needs and wants. To put this another way – we can applaud ourselves for quickly finding a vaccine for the COVID virus nature threw at us, but we have to put that in the context of our very active participation in the greatest species die-off since an asteroid took out the dinosaurs and much of the rest of nature’s life project millions of years ago. Is there any other alternative way of seeing what’s going on? Am I missing something?
That is where we find ourselves today, at any rate, in the Colorado River region: confronting the challenge of fitting a finite and even diminishing essential resource to an apparently unlimited demand. ‘Teravalis is seen by local and state leaders as a crowning achievement in a booming real estate market.’ It’s Teravalises all the way down – down, in that particular case, to an unquantified aquifer related to an intermittent desert stream from whose fabulous waters all humankind seems to want to drink. Does anyone really doubt, at this point, that the Hassayampa aquifer, or that aquifer combined with a pipe from some other aquifer, or some even more complex plumbing arrangement, will be proven to be sufficient to provide Teravalis with the radiant vision of a 100-year water supply? It’s the economy, stupid.
As I write here, we are tracking toward a February deadline set by the Interior Department/Bureau of Reclamation, mandating that the ‘seven city-states of Cibola’ come up with massive cuts in the consumptive use of the Colorado River’s waters – at least two million acre-feet, maybe up to four, in order to ‘save’ the river’s storage and distribution system. If the states fail at this (as they did with an earlier Interior deadline), then the Interior Department will make the cuts for them (as they threatened or promised, but didn’t do, when the states failed to meet that earlier deadline). This time, presumably, they really mean it.
This time, the state with the smallest share of the river, Nevada, has drafted up a plan that the other states have agreed is at least a reasonable way to start discussions. If it can be hammered with its current numbers into something acceptable to all the states, even California, it would reduce consumptive use this coming year by around 2.5 million acre-feet. Most of it would come out of the Lower River Basin’s water budget, and would include things like finally acknowledging that their share of the river includes responsibility for the evaporation from their reservoirs and fields. The Upper River Basin would be contributing maybe half a million acre-feet, since its usage quantification already reflects its evaporation plus most of the depletions to date from climate change. (The Upper River Basin produces 80-90 percent of the river’s entire flow.)
The goal, according to Nevada officials, is to share the pain across the entire system. That seems like a reasonable goal – except that it is at odds with the most sacred cow in western water use, the appropriations doctrine, which says that junior appropriators should bear the pain before any senior users are asked to. A ‘naked fact’ that California – holder of the largest senior appropriations on the river – has already been asserting. But as John Entsminger, General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has said, ‘If 27 million Americans don’t have water, then those laws will not be followed.’
But… again: what are 27 million, or 40 million, or by mid-century 60 million people doing, demanding water from a modest and diminishing river in the desert lands of the Southwest? I ask myself, being one of them. And can only think to say: Welcome to the Anthropocene. Still all radiant with the color of romance, which lets us still think that a water supply problem is somehow a problem with the water supply…. The second century of the Anthropocene awaits the woke. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile – a belated wish, to all of you who have read this far, for a good year coming: a year filled with wondrous things, like a union between our naked facts and the radiant color of romance that would not be merely cultureporn; a year filled with interesting things that are not merely the fulfillment of a Chinese curse; a year in which we learn to distinguish between a river in trouble and a civilization in trouble.
Brian Wong has a lot on his shoulders. A third-generation farmer, Wong grows crops — including nearly extinct heritage grains like white Sonora wheat — on 4,500 acres in the heart of the parched Sonoran Desert, about 25 minutes northwest of Tucson, Arizona. Bakeries, restaurants, breweries, and flour mills as far away as Minnesota and Florida rely on his grain to sustain their own businesses.
Wong’s BKW Farms is among the 80 percent of the state’s agricultural producers that rely on the Colorado River to irrigate their crops. And with the Colorado at precariously low levels, his family business faces its largest challenge in nearly 85 years. “We have a great understanding of and place great importance on water,” Wong says. “Water is something you need in almost every aspect of agriculture. Everything we grow is irrigated. We need to have a water source to put on the crops so we can continue growing food.”
All of the water irrigating Wong’s farm arrives via the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a 336-mile canal system that shuttles Colorado River water to customers throughout the state. Altogether, the Colorado irrigates 5 million acres of farm and ranch land across seven Southwestern states and Mexico. It supplies 40 million people with drinking water and supports a $1.4 trillion economy.
But climate change, extreme drought, and explosive population growth are taking an enormous toll on the river. The Colorado and its two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, dwindled to calamitously low levels in 2022, forcing the U.S. Department of the Interior to declare, for the first time in history, a Tier 1 Water Shortage. The declaration triggered deep cuts in the volume of Colorado River water delivered to Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico. Arizona agriculture took the biggest hit because CAP is on par to get 30 percent less water from the shrinking river. Even deeper restrictions will go into effect in 2023, with cities and Tribes shouldering more of the brunt.
Alongside farmers like Wong, American Rivers is urgently working together with partners at utilities, municipalities, and conservation groups to fix the massive imbalance between demand and a shrinking Colorado River.
From working with ranchers to restore habitat in the river’s headwaters, to encouraging municipalities to use less and eliminate unnecessary uses of valuable Colorado River water, to working on new guidelines for long-term management of the river, American Rivers is involved in decisions that span 1,700 miles of the Colorado River, from its headwaters in Colorado to its delta in Mexico.
“The hard truth is, there just isn’t enough water to go around for everyone,” Wong says.
We have to learn to live with a smaller Colorado River. Wong says the way forward is by partnering with advocates like American Rivers, who work with policymakers and stakeholders to elevate stories and shape water-management strategies into the future.
The bottom line is that “I” doesn’t work. We all rely on rivers, and water, and their continued existence. Our future demands that we invest boldly and immediately in strategies that will work — and that will build for all of us the kind of future we want for our children.
The system for irrigating is vastly different between Wyoming and Imperial Valley, and because of this, water negotiators of the region have vastly different points of view. In the Green River Basin, there are 2500 gates diverting water onto ranchers’ lands, but in the greater scheme of things, the basin is essentially a collector system. Some of those far-flung gates are “unregulated,” or unmonitored. The Green River has 2,000 named natural tributaries. Accurately measuring the supply and consumption of water in such a system is a work in progress.
In the Imperial Valley, we have one gate diverting water from the Colorado River. It is where Imperial Dam turns water into the All-American Canal. While the Green River Basin is a collector system like the roots of a tree, ours is a distribution system like the branches to the leaves. The IID has 5500 gates. Since every one of them is monitored by the IID, water supply and consumption are easy to measure with gauges throughout the system.
Water management is a world apart as well. In the Green River Basin, there are thirty-seven small water distribution agencies, both public and privately owned, often with zero or a handful of fulltime employees. There are irrigation districts, conservancy districts, ditch companies, and canal companies. Ranchers, and often non-agricultural property owners, pay an assessment, or a flat fee, or a per-acre fee, or a price per share for water delivery. The water itself is owned by the state of Wyoming and is made available for free. The overseer of all this is the Wyoming State Engineer, which in turn has a representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, the governing agencies for the Upper Basin states.
In the Imperial Valley, the Imperial Irrigation District is the sole holder of water rights to Colorado River water and the sole manager for water distribution. Here, as in all the Lower Basin States, the Bureau of Reclamation is our overseer. With nearly 500 employees in its water division, IID outguns the whole state of Wyoming for water workers about 2 to 1. The Bureau also supplies IID’s 3.1 million acre-feet of water for free, and IID charges farmers $20 an acre-foot (af), a fee subsidized by revenue from the transfer of water to the San Diego County Water Authority. Industrial water users pay a much higher fee…
So far, the cuts that Mother Nature has forced on Wyoming and others in the Upper Basin states, and the cuts agreed to by Arizona, Nevada, and California, are far below the amount necessary to save the reservoirs from circling the drain in the next few years. Negotiators have until the end of this month to reach consensus on a plan to satisfy the Bureau of Reclamation’s demand for 2-4 million acre-feet of cuts in water use next year. We’re all unhappy in our own way on the Colorado River. Like the sparsely populated Cowboy state, we can only fight the good fight against the odds.
Click the link to access the paper from the Utah State University website (John C. Schmidt, Maggi Kraft, Daphnee Tuzlak, and Alex Walker | November 10, 2016):
The Fill Mead First (FMF) plan would establish Lake Mead reservoir as the primary water storage facility of the main-stem Colorado River and would relegate Lake Powell reservoir to a secondary water storage facility to be used only when Lake Mead is full. The objectives of the FMF plan are to re-expose some of Glen Canyon’s sandstone walls that are now inundated, begin the process of re-creating a riverine ecosystem in Glen Canyon, restore a more natural stream-flow, temperature, and sediment-supply regime of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon ecosystem, and reduce system-wide water losses caused by evaporation and movement of reservoir water into ground-water storage. The FMF plan would be implemented in three phases. Phase I would involve lowering Lake Powell to the minimum elevation at which hydroelectricity can still be produced (called minimum power pool elevation): 3490 ft asl (feet above sea level). At this elevation, the water surface area of Lake Powell is approximately 77 mi2, which is 31% of the surface area when the reservoir is full. Phase II of the FMF plan would involve lowering Lake Powell to dead pool elevation (3370 ft asl), abandoning hydroelectricity generation, and releasing water only through the river outlets. The water surface area of Lake Powell at dead pool is approximately 32 mi2 and is 13% of the reservoir surface area when it is full. Implementation of Phase III would necessitate drilling new diversion tunnels around Glen Canyon Dam in order to eliminate all water storage at Lake Powell. In this paper, we summarize the FMF plan and identify critical details about the plan’s implementation that are presently unknown. We estimate changes in evaporation losses and ground-water storage that would occur if the FMF plan was implemented, based on review of existing data and published reports. We also discuss significant river-ecosystem issues that would arise if the plan was implemented.
The cuts that are needed are on an unprecedented scale, and officials will be fighting an uphill battle against a deep, multi-year drought to get them done. State officials tried drastic measures to cut their usage this year, but the river’s continued decline was an alarming reality check…Experts told CNN that even with a good winter and spring runoff season, water managers still need to plan for the worst-case scenario.
“You can’t live with no water in the reservoirs hoping for good years; you need to refill the system,” Eric Kuhn, former manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, told CNN. “People realize that you can’t live on the brink of disaster.”
Anxiety is growing in the West as reservoir levels plummet. Negotiations between the states on voluntary water cuts have been tense and closely watched, particularly between the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. Those talks have stalled amid disagreement on how much water each state should sacrifice and how much money farmers, tribal nations and cities should be paid to reduce their water consumption. State negotiators are themselves waiting for the feds to decide how it will dole out $4 billion in drought relief money, which the Biden administration fronted from the Inflation Reduction Act to essentially pay people to not use water.
“I would not say it has put anything on hold,” Buschatzke told CNN.
In response to sufficient flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 350 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 300 cfs for Tuesday, January 3rd, at 4:00 AM.
Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell). The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
Nevada water managers have submitted a plan for cutting diversions by 500,000 acre-feet in a last-ditch effort to shore up flows on the Colorado River before low water levels cause critical problems at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams. But the Silver State’s plan targets cuts in Utah and the river’s other Upper Basin states, not in Nevada, whose leaders contend it already is doing what it can to reduce reliance on the depleted river system that provides water to 40 million in the West.
“It is well past time to prohibit the inefficient delivery, application, or use of water within all sectors and by all users; there simply is no water in the Colorado River System left to waste and each industrial, municipal, and agricultural user should be held to the highest industry standards in handling, using, and disposing of water,” states a Dec. 20 letter the Colorado River Commission of Nevada sent to the Interior Department. “It is critical that Reclamation pursue all options that will help reduce consumptive uses in the Basin and provide water supply reliability.”
One option Nevada offers is for Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming to accept substantial cuts in the amount of river they tap to ensure enough water reaches Lake Powell to keep Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower turbines spinning and Lake Powell functioning as a reservoir…The proposal comes in the form of Nevada’s official comments to the supplemental environmental impact statement the Bureau of Reclamation is preparing for proposed changes to the operations of the drought-depleted reservoirs. One of three Lower Basin states, Nevada called on the Upper Basin states to reduce their withdrawals by a combined 500,000 acre-feet if Lake Powell’s level is projected to drop below 3,550 feet above sea level at the start of the coming calendar year…Today, the lake’s level is already far below than that, at 3,525.7 feet, just 35 feet above the point at which Glen Canyon Dam’s turbines would be damaged if water passes through the penstocks.
“The reason [The Upper Colorado River Commision’s] five-point plan doesn’t have any specific numbers is because we don’t know what’s ahead of us. We don’t know whether the runoff is going to be 7 million acre-feet or 20 million acre-feet,” Shawcroft said. “The real challenge is the hydrology. But we know for a fact that that we’re not going to be able to continue operating the river like we always have. The majority of the water gets used in the lower basin states, but does that mean that Upper [Basin] states are off the hook? I don’t think they are.”
Click the link to read the article on the KJZZ websits (Ron Dungan). Here’s an excerpt:
Colorado River Basin states recently gathered in Las Vegas for their annual water users convention. The states are trying to figure out how to get by with less water. The conference focused on a variety of topics, such as new technology, conservation and funding that will guide water users into the next century. But federal water managers say that new conservation measures need to be put in place or they will impose cuts.
On a crisp day this fall I drove southeast from Grand Junction, Colorado, into the Uncompahgre Valley, a rich basin of row crops and hayfields. A snow line hung like a bowl cut around the upper cliffs of the Grand Mesa, while in the valley some farmers were taking their last deliveries of water, sowing winter wheat and onions. I turned south at the farm town of Delta onto Route 348, a shoulder-less two-lane road lined with irrigation ditches and dent corn still hanging crisp on their browned stalks. The road crossed the Uncompahgre River, and it was thin, nearly dry.
The Uncompahgre Valley, stretching 34 miles from Delta through the town of Montrose, is, and always has been, an arid place. Most of the water comes from the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, which courses out of the peaks of the Elk Range through the cavernous and sun-starved depths of the Black Canyon, one rocky and inaccessible valley to the east. In 1903, the federal government backed a plan hatched by Uncompahgre farmers to breach the ridge with an enormous tunnel and then in the 1960s to build one of Colorado’s largest reservoirs above the Black Canyon called Blue Mesa. Now that tunnel feeds a neural system of water: 782 miles worth of successively smaller canals and then dirt ditches, laterals and drains that turn 83,000 Western Colorado acres into farmland. Today, the farm association in this valley is one of the largest single users of Colorado River water outside of California.
I came to this place because the Colorado River system is in a state of collapse. It is a collapse hastened by climate change but also a crisis of management. In 1922, the seven states in the river basin signed a compact splitting the Colorado equally between its upper and lower halves; later, they promised additional water to Mexico, too. Near the middle, they put Lake Powell, a reserve for the northern states, and Lake Mead, a storage node for the south. Over time, as an overheating environment has collided with overuse, the lower half — primarily Arizona and California — has taken its water as if everything were normal, straining both the logic and the legal interpretations of the compact. They have also drawn extra releases from Lake Powell, effectively borrowing straight out of whatever meager reserves the Upper Basin has managed to save there.
This much has become a matter of great, vitriolic dispute. What is undeniable is that the river flows as a much-diminished version of its historical might. When the original compact gave each half the rights to 7.5 million acre-feet of water, the river is estimated to have flowed with as much as 18 million acre-feet each year. Over the 20th century, it averaged closer to 15. Over the past two decades, the flow has dropped to a little more than 12. In recent years, it has trickled at times with as little as 8.5. All the while the Lower Basin deliveries have remained roughly the same. And those reservoirs? They are fast becoming obsolete. Now the states must finally face the consequential question of which regions will make their sacrifice first. There are few places that reveal how difficult it will be to arrive at an answer than the Western Slope of Colorado.
In Montrose, I found the manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, Steve Pope, in his office atop the squeaky stairs of the same Foursquare that the group had built at the turn of the last century. Pope, bald, with a trimmed white beard, sat amid stacks of plat maps and paper diagrams of the canals, surrounded by LCD screens with spreadsheets marking volumes of water and their destinations. On the wall, a historic map showed the farms, wedged between the Uncompahgre River and where it joins the Gunnison in Delta, before descending to their confluence with the Colorado in Grand Junction. “I’m sorry for the mess,” he said, plowing loose papers aside.
What Pope wanted to impress upon me most despite the enormousness of the infrastructure all around the valley was that in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River system, there are no mammoth dams that can simply be opened to meter out a steady release of water. Here, only natural precipitation and temperature dictate how much is available. Conservation isn’t a management decision, he said. It was forced upon them by the hydrological conditions of the moment. The average amount of water flowing in the system has dropped by nearly 20%. The snowpack melts and evaporates faster than it used to, and the rainfall is unpredictable. In fact, the Colorado River District, an influential water conservancy for the western part of the state, had described its negotiating position with the Lower Basin states by claiming Colorado has already conserved about 28% of its water by making do with the recent conditions brought by drought.
You get what you get, Pope tells me, and for 15 of the past 20 years, unlike the farmers in California and Arizona, the people in this valley have gotten less than what they are due. “We don’t have that luxury of just making a phone call and having water show up,” he said, not veiling his contempt for the Lower Basin states’ reliance on lakes Mead and Powell. “We’ve not been insulated from this climate change by having a big reservoir above our heads.”
He didn’t have to point further back than the previous winter. In 2021, the rain and snow fell heavily across the Rocky Mountains and the plateau of the Grand Mesa, almost as if it were normal times. Precipitation was 80% of average — not bad in the midst of an epochal drought. But little made it into the Colorado River. Instead, soils parched by the lack of rain and rising temperatures soaked up every ounce of moisture. By the time water reached the rivers around Montrose and then the gauges above Lake Powell, the flow was less than 30% of normal. The Upper Basin states used just 3.5 million acre-feet last year, less than half their legal right under the 1922 compact. The Lower Basin states took nearly their full amount, 7 million acre-feet.
All of this matters now not just because the river, an unwieldy network of human-controlled plumbing, is approaching a threshold where it could become inoperable, but because much of the recent legal basis for the system is about to dissolve. In 2026, the Interim Guidelines the states rely on, a Drought Contingency Plan and agreements with Mexico will all expire. At the very least, this will require new agreements. It also demands a new way of thinking that matches the reality of the heating climate and the scale of human need. But before that can happen, the states will need to restore something that has become even more scarce than the water: trust.
The northern states see California and Arizona reveling in profligate use, made possible by the anachronistic rules of the compact that effectively promise them water when others have none. It’s enabled by the mechanistic controls at the Hoover Dam, which releases the same steady flow no matter how little snow falls across the Rocky Mountains. California flood-irrigates alfalfa crops destined for cattle markets in the Middle East, while Arizona takes water it does not need and pumps it underground to build up its own reserves. In 2018, an Arizona water agency admitted it was gaming the timing of its orders to avoid rations from the river (though it characterized the moves as smart use of the rules). In 2021, in a sign of the growing wariness, at least one Colorado water official alleged California was repeating the scheme. California water officials say this is a misunderstanding. Yet to this day, because California holds the most senior legal rights on the river, the state has avoided having a single gallon of reductions imposed on it.
By this spring, Lake Powell shrank to 24% of its capacity, its lowest levels since the reservoir filled in the 1960s. Cathedral-like sandstone canyons were resurrected, and sunlight reached the silt-clogged floors for the first time in generations. The Glen Canyon Dam itself towered more than 150 feet above the waterline. The water was just a few dozen feet above the last intake pipe that feeds the hydropower generators. If it dropped much lower, the system would no longer be able to produce the power it distributes across six states. After that, it would approach the point where no water at all could flow into the Grand Canyon and further downstream. All the savings that the Upper Basin states had banked there were as good as gone.
In Western Colorado, meanwhile, people have been suffering. South of the Uncompahgre Valley, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe subsists off agriculture, but over the past 12 months it has seen its water deliveries cut by 90%; the tribe laid off half of its farmworkers. McPhee Reservoir, near the town of Cortez, has teetered on failure, and other communities in Southwestern Colorado that also depend on it have been rationed to 10% of their normal water.
Across the Upper Basin, the small reservoirs that provide the region’s only buffer against bad years are also emptying out. Flaming Gorge, on the Wyoming-Utah border, is the largest, and it is 68% full. The second largest, Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, is at 50% of its capacity. Blue Mesa Reservoir, on the Gunnison, is just 34% full. Each represents savings accounts that have been slowly pilfered to supplement Lake Powell as it declines, preserving the federal government’s ability to generate power there and obscuring the scope of the losses. Last summer, facing the latest emergency at the Glen Canyon Dam, the Department of Interior ordered huge releases from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and other Upper Basin reservoirs. At Blue Mesa, the water levels dropped 8 feet in a matter of days, and boaters there were given a little more than a week to get their equipment off the water. Soon after, the reservoir’s marinas, which are vital to that part of Colorado’s summer economy, closed. They did not reopen in 2022.
As the Blue Mesa Reservoir was being emptied last fall, Steve Pope kept the Gunnison Tunnel open at its full capacity, diverting as much water as he possibly could. He says this was legal, well within his water rights and normal practice, and the state’s chief engineer agrees. Pope’s water is accounted for out of another reservoir higher in the system. But in the twin takings, it’s hard not to see the bare-knuckled competition between urgent needs. Over the past few years, as water has become scarcer and conservation more important, Uncompahgre Valley water diversions from the Gunnison River have remained steady and at times even increased. The growing season has gotten longer and the alternative sources, including the Uncompahgre River, less reliable. And Pope leans more than ever on the Gunnison to maintain his 3,500 shareholders’ supply. “Oh, we are taking it,” he told me, “and there’s still just not enough.”
On June 14, Camille Touton, the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Department of Interior division that runs Western water infrastructure, testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and delivered a stunning ultimatum: Western states had 60 days to figure out how to conserve as much as 4 million acre-feet of “additional” water from the Colorado River or the federal government would, acting unilaterally, do it for them. The West’s system of water rights, which guarantees the greatest amount of water to the settlers who arrived in the West and claimed it first, has been a sacrosanct pillar of law and states’ rights both — and so her statement came as a shock.
Would the department impose restrictions “without regard to river priority?” Mark Kelly,, the Democratic senator from Arizona, asked her.
“Yes,” Touton responded.
For Colorado, this was tantamount to a declaration of war. “The feds have no ability to restrict our state decree and privately owned ditches,” the general manager of the Colorado River District, Andy Mueller, told me. “They can’t go after that.” Mueller watches over much of the state.Pope faces different stakes. His system depends on the tunnel, a federal project, and his water rights are technically leased from the Bureau of Reclamation, too. Touton’s threat raised the possibility that she could shut the Uncompahgre Valley’s water off. Even if it was legal, the demands seemed fundamentally unfair to Pope. “The first steps need to come in the Lower Basin,” he insisted.
Each state retreated to its corners, where they remain. The 60-day deadline came and went, with no commitments toward any specific reductions in water use and no consequences. The Bureau of Reclamation has since set a new deadline: Jan. 31. Touton, who has publicly said little since her testimony to Congress, declined to be interviewed for this story. In October, California finally offered a plan to surrender roughly 9% of the water it used, albeit with expensive conditions. Some Colorado officials dismissed the gesture as a non-starter. Ever since, Colorado has become more defiant, enacting policies that seem aimed at defending the water the state already has — perhaps even its right to use more.
For one, Colorado has long had to contend with the inefficiencies that come with a “use it or lose it” culture. State water law threatens to confiscate water rights that don’t get utilized, so landowners have long maximized the water they put on their fields just to prove up their long-term standing in the system. This same reflexive instinct is now evident among policymakers and water managers across the state, as they seek to establish the baseline for where negotiated cuts might begin. Would cuts be imposed by the federal government based on Pope’s full allocation of water or on the lesser amount with which he’s been forced to make do? Would the proportion be adjusted down in a year with no snow? “We don’t have a starting point,” he told me. And so the higher the use now, the more affordable the conservation later.
Colorado and other Upper Basin states have also long hid behind the complexity of accurately accounting for their water among infinite tributaries and interconnected soils. [ed. emphasis mine] The state’s ranchers like to say their water is recycled five times over, because water poured over fields in one place invariably seeps underground down to the next. In the Uncompahgre Valley, it can take months for the land at its tail to dry out after ditches that flood the head of the valley are turned off. The measure of what’s been consumed and what has transpired from plants or been absorbed by soils is frustratingly elusive. That, too, leaves the final number open to argument and interpretation.
All the while, the Upper Basin states are all attempting to store more water within their boundaries. Colorado has at least 10 new dams and reservoirs either being built or planned. Across the Upper Basin, an additional 15 projects are being considered, including Utah’s audacious $2.4 billion plan to run a new pipeline from Lake Powell, which would allow it to transport something closer to its full legal right to Colorado River water to its growing southern cities. Some of these projects are aimed at securing existing water and making its timing more predictable. But they are also part of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s vision to expand the Upper Basin states’ Colorado River usage to 5.4 million acre-feet a year by 2060.
It is fair to say few people in the state are trying hard to send more of their water downstream. In our conversation, Mueller would not offer any specific conservation savings Colorado might make. The state’s chief engineer and director of its Division of Water Resources, Kevin Rein, who oversees water rights, made a similar sentiment clear to the Colorado River District board last July. “There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve,” Rein said. “It’s a public resource. It’s a property right. It’s part of our economy.”
In November, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis proposed the creation of a new state task force that would help him capture every drop of water it can before it crosses the state line. It would direct money and staff to make Colorado’s water governance more sophisticated, defensive and influential.
I called Polis’ chief water confidante, Rebecca Mitchell, who is also the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. If the mood was set by the idea that California was taking too much from the river, Mitchell thought that it had shifted now to a more personal grievance — they are taking from us.
Last month, Mitchell flew to California for a tour of its large irrigation districts. She stood beside a wide canal brimming with more water than ever flows through the Uncompahgre River, and the executive of the farming company beside her explained that he uses whatever he wants because he holds the highest priority rights to the water. She thought about the Ute Mountain Ute communities and the ranchers of Cortez: “It was like: ‘Wouldn’t we love to be able to count on something? Wouldn’t we love to be feel so entitled that no matter what, we get what we get?’” she told me.
What if Touton followed through, curtailing Colorado’s water? I asked. Mitchell’s voice steadied, and then she essentially leveled a threat. “We would be very responsive. I’m not saying that in a positive way,” she said. “I think everybody that’s about to go through pain wants others to feel pain also.”
Here’s the terrible truth: There is no such thing as a return to normal on the Colorado River, or to anything that resembles the volumes of water its users are accustomed to taking from it. With each degree Celsius of warming to come, modelers estimate that the river’s flow will decrease further, by an additional 9%. At current rates of global warming, the basin is likely to sustain at least an additional 18% drop in its water supplies over the next several decades, if not far more. Pain, as Mitchell puts it, is inevitable.
The thing about 4 million acre-feet of cuts is that it’s merely the amount already gone, an adjustment that should have been made 20 years ago. Colorado’s argument makes sense on paper and perhaps through the lens of fairness. But the motivation behind the decades of delay was to protect against the very argument that is unfolding now — that the reductions should be split equally, and that they may one day be imposed against the Upper Basin’s will. It was to preserve the northern states’ inalienable birthright to growth, the promise made to them 100 years ago. At some point, though, circumstances change, and a century-old promise, unfulfilled, might no longer be worth much at all. Meanwhile, the politics of holding out are colliding with climate change in a terrifying crash, because while the parties fight, the supply continues to dwindle.
Recently, Brad Udall, a leading and longtime analyst of the Colorado River and now a senior water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, teamed with colleagues to game out what they thought it would take to bring the river and the twin reservoirs of Mead and Powell into balance. Their findings, published in July in the journal Science, show that stability could be within reach but will require sacrifice.
If the Upper Basin states limited their claim to 4 million acre-feet, or 53% of their due under the original compact, and the Lower Basin states and Mexico increased their maximum emergency cuts by an additional 45%, the two big reservoirs will stay at roughly their current levels for the next several decades. If the basins could commit to massive reductions below even 2021 levels for the Upper Basin and to more than doubling the most ambitious conservation goals for the south, the reservoirs could once again begin to grow, providing the emergency buffer and the promise of economic stability for 40 million Americans that was originally intended. Still, by 2060, they would only be approximately 45% full.
Any of the scenarios involve cuts that would slice to the bone. Plus, there’s still the enormous challenge of how to incorporate Native tribes, which also hold huge water rights but continue to be largely left out of negotiations. What to do next? Israel provides one compelling example. After decades of fighting over the meager trickles of the Jordan River and the oversubscription of a pipeline from the Sea of Galilee, Israel went back to the drawing board on its irrigated crops. It made drip irrigation standard, built desalination plants to supply water for its industry and cities, and reused that water again and again; today, 86% of the country’s municipal wastewater is recycled, and Israel and its farmers have an adequate supply. That would cost a lot across the scale and reach of a region like the Western United States. But to save the infrastructure and culture that produces 80% of this country’s winter vegetables and is a hub of the nation’s food system for 333 million people? It might be worth it.
A different course was charted by Australia, which recoiled against a devastating millennium drought that ended 13 years ago. It jettisoned its coveted system of water rights, breaking free of history and prior appropriation similar to the system of first-come-first-served the American West relies on. That left it with a large pool of free water and political room to invent a new method of allocating it that better matched the needs in a modern, more populous and more urban Australia and better matched the reality of the environment.
In America, too, prior appropriation, as legally and culturally revered as it is, may have become more cumbersome and obstructive than it needs to be. Western water rights, according to Newsha Ajami, a leading expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the former director of the urban water policy program at Stanford University, were set up by people measuring with sticks and buckets, long before anyone had ever even considered climate change. Today, they largely serve powerful legacy interests and, because they must be used to be maintained, tend to dissuade conservation. “It’s kind of very archaic,” she said. “The water rights system would be the first thing I would just dismantle or revisit in a very different way.”
This is probably not going to happen, Ajami said. “It could be seen as political suicide.” But that doesn’t make it the wrong solution. In fact, what’s best for the Colorado, for the Western United States, for the whole country might be a combination of what Israel and Australia mapped out. Deploy the full extent of the technology that is available to eliminate waste and maximize efficiency. Prioritize which crops and uses are “beneficial” in a way that attaches the true value of the resource to the societal benefit produced from using it. Grow California and Arizona’s crops in the wintertime but not in the summer heat. And rewrite the system of water allocation as equitably as possible so that it ensures the modern population of the West has the resources it needs while the nation’s growers produce what they can.
What would that look like in Colorado? It might turn the system upside down. Lawsuits could fly. The biggest, wealthiest ranches with the oldest water rights stand to lose a lot. The Lower and Upper Basin states, though, could all divide the water in the river proportionately, each taking a percentage of what flowed. The users would, if not benefit, at least equally and predictably share the misery. Pope’s irrigation district and the smallholder farmers who depend on it would likely get something closer to what they need and, combined with new irrigation equipment subsidized by the government, could produce what they want. It wouldn’t be pretty. But something there would survive.
The alternative is worse. The water goes away or gets bought up or both. The land of Western Colorado dries up, and the economies around it shrivel. Montrose, with little left to offer, boards up its windows, consolidates its schools as people move away, and the few who remain have less. Until one day, there is nothing left at all.
Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:
The most powerful policymakers in the arid Southwest spent three days in Las Vegas, reviewing the grim state of a river that supplies 40 million people from Wyoming to Mexico. Federal and state authorities emphasized the need for collaboration to avert catastrophe, but have been reticent to make sacrifices during negotiations over plans that would reduce demand for water. This year marked the 76th meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association and the event’s first ever sold-out attendance. Journalists, scientists, farmers and city officials packed the conference center at Caesar’s Palace to watch water managers hash out the river’s future in the public eye.
“There’s no substitute for being face-to-face,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies Las Vegas. “It’s a lot easier to talk a little smack, call some people some names, when you’re not looking them in the eye.” […]
The current guidelines for the river are set to expire in 2026, and states are largely focused on coming up with new ones before that deadline. A century-old agreement governs how water is allocated across the arid Southwest, Meanwhile, some experts suggest that agreement, the Colorado River Compact, should be replaced to meet the modern demands of a region with sprawling fields of crops and booming urban populations.
“I think there is some heavy optimism that hopefully everyone will come to something that we can all agree on,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s top water policy agency. “But it is going to take real cuts to everyone.”
Municipalities of Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, and Tijuana rely heavily on the river for their water supplies. About 70% of the water is used to irrigate nearly 5.7 million acres (2.3 million hectares) of agriculture. The basin is home to 30 recognized Native American Tribes that hold senior legal rights to divert substantially more water than they currently use. Between 2000 and 2021, the average annual energy generation from the two major dams was 7.6 terawatt-hours (TWh)/year, enough to serve 2.5 million people. The river’s landscapes and ecosystems provide critical habitat for federally protected species and support an extensive recreation-based economy. Today, the entire flow is diverted along its 1400-mile course. In its lower reaches, only 10% of the natural flow reaches Mexico; rarely does the river flow to the Gulf of California…
Current reservoir storage levels could, however, be stabilized if consumptive uses decrease under different scenarios (see fig. S1). If the Upper Basin commits to limit water uses to 4.5 MAF/year (60% of their 7.5 MAF/year allocation, approximately 0.8 MAF/year higher than recent use), then the Lower Basin and Mexico must commit to more than doubling their current maximum reductions in existing use to 3.0 MAF/year (see the figure and fig. S1). In this scenario, the Lower Basin and Mexico receive 66.7% of their allocation, nearly matching the Upper Basin percentage. If the Upper Basin limits their depletions to 4.0 MAF/year (53.3% of their allocation, 0.3 MAF/year higher than recent use), then the Lower Basin and Mexico would need to decrease uses by approximately 2.0 MAF/year to stabilize the reservoirs (see the figure and fig. S1), assuring 77.8% of their allocation. This is close to recently proposed maximum Lower Basin and Mexico commitments to reduce existing use, which would not be invoked until Lake Mead declines further by 3 MAF. Delaying these reductions until then would result in greater loss of storage and stabilization occurring at lower levels than shown in the figure…
Our results show that although current policies are inadequate to stabilize the Colorado River if the Millennium Drought continues, various consumptive use strategies can stabilize the system. However, these measures must be applied swiftly. Although these concessions by both basins may seem unthinkable at present, they will be necessary if recent conditions persist.
The next coordination meeting for the operation of the Navajo Unit is scheduled for Tuesday, January 17th 2023, at 1:00 pm. This meeting is open to the public and will be held as a hybrid meeting with the following attendance options:
In-person: Farmington Civic Center, 200 West Arrington, in Farmington, New Mexico.
Virtual attendance: For those who wish to remain remote, there is a Teams video option at this link. This link should open in any smartphone, tablet, or computer browser, and does not require a Microsoft account You will be able to view and hear the presentation as it is presented.
Phone line: You can call-in from any phone using the following information: (202) 640-1187, Phone Conference ID 775 074 607#. You will not be able to see the presentation with this option. A copy of the presentation will be distributed to this email list and posted to our website prior to the meeting for those who wish to listen by phone.
We hope the options provided make it possible for all interested parties to participate as they are able and comfortable. If you are using a virtual/phone option, please try to log on at least 10 minutes before the meeting start time. For technical issues, feel free to call the number below.
A copy of the presentation and meeting summary will be distributed to this email list and posted to our website following the meeting. If you are unable to connect to the video meeting, feel free to contact me (information below) following the meeting for any comments or questions.
The meeting agenda will include a review of operations and hydrology since August, current soil and snowpack conditions, a discussion of hydrologic forecasts and planned operations for remainder of this water year, updates on maintenance activities, drought operations, and the Recovery Program on the San Juan River.
Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website. Here’s an excerpt:
It was perhaps the shock that Colorado River users needed.
A basin that is spending down its water savings was jolted in June when the U.S. government ordered the seven states to correct a longstanding misalignment of water supply and demand.
Camille Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, told the states to cut their take from the river next year by between two million and four million acre-feet of water. At the high end, that equals one-third of the Colorado’s recent annual flow. Unless the states acted, she said, the federal government would “protect the system” and apply its own remedy.
John Entsminger, the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies the Las Vegas area, affirmed the groundbreaking nature of the pronouncement. The requested conservation volumes, he said, were of a magnitude “previously considered unattainable.”
They still haven’t been attained. The states missed an August deadline and remain in fractious negotiations about how to divide the cuts.
Lake Mead, absent unprecedented action or a miraculous winter, remains in peril. It is projected to shrink more than 20 feet by the end of 2023, when the reservoir would be just 22 percent of capacity.
The Bureau of Reclamation selected eight solutions to each receive $10,000 and continue in the Counting Every Drop Challenge. This challenge is seeking precipitation measurement devices that are reliable, accurate, low maintenance, and able to operate in remote areas in extreme weather conditions.
The Counting Every Drop Challenge is a two-phase prize competition totaling up to $300,000 in prizes. The ideal solution will not require fluids, such as antifreeze, to operate.
“Better precipitation monitoring stands to enhance water management. We are excited by the innovative concepts of the phase one winners and look forward to how they progress and perform in phase two,” said Senior Advisor for Research and Development Levi Brekke. “The goal of this prize competition is to develop new devices that increase accuracy and reliability while reducing maintenance so they can operate cost-effectively in extremely remote areas.”
The winning solutions selected to move onto phase two include:
Rixel – Their solution is a fluid-free and active precipitation station that measures any form of precipitation. It can operate in harsh environments from extreme cold to hot. The eco-friendly design discharges only water into the environment.
The Planet Earth – Their solution is a fluid-free precipitation metering device that includes a pot that is mounted on a load cell. After completing the precipitation weighing process, the precipitation will be discharged into the environment using a wiper that cleans the pot continuously.
Orion Labs -Their system provides a fluid-free solution for accurate precipitation detection and measurement and builds upon existing rain gauge collection methods, adds enhancements with software capabilities, and a custom-designed collection unit for a unique, low-power, low-cost redundant solution.
PGRAWS – Their Precipitation Gauge with Redundant Array of Weight Scales known as PGRAWS is a novel catching-style precipitation gauge based on weight measurement of all forms of precipitation. Redundant collection buckets with independent mechanical operation contribute to high instrument reliability.
PMASS – The Precipitation Measurement with Advanced Solid-state Sensors solution, known as PMASS combines a downward-facing pulsed coherent radar, a camera-based sensor, and a temperature sensor. The machine learning solution estimates rates and accumulated depth of precipitation from features extracted from the radar and camera subsystems.
Rahavi Brothers – Their device benefits from the massive energy stored in propane. We use this energy to melt solid precipitation during extremely cold weather. An AI-powered control board is responsible for controlling the process to increase accuracy and performance.
Top Solvers – Their device uses an array of precipitation sensors together with a custom control unit. Which meets and exceeds all the challenge requirements, providing the required accuracy and fail-safe redundancy.
The selected teams will build their prototype and a preliminary review will be conducted during this phase. Up to five of the eight teams will receive $15,000 to continue prototype development during this phase. Teams that ship their prototype for testing will receive a $3,000 milestone award. The top solution that meets all the requirements and is fluid free will receive $100,000. Other solutions will share $30,000 in innovation awards.
Reclamation is partnering with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, NASA Tournament Lab, Geonor, Inc., and Freelancer for this prize competition.
As part of a new water conservation program, the Upper Colorado River Commission “is seeking proposals immediately for the voluntary, compensated, and temporary water conservation projects for 2023.”
Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are Commission members, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is a partner in the new conservation program, according to a statement issued Wednesday, Dec. 14, at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada.
To be considered for funding, proposals for conservation projects will need to be submitted by Feb. 1, 2023. Details are available here.*
The Commission touts the new program as “a key component of the Upper Division States’ 5-Point Plan to address the impacts of the ongoing drought and depleted (water) storage in the Upper Colorado River Basin.”
The new conservation program is relevant here in the Arkansas River Basin because about 130,000 acre-feet of water per year, up to 23 percent of Arkansas River flows, are imported from the Colorado Basin according to Colorado Division of Water Resources data.
The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which imports an average of 57,000 acre-feet of water per year. Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West combine to import the other 73,000 acre-feet. Fry-Ark Project water supports local agriculture, cities, towns and industry.
Fry-Ark water and infrastructure also underpin the Voluntary Flow Management Program, which supports the multimillion-dollar recreation economies of Upper Ark communities as well as the Arkansas River’s Gold Medal fishery.
Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Becky Mitchell expressed support for the new program in a statement Wednesday. She emphasized, “The most impactful thing that can be done to manage the Colorado River System is to reduce uses in dry years.”
Mitchell noted that Colorado’s “strict administration of water rights based on hydrology” effectively achieves drought-year water-use reductions. “In 2021, administration impacted water use on over 203,000 acres within the Colorado River Basin in Colorado.”
Mitchell cited preliminary data from the Upper Colorado River Commission showing that the four Upper Basin states used 25% less water in 2021 than in 2020” in response to limited water availability.
“We must continue to live within the means of what the river provides year to year,” Mitchell said, “and we ask others to do the same. This is the only way the system will continue as we know it into the future.”
In requesting that others “live within the means of what the river provides,” Mitchell implicates the three Lower Colorado River Basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada.
The 1922 Colorado River Compact divided Colorado River water between the four Upper Basin states and the three Lower Basin states. The Compact requires the Upper Basin states, where most of the precipitation falls, to deliver a 10-year rolling average of 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water to Lees Ferry, Arizona, just south of the Utah state line. Of that water, California is entitled to 4.4 maf, Arizona, 2.8 maf, and Nevada, 0.3 maf.
To date, the Upper Basin states have consistently met the 7.5-maf Compact requirement. At a meeting of Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee earlier this year, Mitchell shared statistics showing that Upper Basin states have significantly reduced water usage while Lower Basin states have not.
As the numbers reveal, Lower Basin states’ water usage – more than 2 maf per year beyond the 7.5 maf delivered by the Upper Basin – has trended higher, even as the 10-year rolling average dropped to 11.78 maf for 2012-21.
Specifically, 2019 saw Colorado River flows of 17.75 maf, a rare yearly surplus of 3.8 maf. In 2020, flows dropped to 9.6 maf, 4.5 maf less than the water used that year.
In 2021, flows dropped further, to 7.1 maf. Even with Upper Basin states reducing their water use by more than a million acre-feet in 2021, total water use in the Basin exceeded Colorado River flows by 6.4 maf, dropping water levels in lakes Mead and Powell to record low levels.
* The Upper Colorado River Commission’s Dec. 14 statement notes that full implementation of the water conservation program “is contingent on the passage of pending legislation in Congress” and finalization of an funding agreement between the Commission and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Enough gallivanting around the Mississippi Basin and its rivers; back to the troubled and troublesome Colorado River, currently experiencing its worst dry spell since around 800 CE. The Colorado Rivers, I should maybe say, since for all practical (human) purposes the river is now managed in a quasi-de jure way as two river basins under the Colorado River Compact and subsequent ‘Law of the River’ actions: an Upper Colorado River and a Lower Colorado River.
Previously here, I’ve been exploring the Colorado River Compact at its centennial, in what is certainly the worst year in its century. Here are some things I came up with in that exploration, that I don’t think are getting enough attention in our efforts to search our own souls and the soul of the river in the desert as we try to figure out where we are going from here:
1. The Colorado River Compact is not the ‘foundation of the Law of the River.’ The foundation of the Law of the River is the appropriation doctrine: the body of law that bases the right to use the water of the river and its basin (groundwater too, now) primarily on the seniority of use. First come, first served, for any economically beneficial use for as long as the use continues. Appropriations law is basically a powerful growth engine.
The Colorado River Compact, and all the subsequent laws, treaties, acts of Congress, and other consensual agreements involving the river thus become efforts to deal with the consequences of applying a powerful growth engine to an erratic and relatively modest river – and they fall short to the extent that they too cautiously circle around (or just ignore) the problem of a body of law encouraging unlimited demand on a limited resource.
2. The Compact could not do what its creators set out to do, so they settled for an expedient resolution to facilitate development of the River. The Compact was created because Euro-Americans wanted to control a rambunctious river whose erratic flows made it hard to use for civilized pursuits. But the growth logic of the foundational Law of the River (the appropriation doctrine) made six of the seven Colorado River states fear the pace of development of the seventh state, California, if the river were controlled; California could conceivably lay claim to most of the river’s water before the other states really got settled.
The six states thus wanted an ‘overlay’ to the unconstrained law of appropriation that would assure each state of enough water to meet their own future needs at their own pace. Unfortunately, they did not have – could not have had in the 1920s – enough solid information of what their reasonable future needs were. So they settled for an expedient resolution; they divided the river into two basins, above and below the uninhabited canyon region; each basin was given a little less than half the estimated flow of the river to develop, with the upper river basin committed to deliver a fixed amount of water to the lower river basin (75 million acre-feet over any ten-year period).
3. Mistakes were made. Much has been made of the fact that the Compact commissioners selected an estimated flow of 15 million acre-feet of water to divide between the two basins, well above what has been proven to be a more realistic estimate of an average annual river flow of 13 million acre-feet by E.C. LaRue and some other Geological Survey scientists. It was, however, well below the optimistic 16.8 million acre-feet estimate by the Bureau of Reclamation.
It was also an ebulliently optimistic time in America – the advent of the Anthropocene, when we thought we were on the verge of freedom from the stodgy limitations of nature. The commissioners acknowledged that they did not have enough information to accurately divide the waters of the river seven ways, and were content to leave that task ‘to the hands of those men who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information.’ We now know that they should have listened to the USGS scientists, but it is easier and kind of superior to tsk-tsk as ex post facto Monday morning quarterbacks, than it is to acknowledge and understand – maybe even regret the loss of – the spirit of the times when the mistake was made.
The Compact commissioners have also been faulted for ‘leaving the Indians out of the Compact.’ That is not entirely accurate; what they said was that ‘Nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indian tribes.’ But what was the obligation of the United States to the Indian tribes?
On the one hand, in 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court had decided, in a case involving an Indian reservation in Montana, that when the federal government reserved public lands for any specific purpose, such as an Indian reservation, that it also implicitly reserved enough water to carry out that purpose. In the case of an Indian reservation, this meant enough water to teach the Indians to be farmers rather than hunter-foragers – meaning irrigation water, in the West.
But on the other hand, when the Compact was created in the early 1920s, the federal government was aggressively pursuing the ‘soft genocide’ of forced assimilation. Between 1900 and 1925, the number of Indian youth essentially kidnapped into ‘Indian Boarding Schools’ swelled from around 20,000 to more than 65,000. The official policy was ‘kill the Indian to save the man.’ The Compact commissioners were all white professionals receiving mixed messages from the government, and might be expected to think, even hope (river gods forgive them), that any Indian water claims might fade away if government policy succeeded – which it didn’t, no thanks to federal Indian policies before or since. And a reserved water obligation for the reservations remains an untransacted and pending commitment.
So yes, the Compact kicked some cans down the road, that it’s now time to pick up and deal with. But no one seems to be saying anything about a much larger and more consequential Compact mistake…
4. Dividing a desert river basin into two river basins is not a good idea. It worked – sort of (Arizona didn’t accept it) – as a temporary fix to break the logjam of not knowing enough to make an equitable seven-way division of the waters. What made the two-basin Compact work at all, sort of, was the fact that, until the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, the river itself, flowing unconstrained past Lees Ferry, kept the water supply (nearly all from the Upper River Basin) united with the growing water demand (mostly in the Lower River Basin).
But once the big dam near Lees Ferry was in place, the supply-demand distribution became a management problem that gradually succumbed to bad power politics. The Bueau gave the Lower River Basin its Compact allocation and more, regardless of growing water supply problems upriver, and the Upper River Basin developed a large supply of justifiable but unproductive resentment. The Compact, which confused ‘equitable’ with ‘equal’ in its division between two basins, is broken by the dam that turns it into two rivers, one supplying the other in ways both unequal and inequitable. It’s not the ‘structural deficit’ per se, but the refusal to address it, that breaks the Compact.
So – what can we do?How do we muddle forward from where we are now? No one is asking me, but of course I have some thoughts….
First and foremost, we should reunite the two river basins into one squabbling river basin (with transbasin extensions). Drop the expedient Compact solution of two river basins – a mistake perpetrated by subsequent ‘Law of the River’ measures, and finally fatal when the Colorado River Storage Project Act enabled building a wall – literally – between the two river basins.
This reunion would have to start with a consensual seven-state agreement – a new compact, if you will, to execute the task deemed impossible in 1922: a seven-state division of the river’s use. After a century of development, this has been achieved, de facto, and equitably enough. The lower river basin states get the consumptive use of almost twice as much water as the upper river basin, but they spread it over far more people and quite a bit more (and more productive) ag land.
This will not be easy, of course – but nothing ever is in the Colorado River region. California and Arizona have gotten so used to using ‘undeveloped upper river basin water’ that they’ve forgotten that that ‘surplus’ hasn’t existed for decades. They think the ‘structural deficit’ is an act of God about which nothing can be done, rather than just the consequence of their growing on borrowed water, a loan now being called in. But the hardest part for the lower river basin will come when the firm numbers for present use apportionments by state all have to be converted into percentages of the diminishing whole river – which the upper river basin states have already been doing, living closer to the vagaries of a desert river. The upper river states will no longer have to fear a call from the lower basin states, so long as they stay within their apportioned percentage of what’s there.
The real reunion of the basins into one river might begin when those in the lower river basin acknowledge that the water supply for the river’s desert lands comes mostly from snowfall in mountains in the river’s headwaters. This suggests that the downriver users of a desert river should accept some responsibility for the maintenance and improvement of the river’s mountain headwaters, their water supply. And those in the upper river basin would need to acknowledge the need for that help, especially if it is financial.
‘Maintenance and improvement’ of the water supply? Can we ‘improve’ the water yield from a river’s headwaters? An undigested fact about the mountain headwaters of the Colorado River Basin is the scientists’ consensual estimate that somewhere around 90 percent of the precipitation that falls over the river basin does not make it into the river. It either returns fairly quickly to the heavens as water vapor, or soaks into the ground to be transpired by trees, grasses and other plants back into the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that as much as a third of the precipitation that falls is lost through sublimation in the high headwaters: snow and ice being vaporized by sun and wind without even turning into water first.
Some quantity close to another third of the precipitation is transpired through the forests that form a broad band around the headwaters reaches of the river. Contrary to Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot, the forests are not ‘father’ to the rivers that work their way through the forests; the forests are just some of the first major ecosystems that depend on the river’s water for their life. We love and need the forests, and they do provide shade and shelter for the snow that makes it through the trees to the ground – but they also drink a lot of water (more as the ambient temperatures increase), and not always for their own betterment; the density and age of forests we have protected from cleansing fires result in the consumption of a lot of water by big old forest trees not really getting enough to be healthy.
Those forests are almost entirely managed by the U. S. Forest Service, management that must include the long-term health and well-being of the forest itself rather than just short-term commodity production. But are there ways to manage a healthy forest that maximizes the Forest Service’s 1897 organic act charge ‘to secure favorable conditions of water flows,’ as well as (or instead of) the charge ‘to furnish a continuous supply of timber’?We don’t really know, because the Forest Service has not paid as much attention to optimal water management as it has to optimal timber management. We do know, however – for one example – that timber managers favor denser stands to produce tall trees with less branchiness, but that density increases the amount of snow intercepted by trees, which increases snow loss through sublimation.
To even learn how to maximize water yield from the headwaters’ rocks, ice and forests will require experimentation, trying things out, and it will require creative scientists and lots of boots on the ground that the perpetually under-funded Forest Service cannot afford. If, however, all forty million users of the Colorado River’s water thought of themselves as part of the whole river’s watershed, top to bottom, they might be willing to pony up a pittance for the health and vitality of the headwaters that produces their water. This is already happening to a modest extent; some of the big dogs in the Lower River Basin – the Metropolitan Water District, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Central Arizona Project – are contributing funding to a cloud-seeding project in the river’s headwaters, to increase snowfall from selected storms. That is a beginning.
And the next steps? Well, at some point, we have to descend into the cellar foundation of the Law of the River, and figure out how to adapt the frontier instincts of the appropriations doctrine to a civilization of 40 million. As Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s Director of Water Resources said, just last week at the meeting of the Colorado River Water Users convention: ‘The single biggest roadblock to solving the problem of stabilizing the river is the priority system.’
There will be more on this imagined reuniting of the two rivers and their basins. Stay tuned.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June tasked the seven Colorado River basin states to develop a plan to cut water use from the river by as much as 4 million acre-feet starting next year, or about 30 percent of the river’s recent annual flows, in order to prevent that future. One deadline came and went in August with no deal in place. States have continued to work toward finding some form of consensus in recent months, but nothing concrete has emerged…
In an interview Friday, Touton admitted that it is “very much an expedited timeline,” but said she has full confidence that something will be developed between the seven states over the next five to six weeks.
“It is what the river and the communities need and demand for this moment,” she said…
In October, the bureau kicked off the process of modifying the current drought guidelines for the Colorado, and will look at any proposals submitted by the states while also working to develop a plan that would allow the federal government to take unilateral action and mandate cuts if need be. Another deadline of sorts comes Tuesday, the last day for states to submit proposals for how to modify those drought guidelines, but states would have until the end of January to continue working toward coming to an agreement.
First off here’s the link to the Colorado River Water Users Association Twitter Fest.
Click the link to read the article on Nevada’s only statewide nonprofit newsroom The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):
“Everything all at once, yesterday.” That’s how a federal water manager described dealing with the Colorado River at a conference of water users in Las Vegas this week. The river faces a crisis fueled by overuse and amplified by climate change — and as Wayne Pullan, the upper Colorado River regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation stated, officials are taking an all-hands approach.
“We joke within the region that we’re going to change our slogan” to the Latin phrase for “everything all at once, yesterday,” Pullan said during a meeting Wednesday.
The conference comes on the precipice of action as federal water managers with the bureau continue to push Colorado River users to cut back and put forward a set of consensus-based policies to start stabilizing the river’s quickly declining storage reservoirs in a matter of months.
At stake is water used by about 40 million Americans in seven Western states, from Wyoming to California, 30 Native American tribes and Mexico. Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, is 28 percent full. Lake Powell, upstream, is 24 percent full. The low reservoirs give states that tap into the river little room to negotiate, and there are few options left other than significant cuts.
Earlier this year, the federal government, which operates infrastructure across the watershed, called on the seven states to cut massive amounts of water to stabilize Lake Mead and Lake Powell. In addition, the federal government is seeking comments from the states, tribal nations and the public about new operational policies for managing the reservoirs in the coming years.
Those comments are due Dec. 20. But the states will have another month — until the end of January — to negotiate a consensus-based solution that federal officials said they will weigh before taking unilateral action. In the absence of a consensus set of policies, David Palumbo, the bureau’s deputy commissioner, said the agency is also preparing a federal alternative.
He emphasized the effects of climate change reducing the amount of water running off into the river from snowpack, urging water users to think of new tools to address long-term aridification.
“We can’t rely on what we’ve done in the past to be adequate for the future,” he said.
In an interview, John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the state’s negotiator, said Colorado River states, which have had side meetings this week, are “still fairly far away from coming to consensus, but we’re closer than we were on Monday.”
The Las Vegas metro area, which gets about 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, has prepared for low-water levels at Lake Mead for decades, implementing aggressive urban conservation measures, recycling and an intake to get water from the bottom of Lake Mead.
When asked if Nevada could be facing further cutbacks, Entsminger said past efforts should be considered but he added that the state is “certainly willing to be part of the solution.” What such a solution looks like, even if a framework for cuts is agreed upon, remains an open question.
The monumental task of what comes next: Governance of the Colorado River is diffuse, with power and water distributed differently among states, Native American tribes, irrigation districts and cities. For nearly two decades, the states have worked to cut back on their water use. Over that time, in a series of incremental deals, water users agreed to cut about 1.3 million acre-feet (one acre-foot of water is about enough water to fill a football field to a depth of one foot).
Now the states need to cut about two to four million acre-feet — and they are being asked to do so in a matter of months, not decades. Much of those cuts will fall on water users downstream of Lake Mead. Of the states drawing on Lake Mead, Arizona and California account for the bulk of that use. The two states are wrestling with how to divide cuts among each other and among water users in each state, given a century of legal agreements about how to share shortages.
Still, they are starting to make some progress toward cuts. The three states that draw on Lake Mead submitted 32 proposals to receive federal compensation for conserving water, according to Rebecca Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But it’s likely that more painful cuts are going to be made, and some users will have to make hard choices. And states above Lake Mead, including Colorado, are also looking at compensated conservation.
“We have to accept the situation that we are in and we need to reduce demands,” she said. “All of us — every sector, every state, every water user… We have to accept that we cannot cling to our entitlements or allocations. If they are not there, none of that matters. It does not matter.”